Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary, magic realism
Title: The Journey
Mei Lin’s blistered fingers hesitated before passing an identity card to the young security guard, vigilant at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. This guy was new. She hoped he was no better at spotting fake IDs than the other couldn’t-care-less guards, who barely glanced at the factory girls’ cards before waving them through.
“Wu Li Juan,” he read aloud, teasing out the words. He peered more closely at the photo. Mei Lin’s head dipped quickly, causing wings of black hair to fold around her cheeks. She peeped up through her lashes.
The guard squinted behind his glasses, as though to x-ray through her shield of hair. He looked again at the face on the card, then laughed. Not unkindly.
“Go!” he gestured, as he swiped the ID. “Have a nice day, Miss Wu.”
Mei Lin scuttled past him, fumbling to put the card in her pocket as she pushed through the turnstile. She hurried towards the throng of women and girls ahead of her. Among them, she could be anonymous. Just another young girl far from home. Alone.
Flanked by the nameless women, she breathed again. But her feet slowed down with each step closer to entering the factory.
“Go on, Mei Lin. Hurry up!” hissed a voice, and Mei Lin spun to see her bunk-mate Qing Ling angling towards her from another turnstile. The older girl nudged Mei Lin towards the doors. Mei Lin risked a swift look over her shoulder at the guard, whose eyes were searching the crowd.
“Shhhh! He’ll hear you,” begged Mei Lin. “Don’t call me that!”
She wished Qing Ling would be more careful about using her real name; that loudmouth would get her fired sooner than the borrowed ID card which claimed she was sixteen – nearly three years older than her actual age.
She’d lose this job if the bosses knew she was underage. And she really couldn’t afford to. This was her chance to help her family. Mei Lin was counting down the days to her first month’s salary next week. A few days ago, Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of the money. “He’ll keep it all till you’ve been here a year. In any case, the agent will take most of it to pay your debt.”
But whatever money eventually came to her, her parents would be thankful. Hundreds of miles away in Hebei Province, they laboured hard on their small plot of land, growing crops of peanuts. Qing Ling’s carelessness could send her back there in disgrace.
“Oh, come on!” said Qing Ling. “We grew up in the same village; you’ll always be Mei Lin to me. And you’re fooling no one with that stupid ID. Why did you go in his line? I keep telling you to go to the old guy who always forgets his specs. Now stop dawdling…”
Just as the pair pushed against the doors leading into the factory, a voice called out:
“Ms Wu! Wait!”
The guard! With panicked eyes, Mei Lin turned to Qing Ling. The older girl grabbed the younger girl’s clammy hand and squeezed, popping a blister. Mei Lin didn’t notice the pain.
In ten swift, tile-clicking steps, the guard reached the two girls. The other guards at the entrance turned to watch. At the far desk, the shift supervisor stood up, ready to move to assist, but a casual wave of their colleague’s hand assured them there was no problem. Loudly, “You dropped your ID, young lady!” The supervisor sat back down. Excitement over.
Mei Lin tentatively reached out her free hand to take the card. “Lucky I caught you in time, eh?” Again, in a voice that carried: “You don’t want to be losing that!”
Then, he leaned closer, breathing out the warm aroma of peanuts. It felt like a blessing on Mei Lin’s face. In a whisper that only the two girls could hear, “That card will get you kicked out if the Super sees it. Try to buy one that looks more like you.”
He turned and marched back to his post. Mei Lin stood, slack-jawed; the smell of peanuts had stunned her as much as his advice. She sighed at the memory of boiled peanuts, imagining them cracking between her teeth, releasing their sweet and salty braise. Oh, how she missed the aroma of cloves and cinnamon and star anise, stewing for hours in a pot, with her grandmother possessively tending the dish. “Don’t interfere,” she’d scold Mei Lin’s mother. “You always put too much soy sauce.”
Mei Lin’s mouth watered at that moment with longing. Her stomach grumbled. She’d had her usual breakfast of congee in the dormitory canteen. The portions were miserly; the congee runny. Not like Grandma’s.
A yank on her hand broke her reverie. “Lucky escape!” said Qing Ling. She pulled her along in the direction of the changing room, already swarming with workers. Mei Lin was caught in their music: squeals and low humming and wild chatter. Perhaps they were trying to get all their words and emotions out before hours of silence descended on the factory floor.
Like her, they donned pink overcoats and yellow aprons, and tugged yellow paper booties onto their feet, until the room resembled a vast cage of chirping lovebirds. She tumbled her long hair into a net, perched her yellow cap on her head, scrubbed her hands, checked her nails… Hmmm, perhaps a little longer than regulation allowed. And a couple were broken. She’d have to trim them tonight. If she had the energy. After a twelve-hour shift, she had no stamina to gossip with the other girls in the dormitory before lights out at 9pm. Perhaps that was why she had yet to make any friends?
Five minutes later she was seated, one of thousands of yellow-hatted, black-haired heads bowing to their workstations. For the first hour or two there would be banter and a little stifled laughter, as long as the floor supervisor was in a different section. After that, the voices dried up, and really, what was there to talk about?
From her perch on her hard stool, Mei Lin could see Qing Ling a few workers away. Occasionally they would smile at each other, feeling a camaraderie that came from long hours, aching backs, sore fingers. She couldn’t call her a friend. She wasn’t even sure they liked each other, though their shared village childhood counted for something in this foreign place.
Around her, Shu, Yueyue and Xiao Dan buckled down to their tasks. Like her, they were young and had small and nimble fingers. She suspected they were also below the legal age of sixteen. The task of threading laces through eyelets was gifted to them all.
“At least you still have all your fingers,” whispered Yueyue, as Mei Lin cried herself to sleep during the first two weeks in the dormitory of Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “My friend in the cutting room isn’t so fortunate.” With a flair for drama, she mimed slicing off a digit. “Now she’s good for nothing. Got sent back home in disgrace. Be grateful for pain in ten fingers instead of nine,” she comforted.
Perhaps the memory made her flinch. Mei Lin’s fingers roughly fumbled with the boot. She couldn’t say how it happened… she was always so careful… but a jagged nail scraped across the polished leather. She froze in horror. This careless mistake could get her sent back home.