Cloth and Clothing, Steel Rods and Steel Sheets

Half a continent away, in the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho, Mrs. Shen is having a bad day. Her husband is sitting in the air-conditioned office of their factory, pretending to work but in reality just whiling the hours away on his smartphone. Meanwhile, Mrs. Shen has been working nonstop on the factory floor, which has no air-conditioning and is hot from absorbing the southern African summer sun through its metal roof.

The only reason Mrs. Shen softens toward me is that my mother is from Shanghai, which is her hometown as well. Upon learning this, Mrs. Shen switches from her somewhat stilted Mandarin to a rapid stream of Shanghai dialect. I have to explain apologetically that because ...

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