Glassy-eyed in Ohio.

Documentary: American Factory

Alright, I have things to say about the Obama-produced documentary, American Factory. This documentary is about a Chinese company repurposing a long-shuttered GM plant in the US as an automotive glass factory. Apparently, labour can be cheap enough in the US for Chinese businessmen to make a profit!

When I learned that this documentary revolved around an automotive glass factory, I had low expectations of its entertainment value. No part of me expected the documentary to be anything like a Will Ferrel movie.

The Jacobim Mugatu of this film is Fuyao’s CEO, Cao Dewang, who owns no fewer than two (identical!) oil paintings of his image.

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And a bronze portrait. I think that’s bronze anyway.

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“Ha, it’s like I’m frozen in carbonite,” he would’ve thought if he wasn’t so busy thinking about work. “The point of living is to work”? Of all things he was wrong about, this was the worst. Self-worship, I can at least get behind.

A cariacture-style self-portrait done in shades of blue, with orange eyeglasses.
I painted this caricature-like self portrait in 2012.

Multiple online sources name him one of China’s biggest philanthropists. “Philanthropist” is the most inaccurate adjective commonly used to describe billionaires, and it’s aggravating. A philanthropist is one who seeks to improve the welfare of others. Cao makes his workers at the Chinese factory sort through broken glass without protective eyewear and clothing.

Now, he was excited about extending the same opportunities to the good people of Dayton, Ohio. Before his team headed to the US to offer salvation, they took classes on Americans. The teacher was straight to the point: Americans are lazy slobs. Americans can make fun of ANYONE, even their president. Especially their president.

I was thinking, “Well, have you seen the current US president? He’s more deranged than any Will Ferrell character.”

We later learn that President Cao is essentially a cross between Willy Wonka and Trump. In one scene, Cao starts complaining about the placement of a fire alarm and demands that it be moved, not understanding that US factories are heavily regulated.

A black haired man with a bald spot dressed in a blue dress shirt and black trousers points to a flashing fire alarm. The caption in the middle reads,
What good is a safety feature when it makes your eyes sore?

This wasn’t covered in their course on Americans. There’s more to being American than guns, dressing in sports jerseys, chatting while on the job, and wrap-around sunglasses.

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“My name is Dave and I’m from the home of the brave.”

By contrast, the workers in his Chinese factories are shown being obedient and hyper-productive. They are said to get two days off a month and work 10-hour shifts. They’re undoubtedly the superior employees, but they’ve dedicated their seemingly hollow lives to working hard so that Cao can have a pool bordered by pillars and vases large enough to bathe in.

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Who knew manufacturing automotive glass could be so fulfilling?

Disappointed by how things started in the American factory, the Chinese invited the American bosses to the Fuyao headquarters in Fuquing. While the Americans are shown disembarking the plane still wearing their neck pillows and bussing through the city, the film cuts to a sea of suit-wearing people in a boardroom, on their feet, singing a ditty about the company.

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Not weird at all: I love my job so much I’d sing about it.

The company later puts on a variety show, with costumes and kiddie back-up dancers. A few of their employees get married on stage, simultaneously.

Five couples dressed in wedding attire walk forward on stage. The caption reads [soft music playing].
Wait a minute, I thought they were against unionizing at Fuyao?
An interpreter is always present during their interactions. I realized then how frustrating it must be for interpreters when people won’t stop telling them how to do their job. “Tell him I said…” “Tell her I said…”

“YES, I FUCKING KNOW YOU’RE NOT TRYING TO TALK TO ME. I AM AN INTERPRETER, THIS IS HOW INTERPRETERS WORK.” If I were the interpreter and both parties were doing this, I would break out my shit-stirring spoon and ad-lib the dialogue. Doing this is probably the interpreter version of a server spitting in someone’s burger.

This documentary was less about factory work and more about the clashing of two very different ways of life.

I’ve been to Beijing and going by what I experienced in China’s largest city in two weeks, I can say with certainty that it’s culturally the most different place I’ve ever visited.

