One of my favorite skits at our Regional and State Destination Imagination (DI) competitions this year was by a team from our town. The characters in the skit were residents of an aquarium: a snail, a crab, some fish, some kelp, a plastic mermaid, and some other plastic object whose identity I don’t quite recall – just that it would express emotions and the others would remind her that she wasn’t real.
The plastic mermaid seemed to believe she was a Chinese philosopher and would make wise Confucious-like sayings. At one point, the other not-real object said, in an exasperated tone, “But you aren’t Chinese! We come from the same pet shop!” To which the mermaid replied, “Oh, yeah?! Tell that to my birth stamp!” She then thrust her arm out, clearly stamped “Made in China.” The audience loved it.
At Global Finals, I watched a Chinese team compete. The skit involved people in a submarine looking for something in the ocean. They finally found the treasure – a large vase, and brought it back on the sub. Someone noticed something written on the bottom. “Made in China!” they announced. Again, that audience died laughing.
I wondered as I laughed if this was the same group of Chinese teens I had encountered in the souvenir area earlier in the week. I was looking at DI-stamped USB bracelets and similar objects when the group walked up to the table. One of them picked up something from the table, showed it to the others, and then read “Made in China.” They all started laughing. I thought it was amusing at the time although I wonder now if it was indeed the submarine team, then perhaps they found it even funnier because of their skit.
And then shortly after I returned home, I listened to this story on NPR about a U.S. teacher held in a Chinese prison. He was being held on charges of theft. He was given a cup and a toothbrush and put in a racquetball court sized room with roughly thirty men. No beds, no chairs, no pillows, and most had no sheets. Most had to lay on their sides to fit in there. He stayed for 280 days, most if not all of that, before pleading guilty.
During the day, they sat in their underwear on the concrete floor and assembled Christmas lights. For upwards of 10 hours a day. One of the guards would sometimes use strands of lights to whip prisoners into working harder.
The story reminded us that while labor in prison is not unheard of, this was uncompensated forced labor for people who had not yet been convicted of anything. It made me sick.
We often joke about the prisoners or the young children who assembled some Made In China object we have. It’s become light-hearted and fun. A joke. As can be seen in the audience laughter at the two skits I mentioned above. I don’t know that I necessarily feel all that badly about laughing – the scenes were funny and well done. But the story coming so soon after those moments (I had already been thinking about blogging about them) sobered me considerably and changed the closing tone of this post.
I fear that when you are around something wrong enough and make light of it enough, it perhaps becomes too easy to brush aside its harsh reality. Unlike slavery and segregation in this country, which was easy to see, the problems of child labor and forced labor in places like China are so easy to ignore. They are far away. It’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t really happen. It’s just a story. Not real. It’s even easier to not think about it at all.
The Chinese people I met in Knoxville, TN that week were very nice and friendly. We stumbled through brief conversations in simple little phrases and hand gestures and smiles. I think such events are valuable and I cherished the opportunity. It troubles me though, to think we might get comfortable in those moments and then forget about what’s going on away from the spotlights.
I love Christmas lights. They are perhaps my favorite part of the decorations. But maybe this year, I’ll take the now freed prisoner’s advice and light candles instead. Assuming I haven’t shamefully forgotten by December.