Three Years Ago
Li Jing stands holding a sheet of soggy cardboard over her head and looking down into the deep muddy ditch that separates the factory owned dormitory where she lives from the narrow road. Overnight terrible rains have flooded the streets and water has overflowed the gutters and entered the lower levels of some of the sleeping quarters. A woman, soaked to the thighs, carries a green plastic basin back and forth from door to street bailing flood waters from the building.
In the grey and stinking water, garbage floats. A young man she’s not seen before, pushes past suddenly, nearly knocking her into the filth of the street. He is carrying a rotting plank of wood and he lays it down upon the narrow strip of concrete outside one of the dormitory doors. He positions it perpendicular to the gutter and slanted across the flood waters as a makeshift bridge. He returns to the building and a minute later he emerges wheeling an armless office chair which carries an older woman wrapped in blankets. Her head is bowed as if she is sleeping. As the man hurries past with his charge and Li Jing steps carefully away, she catches a glimpse of the woman’s face; shrunken and greyish beneath the cloth. She is so ill, Li Jing thinks.
The bus is late today, and everyone is tired and wet and irritable. The crowded dormitories are very cold, and the workers are forced to keep the windows closed to conserve heat in the winter. The humidity and stink of sweat and dirty bodies and cigarette smoke becomes overwhelming and nobody sleeps.
Still, thinks Li Jing, this is a good job. Doing inspections on an assembly line for an American company. The hours are long, and the factory is noisy and crowded but she is meticulous and careful and has earned respect from her bosses. Li Jing has health benefits and she is paid two dollars an hour, the minimum wage, most of which she sends home to the family she has not seen since her seventeenth birthday over one year ago.
The cardboard is now thoroughly water logged and has disintegrated nearly completely. She lets it fall to the gutter where she watches as it floats away in shreds and chunks beside a balled baby diaper and an empty shopping bag and clumps of weeds and mud.
The rain falls in droplets the size of fat peas and she turns her smooth face to the sky.
The bus arrives at the factory before seven am and the workers disembark. Li Jing lockers her few possessions and quickly dons the badge and hair cap and covers her clothing with the white paper gown she is required to wear and takes her position on the line.
She will work twelve hours today and have thirty minutes for lunch. She does this six days a week.
Today is a difficult day. She fears she might be getting ill. Her throat pains her when she swallows and there is a deep ache in her back. She thinks about the woman in the office chair. So many workers in her dorm have been sick recently and missing work means not being paid. She is distracted by worry.
She bows her head to her work.
The backpack she is inspecting is deep purple with black stitching. She examines the condition of the stitching on all sides of the pack inside and out. She checks the zipper and the zipper teeth, opening and closing it several times. This particular pack, however, has one additional pocket on the outside edge and that pocket has a zipper as well. Perhaps because Li Jing is exhausted or maybe because she is distracted by worry, or perhaps for no reason at all, she fails to detect the defective zipper closure on the little pocket on the outside edge of the pack.
She places her bright yellow approval sticker on the inside of the pack and sets it down on the conveyer belt and watches as it disappears around the edge of an enormous steel mechanism she’s never noticed before.
Bythe time an exhausted Ji Ling is on the bus headed back to the dormitory, , the deep purple backpack with the faulty zipper pocket will have been labeled and shrink-wrapped and boxed and crated. She will be deep in a feverish sleep while it waits with a thousand others almost exactly like it. In a crate, on a dock beside a roiling black sea.
Years later, long after the people in Guangzhou have ceased to talk about the terrible water sickness and have gone back to their work instead, a girl, not much younger than Li Jing, will discover the backpack. Dusty now and forgotten, marked on the inside by an uncapped ballpoint pen, it will sit undisturbed in the back of a secondhand store in the low rent section of a suburb just outside of Los Angeles California. On a low, narrow shelf, it sits beside a plastic Smurf toy and a stack of old phonebooks from places like Houston and Boca Raton. It is half covered by a pile of off-brand sweatshirts and miscellaneous T-shirts. The young girl will pull away one at a time, fearful of spiders but curious about what lies beneath. She will pay just two dollars for the used backpack but, unlike Li Jing, she will take note of the broken zipper pocket. She will rationalize that it is a minor problem and will be easy to fix and, given the price, the pack is still an excellent deal. She’ll leave the store with every intention of fixing the broken zipper.
She never will.