Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sounds of Hell

If hell had a sound effect, this would be it.

The moment I stepped out of the dust blaster, a tight compartment riddled with super blow dryers that pummeled your whole body with shots of stale air, I was bombarded by the high pitched wails.

It was an ungodly combination of the cries from a tortured elephant and the screechiness of yellowing nails scratching an old chalkboard. The heavy industrial machines shrieked out their frustrated sounds every five seconds, acting even more animated than the streams of workers loading plastic cups onto the conveyor belts woodenly below.

I tried my best not to cover up my ears (even though we already had ear plugs in), as some of my colleagues have done, because the plant boss was personally showing us around. I rearranged my expression, covering up my wide-eyed surprise with a seemingly relaxed professional smile.

I've been to many many factories and worker dorms and yet this was the first time I was so anxious to get out as soon as politely possible.

The plant boss pointed at the monster machines and explained how the giant rolls of plastic were molded and then shot up the tubes to be plastered with our favorite coffee and fast food brand labels. I watched as my little sister's favorite sundae cup twirled around the machine in a frenzied little dance. The plant was eerily devoid of human noises apart from our heels hitting the concrete floor. None of the workers were talking - everybody had hair nets on and ear plugs in. I wondered how much these workers knew about each other even after standing together, loading, unloading, loading, unloading plastic cups for years on end.

My eyes watered. The air inside the plant was hazy from the machine exhaust because windows had to be sealed to maintain the dust-free environment. My nose also twitched from smelling the burning plastic around the corner.

A line supervisor walked over to us slowly and nodded acknowledgement at the boss. I motioned to his ears and asked him why he was not wearing his ear plugs - I was barely staying sane with the noise. He gestured to the ink mixer behind us. These were his machines, he explained proudly, and he wanted to hear them. Every screech represented production and every wail meant smooth operation. He could decipher a breakdown issue just by hearing the sputtering of the machines. He patted the back of a nearby young man bent over the packaging boxes on our way out and told him to do a recount. He could tell with one glance that there were fewer than the required 300 plastic cups in there. It turned out that he was right.

Sporting the sexy hair net.

This is how we roll in factory towns. Because many plants are
in special export zones where taxis are not allowed to enter, so
we hitch rides on little motorbikes.

There are days like this when I wonder if we can even move the dial a little bit and make some sort of impact on the lives of the factory workers. When I run out of certain factories, gasping for fresh air, I can't imagine how our little apps can possibly make any dent in this overall situation. The plant managers I've met aren't evil, contrary to the easy monster archetypes Western media likes to draw of factory management, in fact, most of them are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make meaningful improvements while meeting production quotas.

We're all scratching our heads. But sometimes I do see a glimmer of a solution. Sometimes, when we demo our CompanyIQ app to the workers and watch them compete with each other for the right answers in the fire safety manual quiz with intense concentration and loud, easy laughs, I see that we're heading in the right direction. We gamify corporate training so workers who have been eliminated from China's hyper competitive education system because they do not excel in the traditional classroom can continue to learn on their own terms and in a fun and interactive environment.

The promise of accessible education means that they also dare voice their dreams. Two girls shyly came up to me, nervously tugging at their hair nets, and asked if our app could teach them how to use computer programs like Word or Excel so that some day they could also work in an air-conditioned office. Another young man told us that he was convinced he could make it as a line supervisor one day if only he could learn the techniques to speak convincingly in front of a crowd. A middle-aged woman with a round, honest face wanted to know how to be a better mother via the crackling phone lines so she could actually emotionally connect with her little son back home.

I don't think we have it absolutely right right now. Heck, I'm only too painfully aware of all the ways we need to improve our app. But I do know the young man from the cup packaging department who stood up to be applauded by his fellow workers and receive a bottle of shampoo as a prize for getting the best scores on his app training quizzes. He had studied the training materials on the app back in his dorm the night before, he confided to us. He also added, shyly, that nobody had ever clapped for him before. Whenever I think of him and how he tried not to smile too broadly as he was being applauded, I know we must be doing something right.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Chinese Masketeers

Mike and I hunched our shoulders and sped into the tunnel that led to the underground mall to seek refuge from the bitter Beijing cold. I reached out to lift the heavy double-layered insulating curtains that typically hung from most entrances in this city when I suddenly screamed. Something on the other side was panting unnaturally loud. The curtain lifted. Out of the dim tunnel emerged two determined eyes, a pink forehand, and a metallic contraption that shielded almost his entire face.

I was staring at a beanie-wearing Bane.

He really did look like this 
(without the overhead strap).

I think I freaked him out too. He was just another Beijing biker trying to find a warmer shortcut and wheezing heavily through his air filtration mask. He looked at us strangely, as if thinking we were crazy for not strapping on our own respiratory protection. But then again, I don't know if we would have been able to afford the several hundred USD worth of WWII-esque gas mask gear he sported. 


Air pollution is so bad in Beijing that BJ is experiencing somewhat of a brain drain because the smarties want to move somewhere where they can actually breathe. We Shanghai/ Suzhou-ers down south have  participated in the pollution frenzy by downloading the ubiquitous air pollution monitoring apps and comparing the daily stats officially released by the American consulate vs Chinese government. Some Chinese nationalists even made a big deal about the Americans purposefully stirring up local discontent by revealing the daily air pollution index. 

Normally it's more like "Woah - look how bad Beijing is today!" and we feel lucky. But today we Southerners are starting to feel the pain. 

We are officially in the HAZARDOUS category. Actually, correction - apparently, we overshot the upward bound and went beyond hazardous. Most apps freaked out and went blank today because they did not know how to classify 500 and above. Friends in my US college town, Provo, flipped when earlier inversion caused the air quality index to register 164 ("unhealthy") - 164 is more like a hallelujah here in Shanghai. We often reminisce about the good ol' days of 164 like that golden period of the magical beanie babies craze that nobody understood. 

The number of air quality index screen shots 
 trounced even that of self-conscious selfies today.

We typically look up at the crotch of the infamous
 "Pants Building" (aka the tallest building in our province
 upon completion) from our office. Above is taken on a
 beautiful summer day. Below is taken today.
Creds to Danica.

The ongoing air situation has bred some fascinating social phenomena. Soccer moms no longer brag all day about their children - now they engage in passive aggressive "whose air filtration mask is better?" comparisons, analyzing in excruciating detail the science behind pollution and mechanics of face masks. And instead of rare medicines or gold-plated busts, Chinese sycophants switched gears and gifted government officials with high end air filters, attached with poems about the importance of health. 

The radio is also full of jokes about the pollution. Here's one: Workers at the post office have been so desperate for clean air that they resorted to popping the bubble wraps on foreign packages and sucking in the fresh "imported" air . . .  until the postmaster sadly pointed out that the bubble wraps were made in China too.

Office portrait a while back. I think this time we were
 donning masks for the bird flu.