by Jenna Kirkman
Eric Ma and Hau Ling “Helen” Chang’s article, ‘NAKED BODIES’: Experimenting with intimate relations among migrant works in South China, provides an excellent and important example of social, physical, and mental shifts in ideology and behavior when migration from a comfortable, traditional lifestyle to a modern, advancing environment occurs. Though Ma and Cheng do not suggest many new theories, the article is relevant and informative, offering a very specific example of female Chinese migration that can be applied as an analogy to many other migratory situations across the globe.
In general, the article is a case study, or as Ma and Cheng describe it, an “ethnographic study”, on the lives of migrant female factory workers who move from rural China to a newly industrialized South China. These females, usually around ages eighteen to twenty when they leave, have grown up in a tightly knit farm community with traditional values and ultimate family influence. Higher wages in the South force them to become factory workers, where they consequently experience a culture shock on a number of levels. As Ma and Cheng put it,
“This Chinese compressed modernity features multiple sociocultural layers juxtaposed with each other. In spatial terms, factory zones are layered with agricultural communities. In cultural terms, traditional practices are mixed with consumer lifestyles. In social terms, the working class comes into close contact with the increasingly affluent middle class, creating an astonishing social inequality” (204).
And here begins the migrant workers’ struggle. On top of these divides, they must also deal with conflicting sexual identities and choices as they leave behind their families’ influence and dive into a new world of sexual freedom. The workers feel “naked” between all solid and safe identities presented to them by their old and new environments. What makes the situation of the migrant workers even more unique, however, is the fact that they must return to their home in rural China when they reach their early thirties.
This means that each worker knows and accepts the idea that shifting from a rural to an urban lifestyle is only a temporary internal migration, and this, in turn, creates more conflict. In this way, Ma and Cheng’s “naked” metaphor applies to the women’s lack of protection from the social forces they encounter, both from their northern home and their new southern residence. Additionally, these women struggle between what is learned, the traditional values from their family at home, and what is natural human desire, or individual sexuality that surfaces with their new sexual freedom in South China.
In the article, Ma and Cheng hit on some very important sources of conflict in behavior within the migrant workers, but it seems to me that some considerations are left out. First, though, it is necessary to explore main points that Ma and Cheng have analyzed. They began with body image struggles. As ideas about body image have been implanted within the females from their hometown, it is not surprising that when the freedom to display themselves in non-traditional ways presents itself, a conflict arises. The women struggle to present themselves physically in a way that agrees with home values, but that also accommodates to their new factory lifestyle. For example, girls who might dress in a baggy t-shirt for work may put on a tight or revealing dress in order to go to the dance clubs at night.
Ma and Cheng make reference to Goffman’s quote, here, in which he states, “The body is not only a receptor and manifestation of social meaning, but also a generator of meaning itself” (205). We see that in the ways that female workers not only follow the new “dress code” for going out, but also encourage others, by means of body and word, to present themselves in similar ways. At one point, the article discusses the young women’s critique of Helen Chang’s attire, saying that she looked too much like a boy with her short hair and baggy clothes. Clearly, this form of almost rebellion dress would not be allowed, praised, or encouraged in the women’s rural home.
Ma and Cheng also explore the new language that these workers acquire during their time in the urban factories. In this section of article, a dormitory type lifestyle is described, which provides the workers a library full of new and formerly forbidden resources to read. Among these are romance novels and urban magazines, both forms of media teaching the workers a more modern way of life. From this, though, Ma and Cheng find that text messaging extremely sexist comments from male to female workers has become a trend. Language like, “Sexy women are braindead, and they all become loose chicks,” and “wife stays home; your lover stays in your bed; send salary home; share bonus with your lover; when sick, go home; when you feel great, go to your lover” (207) is shared among the workers, and females are not appalled but rather excited about these promiscuous language exchanges. Their new sexual identity prevents them from realizing the oppression within these words.
This, to me, seems problematic, in that these ideas may seem temporary and appear to only exist in the realm of the factory, but we must remember that the girls will eventually go home, and will undoubtedly take some of their new values back with them. While free choice may seem like the new, liberating alternative to their previously traditional marriage plan, the women become scared when they remember the oppressive sexual and relationship values at home.
Ma and Cheng move on to discuss marriage, where we learn that most rural Chinese marriages are actually set up, or arranged by a “matchmaker”. On page 210, a young woman tells Helen about the process, claiming that,
“Usually you meet the man recommended by the matchmaker on the fourth day of New Year. Then you get engaged on the seventh day. Then you go back to work in the factory. Then, by the end of that year, you come home and get married.”
In the factory, though, traditional values are uprooted, and women and men date and carry out sentimental and sexual relationships without the commitment to marriage. Many even carry out these relationships while they are engaged to a man back home. Even though sexual and relationship freedom exists in the factory setting, Ma and Cheng suggest that the women are still prone to revert back to their traditional values most of the time. This brings us back to the naked metaphor, in that the new sexual freedom in the factories is scary and unacceptable in traditional minds. Most women eventually fall back on the safety of traditional matchmaker marriages because they will gain support from their family, as well as the feeling that there are “clothed”, or set for life, with their matched mate.
Strength in Distance
What is interesting, though, is the courage that the women find in their distance from home. One worker stated that it was easy to disagree or stand up to her parents while she was at the factory because she could simply hang up the phone. This appears to be an example of conflicted ideology; the girls might think they want a safe, traditional life purely because they have no choice at home and it is easier, when in actuality, they may not agree with their family’s traditions. Only with the power of distance, though, can they stand up for themselves and still feel a certain degree of safety. They fear their family’s control in close proximity, but they also fear the “nakedness” or lack of protection and support in a world of free relationship choice.
Overall, the article speaks about female migrant workers and their situation within the rural to urban migration, but what is left out of this article somewhat is an explanation as to why there are so many more females than males. Ma and Cheng mention that it is difficult for the women to find a lover in the factory setting because the population of women so highly outnumbers the men, and some of the women even took out ads in the paper to find a boyfriend. Ma and Cheng never quite explain the overpopulation of women in these factory jobs, but it seems to play a large role in the developing issues and identities of these female workers. Would the situation be different if male workers existed more readily inside the factory environment?
Ma and Cheng also leave any discussion of homosexual relations out of the article, which seems like a very relevant area to discuss. I assume, as a reader, that these Chinese migrant workers who come from traditional rural backgrounds come from an ideology that homosexuality is mainly taboo. How, then, could Ma and Cheng not experience any form of homosexual or bisexual experimentation within the urban factory setting? Upon further research, I concluded that this study and article were approved by the Chinese government, which may explain the omission of this seemingly important aspect of gender and sexual identity formation. However, minimal discussion about the issue would have been beneficial in understanding migrant conflicts.
Close to Home
Though it seems distant, these migrant workers are not all that different than American college students. In many ways, the journey to college for an eighteen year old provides them with exposure to new ideas in an environment away from the control and direct support from their families. While college students do not necessarily go back to their hometown after gradation, they do feel the pressure from their family to follow a traditional path – graduating and then attending graduate school or finding a solid career. For some, their family values may be similar to the Chinese workers, and upon entering college they may find that they disagree with the morals and traditions practiced by their families. This leaves them “naked” as well, trapped between the conflicted sides of their identity. They want both the protection, safety, and support of their home, as well as the freedom to liberate themselves in the college environment and explore new and exciting possibilities.
While Ma and Cheng’s article lacks some crucial points, it can be highly useful when universally applied. We are all migrants and we all experience conflicting social, sexual, and mental identities throughout our course of life. This study on female Chinese migrant workers is simply a specific example of an important and progressing global issue.
During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007.