Peek Into Future Through “American Factory”

Back in 2008, GM closed one of its assembly plants in Dayton, Ohio.  It casted a devastating impact on more than 2,400 blue collar automobile workers’ lives.  Years later, many of these people still struggle with unemployment, healthcare and/or a place to be called “own” to stay… Due to many obstacles standing in their path: aging, no education, lack professional skills for a modern economy… maybe self doubt, frustration or depression (mental health) was in the way as well.

Then, hope and excitement were blown in from the far east.  A Chinese billionaire, Cao, DeWang, was willing to invest millions to reopen the deserted GM plant and turn it into an automobile glass factory.  They would employ at least 2000 people from Dayton.  People were relieved and happy.  However, under the veil of hope, there dwelled fear, uncertainty and doubt.  Still, many people kept on good faith and stepped into their new work.

East meets wests!  Clashes are unavoidable! Film Makers, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, kept themselves completely off the screen.  They let workers, Americans as well as Chinese, tell their stories, perspectives and personal views.  They let viewers to think for themselves…  The documentary is so powerful as it presents …. everything as the way it is…

After you watch it, you gain insights for both sides.  You understand and emphasize with all of them!  Even the big capitalist, you would not want to call him an “evil boss”.  Everything is so complex.  There is not a simple line to divide white from black.  There are so many areas of grey.

Rooted in human rights, Americans expect a safe working environment with decent pay, vocations and benefits.  They don’t expect to work less, standard 8-hour days and they don’t mind to rotate through 3 shifts.  However, in comparison to their Chinese counterparts, they work on a 12-hour shift, they melt their personal happiness with company goals (production), they work overtime regularly without compensation, they work in dangerous conditions without showing fear or weakness.  They even wear their work related injury as a badge of honor…  Therefore, from Chinese point of view, Americans are inevitably … LAZY and SLOW.   Americans just couldn’t decode how and why Chinese are so willing to sacrifice.  They can’t even see their family for two years!!!

Then, there is this communication style difference.  Americans are casual, direct and speak their minds.  They also have the freedom to joke and criticize their president.  On the contrary, Chinese often keep their feelings deep inside.  They are afraid to let people know how they truly feel, including how much they miss their families.  Chinese bosses and leaders are strictly to be revered.  Their status and murals are in the most prominent place for visitors in their company.

There are unresolved classhes between different business cultures, generalized psychological responses when criticism comes down, individualism vs. collectivism, self-advocacy vs. obedience …

Dayton people are making far less, $13 per hour, under the Chinese boss.  Back then, they made $28 per hour with GM.  Still, many people gave up their right to vote “yes” for unionization as they were afraid to loss this only meager income…

For many underprivileged people, survival seems to be bigger than “rights”…

Surprisingly, Chairman Cao, or Cao Zong, is quite self reflective.  Although his philosophy is “the point of living is to work…”, he ponders after so many factories have been built, is he really a contributor to the booming economy?  Or a destroyer of environment?

The film ends on an unsettling note: Cao Zong is touring the factory.  He is informed that they have started using robots during their production.  Every robot could replace four human workers.  Robots will work 24 hours non stop in any inhuman or dangerous conditions.  Well, robots are robots, they are not human.  When they are tired, broken, or mistreated, they wouldn’t even bother to look for a shoulder to cry…

We live in a globalizing world…  the result of globalization is the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future….

Now, it is time to talk about how I have used this film in my classes.

  1. On my syllabus, I have a culture and current event session.  I assign students to watch it over a long weekend on Netflix.  They need to fill out a Van Diagram while they watch it.  Since this is a time sensitive documentary, I asked all of my students to watch it.
  2. After I finished the documentary, I did a quite extensive research and designed a reflection sheet. American Factory Reflection Sheet
  3. In class, students are asked to fill out the above sheet on their own quietly.  High level students need to write in Chinese.  Novice and Intermediate 1 level students could reflect in English.
  4. Pair-share their reflection
  5. Class discussion
  6. Then, I hand out the reflection cheat sheet.  Students could add in any information they see as fit. American Factory Reflection Cheat Sheet
  7. My intermediate 3 students are asked to write a reflection/review in Chinese.  I’ll be happy to share sample writing samples with you after they hand in their work.

I hope you will find some time for this film.

By Haiyun

PS: I had three students who didn’t get a chance to watch the film.  One totally forgot about it.  Two run out of time.  Therefore, I asked them to read reviews while others were filling out the reflection sheet.  So they would have some understanding of what would be discussed in class.  Life is not perfect, isn’t it?

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