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Hong Kong, in pictures

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Exclusive: Life as a Chinese factory worker

This July, I had the chance to visit a small clothing printing factory in Dongguan, China. This medium-sized factory with around a hundred or so workers has fulfilled orders from many name-brand clients, such as Nike and Hugo Boss. From Hong Kong, I traveled with the factory owner, and we embarked on a two-hour journey across the border into mainland China. 

 

Eating and living conditions 

Female factory workers eating lunch in their rooms

Female factory workers eating lunch in their rooms

We arrived at around noon, just as the workers were taking their mid-day break and having lunch at the factory cafeteria. I had already eaten, but I still took a quick peek at the food they were serving and the dining environment. The food looked somewhat appetizing--lunch for that day was bitter melon with egg and other green vegetables over rice. Only the "harder working men," whose job requires more strength and power, receive a small portion of meat. Most ate in the crowded dining room, furnished with tables and chairs, a small TV, and even pool tables. In the midst of the summer heat, the room was dim and surprisingly cool. 

We then walked to the dormitory located adjacent to the factory and cafeteria, and I got a chance to check out a few of the workers' rooms. The first of which was a room designated for a manager's family. More spacious than the others, the room has air-conditioning and even an old desktop computer. Inside another room for common workers, a handful of women were eating their lunch here instead of in the dining hall. Each room has six small bunk beds, so up to twelve workers live in a single room--it's noticeably small and crowded. All their belongings are kept and confined to their own bunk space, and some even cover their bunk with a curtain for added privacy. 

From around 12 or so to 2pm, the workers are given a rest period and break after lunch is served, and many choose to take a nap after they eat. The workers come from all parts of China, and many are already accustomed to taking mid-day snoozes. Without this period of rest, the owner notes that the workers would not be able to function by the end of the day. 

The factory

Workers doing various tasks on one floor of the factory

The factory building consists of three stories and also includes the main office. The bottom two floors contain long rows of tables and basic wooden tools for hand-printing. The top floor contain the only machines in the building: a few large iron presses that imprint logos and designs onto shirts and other clothing. Almost all the clothing are printed by hand, with the exception of the iron presses. Blue silk screens of various sizes are used to transfer paint onto clothing, creating your generic t-shirt logos or other fashionable decorations. When asked why most of the printing is done by hand, the owner said that the overhead and production costs would be extremely high and unpractical for a factory of his size. So, more workers are hired to quicken the printing process and to keep up with the demand from clients. Managers are hired for the sole reason of pushing the workers to reach quota goals and meet the quality standards. 

The owner recollects one time where some thousands of shirts had a logo printed the wrong way, and the order had to be canceled and money had to be compensated for the client. Because the workers and even the managers have little to no knowledge of English, they apparently did not notice that the letters of the logo were upside down. This mistake went unnoticed until they were sent to the client, and all of the few thousands of wrongly-printed shirts had to be trashed, unfortunately. 

Salary and daily life

 

Interestingly enough, the owner points out that workers are driven by one factor: money. In other words, the workers are looking to send some cash back to their family and hopefully be able to raise their standard of living. They get low pay as a factory worker here, only a few hundred per month, nowhere close to minimum wage levels in the U.S., although housing and food is provided for free. Workers work six days a week and are required to show up by 8 am and stay until the evening, but they are also strongly encouraged to work overtime for some additional income. Workers may work from 8 am to 10pm or even later. 

The work life for many may feel dull and monotonous to some extent. That is why many seek out other ways of entertainment, such as mahjong. For some reason, men are willing to risk and gamble a day's or even a month's salary on a single mahjong game, and they usually end up losing it all by the end of the night. Why? Perhaps it's the lack of stimulation or passion for their job. Maybe it's the desire to seek out the excitement when betting against the odds. In any case, gambling and mahjong has become so popular with the men in the factory that they continue to play and gamble their money away. 

 

Working for an afternoon

Me working with the iron presses, with a worker observing my every move

I even became an aspiring factory worker for an afternoon. I tried my hand at using the iron presses, alining the desired prints and logos before sending it underneath the large press. Not long after I began, the repetitive motions of this task began to tire me, but the reminder of the whole stack of unprinted shirts behind me forced me to quicken my pace and continue on.

Summer in this area is not very wonderful in any way. It's hot and humid, and there are only a few fans in the whole building. Not long after I began, I started sweating and feeling hot and uncomfortable. I really don't understand how the workers can work all day, unfazed by the sweltering summer heat. For a quick moment, I saw a young girl, not much older than me, take a quick break to cool down in front of a fan across the room before returning back to work. Perhaps she was a new worker too?

I also tried other tasks on the other two floors, and by the end of the afternoon, I set out to print a design onto my own shirt.  Printing using the silk screens was probably the hardest task I had to face the whole day. Even with the help of the other workers, I still made a few mistakes. I accidentally hit the blowdryer on the half-dried paint, causing an uncorrectable raised mark to appear. I wasn't able to evenly apply the paint and had to have a worker spend extra time to even out the paint. I didn't notice it at first, but the print I made says "Supergirl" in Japanese. Oops. Not that anyone is going to notice. 

By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted and ready for a relaxing massage or something of the like. Factory work obviously isn't the greatest or most exciting job of all, but it's the harsh reality that these workers face day to day. To these workers, the opportunity and stable income that factory work provides is enough for them to leave their homes and families behind in order to work in a factory like this--something that I could never imagine myself having to do.  As I was reminded as I ended my "shift" and departed back to Hong Kong, everyone in the building had at least five more hours of work left.