People were asking me if they could take my picture. The first time it happened, I instinctively put my hands out to receive their camera, thinking they wanted me to take their photo.

Laura in a blue summer dress with a shirred top leans one hand on the handle of a spherical blue device that resembles a safe. She is in a mostly empty Beijing subway station.
Colour coordinated!

In the above example, I asked a friend to take a picture of me with what appeared to be a safe for explosive devices. (I could be way off base, I know. If you know what that thing is, please don’t hesitate to educate me.)

I expected Vancouver’s large Chinese community to have prepared me for what I’d see in China. As different as Vancouver’s Chinese community may sometimes seem, Vancouver’s Chinese immigrants have assimilated more than people realize.

A couple of things that stood out were:

  • Restaurants and public markets were unsanitary. There was a bulk section where you could pick out unpackaged meat. Anybody could grab the raw meat that was on display.
  • Parents encouraged their children to partake in public urination. (Generally, I feel that public urination is way less accepted in Canada than anyplace I’ve travelled. If you disagree, then I must’ve been unlucky with witnessing people taking a piss in public spaces on my travels.)
  • Ironically, there were many public restrooms. Some of them were very public, such as a room of squat toilets with no privacy dividers.
  • Whenever I bought something with coins, I never received change. Merchants would never let me short change them though.
  • Nobody took credit card, not even McDonalds.
  • The men would roll up their shirts into crop tops to air out their bellies on hot days.
  • There would be 10 people doing the same small job, such as standing in front of statues all day reminding people that no photography was allowed.
  • Hairdressing shops were everywhere, and open super late.
  • A saleslady laughed in my face when I asked if I could get a pair of shoes in China size 41. Sure, it was just one person, but it was also the only time in my life I’ve ever had a salesperson laugh in my face.
  • Motorists don’t stop for pedestrian zebra crossings. They don’t either in Montréal, but motorists in Beijing also ignore traffic lights.
  •  Street signs hanging in the middle of intersections referred to the street you were already on, rather than the intersecting street. Prompting me to get LOST FOR THREE FUCKING HOURS. ALONE. WITHOUT A SMARTPHONE BECAUSE THIS WAS 2010.

Yet, the thing that weirded me out the most was being considered photogenic by random people. A mom even asked me to pose with her young children. I obliged only because it was nice not being a nobody for once.

I never considered how different the work environment would be in China too. As much as I loved this trip, for all the memories it produced, I know I would hate to live there. Not that I think it could be worse than Dayton, Ohio.

If you can handle some cringe-worthy moments, such as the Americans drunkenly singing and dancing to the gay anthem (but why?!), you might enjoy American Factory.

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The guy on the left mouths “Y” while spelling out “M”, and don’t even get me started on the guy next to him.

They probably both make more money than I do.

10 thoughts on “Glassy-eyed in Ohio.

  1. Nice review. I’m going to copy and paste it onto my blog and take credit for it. If “work” was telling people what to do and making millions from it then it might be the best part of life. I guess it depends on how you define “work.” Working on something could be the point of life but going to a job can often feel like a prescription for suicide. If I ever bump into you I’m going to ask you to share a picture with my dog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would be happy to share photos of my cats with your dog. I currently live in Victoria, but I’m originally from Vancouver (ok, Langley… But I also lived in Vancouver for years.)

      Like

    2. I would be happy to share photos of my cats with your dog. I live in Victoria, but I’m originally from Vancouver (ok, Langley… But I also lived in Vancouver for years! )

      Like

  2. That caricature portrait of yourself is freakin’ awesome. The differences in all of our countries & even cities really amaze me. Very interesting to know these little details no one ever mentions. Like the men who turn their shirts into crop tops. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s called a Beijing bikini! So it may not even be a Chinese thing, just a Beijing thing.

      That is my favourite thing about travelling: making those little observations that aren’t mentioned in guide books!

      Liked by 1 person

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