Nonfiction by Spencer Wise
I spent the summer of 2015 working at Tiger Step factory in southern China, making the shoes my father sells at Macy’s and Nordstrom in your hometown. For four generations my family has made shoes, going all the way back to a shtetl in Russia. My great-grandfather sold leather out of a horse cart on the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill. My grandfather started our own factory in Amesbury, Massachusetts. When it staggered in the late ’60s, as American footwear and textile manufacturing were crippled by low-cost imports, my father closed the factory and got on an airplane to China, where he’s been making shoes for the past forty years.
Tiger Step was on the outskirts of Foshan, an industrial town with row after row of shoe and underwear factories. I worked all the jobs at the factory, from the cutting room to the stitching room to the assembly line. I was there researching a novel, but along the way I met a guy about my age from lower management, Ricky Cheng, who spoke pretty good English. Ricky worshipped Axl Rose. I could always see the bright yellow Guns N’ Roses logo glowing beneath his collared button-up dress shirt. It was the one thing that united us. He loved to ask me about specific Guns N’ Roses shows. “How was Pasadena ’88?” he’d ask. “Better than Toledo?” As if I’d been there. As if all of America had come together to see these concerts.
Ricky had started the first and, as far as I know, only Guns N’ Roses cover band in Guangzhou. He’d broken his parents’ hearts by attending music school against their wishes, but without their support he dropped out after two years, and that’s how he ended up at a crummy lower management job at Tiger Step.
I once went to see him play in a low-lit basement dive bar in Nanhai called Lazy Mama. There were four people there, two girls drinking cosmos and playing Jenga and two boys playing liar’s dice, none of whom had come for the show. They didn’t even look up when Ricky came out on the mini-stage wearing tight, white leather pants, singing “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” his amp cranked up way too high, noodling away on his electric guitar like he was Slash, down on one knee, wagging his tongue. Then he pretended to light his guitar on fire, which was visually hard to follow, and for the last minute of the song he just ran around in circles sweating with a fake-burning guitar. Having finished the song, Ricky said very politely into the mic, “We are having so much fun together, thank you,” which I guarantee is something Axl Rose never said in Toledo.
One day, not long after that show, Ricky invited me to meet his family in Jiangmen and spend the weekend. I didn’t know what to say. For a Chinese person to invite a gweilo—a ghost man—into his home, his culture, his life, this was a big deal. Plus I was tired of eating by myself in the canteen. Before Ricky, the closest thing I’d had to a friend was the broad-shouldered cook who stood right beside me, smacking the table with her fly swatter whenever one landed within striking distance. Whack! The whole table would shake and I’d miss my mouth with the soup spoon and schmutz my shirt. Then, delicately, with the corner of her swatter, she’d scoot the carcass onto the floor and resume her soldierly deportment. Then whack again! All meal long. Slaughtering flies while I was trying to eat soup dumplings.
So that’s how I ended up blazing on 650cc’s of CFMOTO down the Shenzhen Superhighway, bear-hugging Ricky from behind, terrified for my life as he swerved between black Audis and government cars, horns blaring. We drove through a landscape of steel skeletons surging to meet the sky, aglow with their own light, the tropical night air heavy and damp.
His parents lived in a subdivision of octagonal high-rises that all looked the same. We rode the elevator to the twenty-fourth floor, where his folks greeted us in English at the door. I could smell sweet vinegar in the air as they ushered us into the tiny one-bedroom apartment and sat us down on the open-weave rattan settee in front of an old TV. They had been watching a dubbed episode of Downton Abbey.
I said to his parents, “You have a very beautiful home.”
“Expensive,” the father said.
“No one in China owns their property,” Ricky added. “Seventy years you lease. Pay mortgage that’s outrageous for something you don’t even own. Then it goes back to government. It’s super hilarious.”
“Shhh,” the father said.
When the show ended, we sat for dinner at a plum-lacquered Eight Immortals table. Ricky’s mother served soup with soybeans, sweet potatoes, carrots, and salt in a clear broth, then pigs’ feet in ginger with rice. Once Ricky’s father had a little food in him, he started asking about the factory. Ricky and I told him it was harder to find workers, harder to keep them.
Ricky’s mother said, “I still have a little bit of hope it is getting better.”
His father said, “When I was twenty, I had hope. And look what happened.”
Then he explained that he had been a senior engineer at a steam-powered paper plant when the Cultural Revolution happened. His family was all from Taiwan. And because his own father had served as an officer in the KMT, the government that Mao had toppled, he was stripped of his job and sent down to the bottom—a factory worker. He’d planned to become a nuclear physicist. He had top 1 percent test scores, but the Communist Party refused to let him go to university. So that’s where a genius spent the rest of his working days: pulping paper. He’d worked the grinder, he said. Imagine all those hours he spent grinding wood. He must’ve known the sound of balsam fir, the sound of spruce. Forty-five years of grinding. Millions of tiny fibers pulverized, ground down into pulp, mashed into an old man.
