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Where Are You Wearing?

What if you could meet the people who made your clothes–the twentysomething girl in Cambodia who frayed your jeans, the single mother in Bangladesh who stitched your T-shirt, the husband and wife who glued your flip-flops?

And what if they welcomed you into their homes, let you play with their children, and prepared meals for you over gas stoves during power outages? How would you thank them?

In my book Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes , I traced my five favorite items of clothing back to their countries of origin. I was overwhelmed with the hospitality of the workers I met, and a simple, “Thanks for making my boxer shorts,” just didn’t seem appropriate, so I tried to come up with unique ways to express my gratitude. In Bangladesh I took 19 kids and one old man to an amusement park. In Cambodia I took eight garment workers bowling. But In China I faced a unique challenge: the workers never stopped working.

Dewan, 36, and his wife Zhu Chun, 31, work at the factory that made my Teva flip-flops. Chinese law sets their workweek at 40 hours. They are allowed to work overtime, but no worker should work more than 203.4 hours in a month. But there’s the law and then there’s Dewan and Zhu Chun.

They told me it wasn’t rare to work more than 100 hours in a week. If they complained about the hours, they would lose their jobs, and they couldn’t afford that. They had taken out a loan to build a two-story home in their village a few years ago. Shortly after the home was finished, Dewan’s mother became ill and died after racking up expensive medical bills. They chose to come to Guangzhou to get jobs and pay down their debt.

I called them during the week, “Can you go out for pizza?” When we had a chance to visit, food was one of our favorite topics. It came up that they had never eaten pizza, or, for that matter cheese. This was a wrong I could right.

“No, we have to work.”

On Sundays they are scheduled to get off early, so I called them, “How about a little Karaoke tonight?”

“No, we have to work.”

But then I came up with the perfect way to repay their hospitality.

“Can I come over this evening? I have something to give you.”

“Yes.”

The thing that I haven’t told you yet about Dewan and Zhu Chun–the really heartbreaking part–is that they have a son, Li Xin, 13, who lives in their home village 600 miles away, and they haven’t seen him in three years. I offered to pay their train fares to go visit him, but–no surprise–they had to work. They encouraged me to go alone to see their beautiful village and home and meet Li Xin.

The air in the village carried neither the muggy scent of progress nor the hustle and bustle of honking horns and screeching breaks as in the city. The village was everything Dewan and Zhu Chun said it was.

Li Xin had a shy exterior, but you could see mischief in his eyes–his dad’s eyes.

When I had first visited Dewan and Zhu Chun at their apartment, I noticed that there were no visible signs that they were parents. Their room was just wide enough for their bed. The walls were lined with newspapers and posters. One of the posters said something about Jesus being born and had a picture of Santa on it. But like Dewan’s Tim Duncan jersey, I doubt they were familiar with either man.

There were no signs of Li Xin–no photos, no drawings, no letters scrawled in an adolescent’s hand writing.

When I arrived at their apartment to give them the gift, Dewan wasn’t home. He had visited the doctor for a sore throat, but then returned to work. An important order of shoes needed to be finished. When he returned, he wasn’t allowed to clock in.

It isn’t rare for the people who make our shoes to work for free, as if making our shoes is a privilege.

I was excited to give them the gift, and as soon as Dewan arrived, I reached into my bag, and handed Zhu Chun a framed 8×10 photo of Li Xin laughing with his cousin. Behind them green terraces of corn stretched to the horizon. Not a skyscraper, highway or shantytown in sight.

Zhu Chun lost herself in the photo before passing it to Dewan. He smiled sadly and made a remark about the green scenery and the state of the crop. Zhu Chun put the photo in a plastic bag and slid it behind the bed, as if it was there to stay.

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I had thought the framed photo would go right to the wall or perhaps a privileged place on the nightstand. But once I saw their reaction, I knew that I should have brought a large pepperoni pizza instead.

“One thing is for sure,” Zhu Chun said, normally full of jokes and smiles, now ultra serious. “I don’t want him to come here to work in the factory. I just want him to study, because people like us who don’t have the knowledge have to work very hard.”

I wonder if there are other photos of Li Xin tucked away in the nooks and crannies of their room only to be looked at and then put away again. The photos are reminders of what they are working for, and painful reminders of what they are missing.

Zhu Chun is sure of one thing, I’m sure of two:

1. Dewan and Zhu Chun work hard.
2. They miss their son.

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