 

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A call to action: Stop comparing yourself to others

Look, she’s skinnier than me. She looks so pretty.

Her dress is so much nicer than mine.

She’s nine and she already has a double axel?! That’s not fair…

If you want to be content with your own self or your skating, just stop comparing yourself to others. There will always be others who you perceive as better than you--prettier, more popular, has better jumps or spins… But that's the problem. What you perceive does not equal reality. Maybe that other person who you have been obsessing about is just as self-conscious as you are, but she might be darn good at faking it. None of that comparing and jealousy will do you any good. 

You have to learn to embrace your strengths and differences, and use them to your own advantage. Maybe she does have better jumps than you--they're bigger, higher and is always the topic of conversation--but maybe you thrive under pressure when others crumble. Don’t just fixate on your weaknesses. Acknowledge them, and work on improving them. But, more importantly, use your strengths to your advantage. Pick music that you like, refine your choreography to suit your style, and make sure you express your strengths in your programs.

If all you care about is how another competitor acts, looks or performs like, remind yourself and reevaluate why you are in this sport. Is it to beat another competitor, or are you skating just for the joy of it?

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5 questions with Kevin

1. How did you start skating?

I started skating at the age of six when my mom decided that it would be a good idea to sign me up for some ice skating lessons at the local rink. I was spellbound by what the higher-level skaters could do--the spins, the jumps, the fast skating--and have been at it ever since. 

2. What part of skating do you like the best?

To me, figure skating is such a unique and interesting sport in that not only does the sport values both athleticism and artistry, but there’s always some aspect of my skating to improve on—always. Jumps, spins, choreography, skating skills, posture, carriage, interpretation, more jumps, more spins…and the list goes on. Most importantly, though, you have to make it look aesthetically pleasing and effortless. That’s the challenge that I strive to work towards every day.

Also, skating has given me the opportunity for me to travel to new places that I would not have otherwise been able to go to. I’ve traveled across the nation, from Salt Lake City to Houston, from Lake Placid to Greensboro, and across the world, from Hong Kong to Tokyo. Thanks to becoming a competitive figure skater, I’ve been to places that I would have never dreamed of going to.

3. Who is your role model?

I look up to many skaters, like Brian Boitano, Patrick Chan, Daisuke Takahashi, Evan Lysacek, and Michelle Kwan. But if I had to choose just one, it would be Kim Yuna. Yuna’s jumps are textbook, her choreography sophisticated, her mind of steel. She has endured so much throughout her career, and yet, despite her successes, she has always maintained composure and humility.   I will always remember that she skated over to autograph my program after the ladies' free skate at the 2009 World Championships—thank you! 

4. Your best skating moment? 

Standing on the podium at 2012 US Nationals. I still remember that moment so vividly; it's still so fresh in my memory. Although I had a rough free skate, I was so lucky to have gotten a medal--a memento and something to acknowledge all the hard work I put in to training leading up to that event. 

5. Worst skating moment? Or most embarrassing? 

When I competed at a local competition in the Intermediate level, I remember throwing up at the end of my short program. I have since learned not to eat lunch right before I compete. 

 

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What I learned from the double axel

The double axel. The only forward-takeoff, two-and-a-half revolution jump. The most difficult jump I have mastered in my eight-year skating career. 

For some skaters from my experience, it takes on average at most a year or so to get this jump. For others, maybe ten months, six months, three months, or even two weeks. My friend landed it on her first day.

It took more than two years for me to get a double axel. Two years of tears, frustration, and despair. Fall after fall, it seemed as if I'd never be able to master it. That jump was a concrete wall ten miles wide that I could never seem to be able to break through. At times, I just wanted to quit. But I never gave up. Hundreds upon hundreds of fall per week never hampered my goal of mastering the jump, even as others around me--coaches, skaters, and my parents--lost faith not only in me, but in my skating. It was time to call it quits, they suggested. Without this jump, I wasn't going to get very far in my skating career. I was just wasting my coaches' time and my parents' money. Although it was tempting to give into my self doubts, I never let them control me or my will in mastering the jump. I remained optimistic through it all. Because I loved the sport. One jump wasn't going to change that.  

One afternoon, more than two years after my first attempt, after some five thousand failed attempts, I finally landed it. Finally.

Throughout the process, I learned to persevere though adversity, work towards reaching a goal, and find self-belief and confidence within myself, even when it seemed as if no one had faith in me. I knew that I was capable of landing this jump—I had mastered every double jump except for the axel—but the double axel proved to be one of the biggest struggles of my skating career. Knowing I was capable of the jump was one thing, but pushing through when you have every reason not to was what made the difference. I could have easily quit the sport then and there, but I didn’t.

As long as you never lose faith in your own abilities and potential, trust yourself, and never give up, it will happen.

Start from the basics, and continue from there. Think creatively. Work effectively and efficiently. Maybe you need to move to a different spot on that wall--change your surrounding environment. Or maybe you lack the right tools to succeed--get the fundamental tools, the support, and the necessary coaching. Perhaps you just need to slowly, but surely, chip away at that concrete wall of yours, chunk by chunk, piece by piece. Yes, it may take time, but honestly, nothing in life comes easy. 

If this helps, I'm still facing many other concrete walls to this day. 

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