Friday, April 06, 2012

A letter I received yesterday from an audience member:



I saw your show about a month ago and I want to you and thank you. The show was great, and I have a deeply personal connection to the topic of labor in China.

Mike, the reason I'm writing is that I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2001-2003 and I witnessed the destruction and injustice of Chinese labor practices. The experiences I had have stuck with me and I am so grateful to you for addressing them in your work. I went to Bates and I studied in China three times while I was a student before joining the Peace Corps, and today I work in Chinatown. I have been intimately connected to China for 15 years now.

I am not a story teller, so I cannot convey this memory with the emotion that it still holds for me, but I will try. My Peace Corps town was not a prestigious town among Peace Corps towns in China, it was poor by comparison. Lu Zhou is its name. It's an industrial town near the border of GuiZhou. My friends there tell me it was prestigious 1,200 years ago for its alcohol industry, but not as much now.

I taught at a teachers college outside the city along the banks of the Yangtze. It was not the type of school that drew students from great distances. It was kind of a Chinese community college. Most of my students came from farm families. On holidays my students went home and picked tea leaves. Many students had siblings who were not allowed to go to college, because the families could pick only one child to go to school.

One morning I walked out of my Soviet style concrete dorm and found a bunch of students waiting to get onto busses parked in the center of my campus. The students each had bed rolls and a back pack. These represented their life's possessions. We were in Sichuan and the busses were bound for Shenzhen, a journey of over a thousand miles. The students were mostly sixteen to eighteen year old girls and they were traveling to the factories. They weren't abandoning their studies officially, but I learned later that these students wouldn't return. They had no money. They were traveling "free of charge" thanks to the companies in Shenzhen. It was a one-way ticket. What happens to a seventeen year old Chinese girl with no money a thousand miles from home?

I couldn't comprehend what was going on. Those students were my charges and they were so vulnerable and innocent. They looked like little kids. I was only twenty-one and to me they looked like babies. They were kids.

I am an English teacher now and I often give my students the poem Chicago by Carl Sandburg. There are dark references in that poem to prostitution, murder, starvation, and abuse. My Chinese students understood that poem well because industrial US America in that age isn't very different from China today.

That day when the busses took my students away has been in my memory for ages. Your performance brought some attention to this topic and I'm very grateful for it. Ira Glass seems to have missed the point if you ask me.

Thanks again,
Brian Knudsen