The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop

Car Parts_Final

The Factory

by Mandy Bao-Phuong Lam


We awaken before the sun is up because her day starts much earlier than mine. Today, I am being taken to my mother’s workplace to experience a full day of work for the first time. My friends will be sitting in air-conditioned offices and lively storefronts to help their parents. But not me—no—I am going right to the front lines of the car parts factory that my mother goes to every day.

My mother is already dressed, pants pressed and shirt tucked. She is downstairs filling her lunch container with steamed white rice, some preserved Chinese sausage, and a side of veggies leftover from yesterday’s dinner. 

She is fast and efficient, and growing more annoyed with me by the minute as I drag my feet.

I hurry down the stairs and we hop into the Mazda MPV that makes whirring sounds when it shouldn’t. Her focus is on the road ahead, making sure she arrives at work on time, in order to park in her special parking spot—by the back door of the factory so that she can leave the barracks easily at the end of the day to go home. 

We park to the side of the building but enter through the front. I am a special guest, she says, so I must sign in with the office. She leaves me to get into uniform and I am given my own uniform— blue overcoat, steel-toed shoes, safety glasses and a hard hat. I am my mother’s younger self, just a trainee and not quite high enough in the ranks to get a uniform adorned with an embroidered name badge.

A buzzer goes off in the distance and my mother hurries me onto the factory floor. I am immediately assaulted by the sounds of the big machines hissing and stomping, whirring and squealing. My mother maneuvers across the floor with ease, leading the way as I follow behind, holding on to my hat and asking questions about the schedule for the day. 

At her station, she finds me a hard plastic chair and places it behind her in the farthest corner. Her station includes three large machines that form a “U” around a central worker. Each machine has a function—one cuts, one measures, one buffs—two thousand per day. My mother takes her place in the middle of these machines and when she turns them on, my senses are immediately assaulted again. The pungent smell of gasoline and metals infuse my nostrils and cause my eyes to water. 

At lunch, mother takes me to the locker room and when she opens her locker, I see the pictures that have been missing from the family albums, hanging all over the inside of the door. I am shocked, and equally embarrassed, that there are so many pictures of myself and my siblings, ranging from when we were toddlers until our current teenage years. 

I wonder why she has these photos in her locker when she sees us every day.

When she takes out her lunch bag, I am surprised to see that she has not packed me lunch. Instead, she treats me to a can of Chunky soup from the food truck at the back of the factory. We head back into the lunch room where my mother heats up her rice. I am overcome with gratitude for the treat, but also with tremendous guilt that my mother, yet again, is not eating the same meal with me.

When lunch is over, the buzzer goes off and we are back onto the factory floor. I watch my mother as she operates the big machines while I sit eight feet away, completely protected in gear. I notice that her blue uniform is adorned with floral patterns of oil and dirt. Her hair, burnt and dried from her home-perm, is hidden underneath the hard hat. And her hands, which often enjoy the weight of a pen, are covered with gloves that are far too big for her child-sized hands. 

She stands, with her back to me, like a soldier, stiff and at attention, guarding me from the fumes and oils of these big machines. This has been her post for the past ten years and it dawns on me then that those photos in her locker, are simply her reminders why.

What I learn on this day, at this dirty car parts factory, books could never teach me.