On September 3, 2013, I arrived at a worker’s dormitory in Guangdong, China, to find my new roommate sprawled out on a plywood bunk in the corner of the small and musty room. He was wearing a hot-pink uniform emblazoned with the letters EPS—for expanded polystyrene, a material used to make foam packaging, bicycle helmets, and a slew of other products sold abroad. He and 269 other workers at the JinBao Foam Factory1 manufactured roughly 130,000 foam pieces and 9,000 helmet baskets a day. JinBao is one of 208,900 companies in the city of Dongguan, which, with a GDP of $94 billion, is among China’s preeminent manufacturing hubs.
JinBao owned the dormitory; I was scheduled to begin work at the factory the following day. Our room slept eight, but my roommate, a wiry twenty-seven-year-old with friendly eyes who introduced himself as Mo Rupeng, appeared to be its only occupant. Mo was from a 1,400-person village in rural Guangxi called Fugao Cun, where his wife and two children still lived. Like many migrants to Dongguan, Mo had grown up on stories of China’s booming industrial cities. When his older cousin would return home from the city, he told stories of wild nights out at beer stands, karaoke bars, and a roller skating rink as big as three basketball courts. “Dongguan was new and fresh, somewhere I could be free,” Mo recalled. When Mo turned seventeen, he gathered his $300 life savings and ran away from home. Two days later he arrived in Dongguan. “My parents told me to come home immediately,” he said. “But I said no, no, I am going to stay.” That was ten years ago… Read the rest of the essay at Harper’s Magazine