"The Dreams We Chase" by Minh Chau
Our Smile Project welcomes our next guest writer, Minh Chau! Enjoy and please leave a comment in support of Minh's heartwarming story - thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
“Has the machine ever come down on an employee? I know somebody’s got to have lost a finger or two over the years right?” I yelled over to Rohit, my trainer for the day. I had been in the role of a Machine Operator for less than an hour and I was already questioning myself on whether or not I chose the right summer job. Sure $13 per hour is great pay for a high school kid but keeping all my limbs would be kind of nice too in the long run.
“Two guys. One guy retired. He has no right arm. One guy, only pinkie. He still has to work here,” replied Rohit in his thick Indian accent, short responses and preference for the word “guy," all of which easily grew on me. Rohit was a large burly man in his early thirties, married and had been working here full time for three years while pursuing his Engineering degree. Our differences in age, culture and upbringing would ultimately make us fast friends.
Having never worked or been around a factory setting I read the job description as something that seemed pretty easy, almost anyone could do it and the role required very little mental exhaustion. Perfect for an easily distracted high school student. All one needed to do was place a baseball-sized rubber ball inside a six inch opening between two clamps. Then press a bright red button so the top clamp presses down and molds the rubber into a desired component used in everything from automobiles to computer chips. How hard could it be? Flipping burgers at McDonald’s had a longer job description.
I thought I was right in that it didn’t require much mental exhaustion, which was probably why training only took one shift to complete. Or that it was easy and anyone could do it since 80% of my coworkers were immigrants from various countries, spoke very little English and most had little formal education here. I was dead wrong on all fronts.
I came to find out that factory work, even in the part-time minor role I was in, was an extremely difficult job that takes a major physical and mental toll every moment of your 12-hour shift. How can it not? You stand on a concrete floor for twelve hours injecting rubber balls inside a furnace at 1,200 degrees. The work requires both a steady and fast hand. Steady in that the six-inch opening offers little room for maneuverability and a slight error can cause a lifetime scar – as my forearms still bares. Fast in that there is always a fear that the 350-pound hydraulic top clamp could at anytime malfunction and sever your limbs!
Nearing the end of my first 12-hour shift with aching joints and completely soaked in sweat I glanced up for a second and noticed a familiar figure across the room. It was my mom. All 4 feet 11 inches of her doing the exact same job I had been complaining about, but instead of weekends, she was doing it 12 hours a day seven days a week. She got me the job, I knew she worked here but had yet to run into her. At that moment everything I had vaguely wondered over the past few years, but never truly cared enough to ask about her job, let alone . How was it that we lived in a poorer section of town, but yet I wore $120 sneakers? Why was my mother always at work, even on the weekends, and never attended my lacrosse games? What was it exactly that required all those Advils when she came home from work? The notion of what a factory worker was and what they did for an hourly wage never crossed my mind until that moment.
Fifteen years later I feel both fondness and guilt when I think about my first, and last, summer at the factory. My 17-year-old self didn’t know it then, but I got my first glimpse into what sacrifice looks like when pursuing a better life for yourself, your family, or both. My coworkers and I all had different immediate reasons for being there but the same end goal. Mine at the time was to purchase a new car and save for college. Rohit wanted to finish his education and become an engineer. My mother’s was to protect me from the fact that we were poor and never leave me wanting. Our end goals were all the same. We were chasing our own version of the American Dream.