To the Smoggiest and the Sootiest
(still in) Jiangmen, China
July 4, 2011
Is it a love poem to Los Angeles? Well, perhaps it could be, but as far as smog goes…China currently wins the undesirable prize! Sure the U.S. has its pollution problems, indeed many, but I do know that when I’m in Los Angeles, the smog does not take away a blue sky (dull blue perhaps yes), nor do I feel like I can reach out and grab the sooty cloud. In L.A., you may be aware that the air isn’t so clean, but you can’t physically see it unless you’re out of the city looking in (mmm…the line of haze) or if you’re talking about the black soot that collects on backyard furtiture…also pretty alarming. But here,well, the Chinese (with help from the U.S. of course…when was the last time you bought something NOT made in China?? ha) have taken it to a new level! You really see the smogularity…it’s all around, even at night the headlights pick up the pollution particles! Smog soup! Ahh… I see “Progress’s” hazy offspring: SMOOOOOGY! Filthy, grimy, tangible grains of that toxic stuff entering your ears, eyes, mouth, and nose all day long… would ya like a taste? I get it for free! Or at the cost of convenience and a sprawling “global” marketplace I suppose.
I realize you can only do so much to tread lightly (and really the earth will indeed have the last laugh: a la George Carlin: “The Earth is fine. The people are fucked!”)…but when your environment is seriously detrimental to your health and wellbeing, me thinks there is a problem. When I first arrived in China, I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing…people actually live in this?! But don’t they realize they are walking in a polluted cloud?! So this is what fast-forward, mass-population development looks like! Alright! Sometimes the smog is so thick I feel like I should be doing freestyle (“frontcrawl” for you british folk) through it. The stuff is so noticeable it has its own distinctive personality. Some days the sun blasts through and shows blue sky but mostly the smog is visibly there: Some days it keeps to itself, stretching out endlessly like a giant white-gray mat, sometimes it hovers above like a depressing Eeyore cloud and other times it invasively engulfs. It’s almost impressive how unapologetically gray the sky can be. Climb to the top of a mountain and you’ll see only a white sky: oh! look at the view? there’s some trees aaand…um…i think there’s a mountain over there? the horizon is invisible, the landscape a mystery. What is out there?! Factories? People just trying to live? Yep.
I’ve heard the smog described as “fuzzy” (pet the air?) and even “abusive” which I can now attest to, especially when I’m not in a good mood! I also read a story of a New Zealander who came to visit China and was subsequently hospitalized with lung problems, oy. Luckily(??) life in L.A. has well-prepared my once pink lungs, but there are times when I just cough, shake my head and wonder what in the hell I am doing here. But no matter, for now, wherever I roam, the smog hovers there, like an old, loyal, chemical-enshrouded friend. Unfortunately this rat race for more, more, more! faster, faster, faster! still eagerly continues from what I can see. I do hope and believe this next generation is going to make some big changes and I’m hoping to take a small bit of involvement in education. I already know some of the Jr. High kids are interested in environmentalism and learning how they can help, so next year, I’m going to start a Roots and Shoots (check out the site!) group at the school and can’t wait to put some sustainable ideas into action!
I’ve adjusted and accepted the gray to some extent and cherish those days after a big rain when the true blue sky says hello after a long absence. “Allergies”seem to be increasing. My host brother and I swap stuffy noses, and sore throats. “Has it always been like this…have you ever known anything different? when did this happen? ” “No,I remember when i was a child i could see the stars at night…so many stars!” “And the sky? ” “Yes! yes! It was blue! But now….” “Oh, you mean that gray, smoky haze we’re sitting in….” Even the other day when I excitedly commented to my student that the sky was blue he sadly responded “yes, but you can never see the stars at night.” People do remember what it was like…now the key is getting them to want to help change what’s happening!
But currently, people just bundle themselves up against the smog with scarves, masks, gloves, goggles…it’s like a little protective fashion statement. The masks even come in an array of designs, my favorite being the ones that make you look like you have a monster face, or giant smile hahaha). But I will say that it is odd to me that while people obviously don’t like the smog and do what they can to protect themselves (besides protective gear, the Chinese are also fantastic for planting trees in any available space which definitely makes some areas more tolerable) they mostly all still hop in their cars and on motorcycles to get around! The shortest distances too! It seems to be that if you can afford a car or motorcylce, you have one. The city is dead flat too, and really it’s a tiny place. Where have all the bicycles gone?! Ahh, the costs of convenience. I know industry is the main contributor here, but the hoards of motors purring and exhaust pipes spewing on daily basis is mind-boggling. There area lot of people in China..and it all adds up…that cloud at street level could definitely be reduced.
After riding around on my bike all day, my throat gets sore, my eyes, squinting and stinging，get sooty fragments blown into them and I’m constantly cursing the mass of motors. Damn… I really need to get one of those masks! Then I will officially be a local. I’ve already adopted the sun umbrella on occasion and you should see my awesome bicycle raincoat. If the pollution don’t kill ya, the sun is sure to scorch ya and cook ya well done! My brother, knowing I was going to China, actually gave me a gas mask as a joke but I often wish i had it! Insane. My boogers aren’t completely black so i feel like there’s a little room before complete toxic-smog takeover begins, ha.
China has such a long, amazing history, I find it sad that you can’t come to China now and NOT talk about its cloud of pollution. I hate the thought of smog ruining any part of the world, but to live in the extreme of it really makes you step back…or step inside a filtrated room, with 20 house plants, to grab a breath of fresh air and throw up your arms between coughs to say: outrage! Let’s change this! I hope that once China sets their sights on sustainability, they will go to it with the same enthusiasm they are giving to capitalism! How the heck did i end up here anyway? haha For now I’m hoping for a big rain and some strong winds: ahh, the cleaning broom of mother nature.