“Never let anyone keep you in mind,” Ricky’s father said. “Because once they find out who you are, they kill you for it. The son always pays for the sins of his father.”
He pointed to the family altar: an aged photograph of a man in a cadet hat, a long beard, and a crucifix hanging around his neck.
Then he set down his chopsticks and looked directly at his son. He said, “Forget hope. Go to America.”
The mother groaned and said, “Very bad idea to leave. I’m sorry.”
Ricky almost didn’t speak. But then he squared his shoulders and leaned a little toward his mother and said in a very tender voice, “But what if I stay?”
He turned to me, and his voice grew progressively stronger as he said, “I am poor. I go home with nothing. I lose my age, my best time, the best time of my life spent in the city, and I get nothing. No pension, no social insurance. Then what happens? I get sick. Get disease. I come in and work in a factory and go home with nothing.”
I set down my spoon, feeling sick. I was naïve, only starting to learn about all the things my father had carefully hidden from me. So I found myself rooting for Ricky, for all those lucky enough to escape.
“When I go to the factory,” Ricky continued, “I think we are in the same boat ninety years later. History repeats. That’s the only thing I learned at school. We are in the exact situation that started the revolution ninety years ago—no unions, no rights, slavery, slave wages, disease, hunger. The government is corrupt. This country is—I know the word I want to say, but I’m not allowed to say it in English. Is there another word?”
“Try 'screwed,'” I said.
“This country is screwed. Father is right. I want to go to America.”
He looked at his mother. Her eyes were watering.
“You ask too much,” she said. “How will you get there? You don’t have money. Who will give you work?”
And that’s when Ricky said, “I’ll live with Spencer.”
Everyone’s eyes went wide.
“I made his shoes,” he said. “I put shoes on American feet. He will take me in.”
I felt a chill bump down my spine. What I’d just heard in Jiangmen was the voice of my ancestors, four generations back, huddled in some Russian shtetl waiting for the Cossacks to kick down the door, and my great-grandfather saying, “Forget hope. Go to America.”
I looked at the photograph of Ricky’s grandfather on the altar, and I thought of my own great-grandfather, whose success in America had brought me to this very dinner table by way of my father’s efforts. Self-made men. And I thought of Ricky’s parents, who’d scrabbled together enough food for this generous dinner to share with a stranger. They were hardworking and kind—the best of what we Americans like to think about ourselves.
But they were still staring at me, Ricky’s parents, and I realized they wanted an answer. Would I, would America, take in their son? I pictured Ricky in the States, jamming out to Guns N’ Roses. He gets himself a well-paying job with some health benefits, and his life turns out okay. He’s living in Plainsboro, New Jersey—that’s the dream, right, to wind up in Jersey?—so I said to him honestly, “You’re always welcome.”
I probably should have told him that it wasn’t going to happen. He’d never get to America. He’d never see Axl Rose on tour. He wasn’t all that welcome, especially now. This isn’t an America where a factory worker from China can start an alternate life. It’s not the America of my great-grandfather, either, where you could cover up your Yiddish enough to blend in. Not under a president who’s forgotten what made America great in the first place, the thing that refugees and immigrants have always understood: you go where you must to survive.
After dinner, Ricky’s father wanted to show me something. He brought Ricky and me over to his desk beside the family shrine. He opened the top drawer and took out a mailing tube from which he slowly withdrew a sheet of old, frail paper with blood-red Mandarin characters written on it. His hand trembled as he told us this story. As a young man, he was a soldier stationed on Kinmen Island, in the straits between China and Taiwan, during one of their many armed conflicts. When the Chinese ran out of real artillery, they started firing propaganda shells from the mainland instead. I don’t know all the politics, who owns whom. All I know was that his face was bone-white, and he’d been forced back here, and forced to work at the plant.
The paper he was holding was one of the leaflets inside the bombs. He’d kept it all these decades. It said, “Your Motherland Welcomes You Back.”
He laughed. Then his hands really started shaking, so Ricky took the leaflet out of his hands and set it down on the table. Ricky’s mother said her husband’s name, and he straightened up. It was quiet.
Ricky’s father pointed at the leaflet on the desk and in a whisper said, “In each bomb, thousands.”
He traced the bomb’s path with his finger.
“Go to America,” he said. Then he put his hands in his lap and leaned back. We sat there in silence, staring off into space, but all three of us were watching the same thing: thousands of white leaflets shuffling down from the sky while those boys, defectors, hid in tunnels listening for the whistle of bombs welcoming them home.