In watching American Factory, the documentary selected by the Obamas for their new production deal with Netflix, I felt multiple ripples of familiarity. The movie followed the workers and managers in a shuttered General Motors plant in Ohio as it was re-opened into a Chinese-owned glass factory. The setting in the industrial Midwest is similar to where I grew up: on the west side of Indianapolis, in a blue-collar community dominated by an automotive transmission plant that fed General Motors.
The workers in the movie reminded me of my classmates’ parents: hard-working factory workers and truck drivers just able to afford a middle-class life for their families — that is, until the 2008 financial crisis hit. And the Chinese mid-level factory managers in the movie reminded me of my own family: Chinese immigrants attempting to make sense of how to work, how to communicate, and how to live in a place so different from where they came. They approach America and Americans with turns of optimism and frustration, wonder and incredulity, marvel and resignation.
But perhaps the most surprising way in which American Factory echoed with my past is how similar these scenes playing out in America are to those I’ve seen in Africa. Some Chinese-owned factories in Africa are similarly large-scale and technologically advanced, and no matter the size of the factory, I witnessed many of the same struggles to find cross-cultural understanding, to teach workers genuinely difficult skills, and to withstand the pressure of a highly competitive, global industry.
Read the full story, "Netflix’s “American Factory” and the New Geography of Manufacturing," at www.hbr.org.