Who has never read the label on something just bought, or has not turned over that trinket just given them and seen ‘Made in China’ discreetly placed somewhere on that item? Surely you’re aware that China is known as The World’s Factory; indeed China ranks first in the world for exported goods. There are lots of factories and lots of hole in the wall shops that produce goods. From Lenovo computers to the Apple I-Phone, all are made in China.
What of industrial waste and the environmental concerns, amidst all of this production? In this respect, China lags far behind. Its waterways are polluted and the air is actually considered toxic in some areas of the country. Many suffer from chronic lung distress and several communities develop virulent cancers at an alarming rate. There is a dawning awareness of these conditions and the connection between sickness and industry. The Chinese government is trying to clean things up and regulate pollution emitters as we speak.
I was aware of this when I decided to live here. One of the reasons I wanted to be here is because I had partaken of Environmental Safety and Health education when it was made available to me. I want to help clean things up here. Dredging rivers, picking up litter, educating the young… it is all part of my plan.
Of course, such a lifestyle starts at home. I make it a point to separate my recyclables and organic waste from regular trash. The campus makes no such distinction: trash disposal is done by depositing your combined waste into these nifty little huts. Every other day or so, someone comes by with a wheeled container with boxed sides and a shovel and shovels everything into the box. It is then taken to an area just off campus where it is spread over the ground. Recyclable materials are culled out and everything else is burned.
Recycling is the one thing that the Chinese are on board with. It is such a profitable venture that, at any trash collection area you will find people picking through the trash to fish out any plastic they can find. Usually these people are elderly and desperately poor; I think they actually make their living picking through the trash. It breaks my heart.
When I see someone (usually a woman) picking through our little trash hut just outside the dorm I always give her my recyclables. It is kind of a ballet: as I walk by the poor woman is startled out of the trash area by the noise. When she sees me she averts her eyes, but nods when I tell her to wait for me. I rush to my apartment where the recyclables are neatly stacked up and bagged by the front door. I then go and hand them to her. Only then will she meet my eyes, while clasping her hands together and pressing them to her forehead (a sign of respect in China). She thanks me profusely.
What is she thanking me for? My recyclables? The fact that I hand them to her rather than make her dig through the trash for them? The fact that I speak with her, smile at her, thank her for her efforts, treat her with respect?
I’ll tell you the truth: it hurts my heart to see the elderly dig through the trash. It hurts me to know that their life consists of digging through other people’s refuse. It hurts me to see them ignored or mocked by the younger generation who do not seem to realize that it could be their mother or father hoping for a nice, clean haul out of the trash pile. It hurts me to know that, although this country is doing its best to mend its polluting ways, the indigent elderly are the ones in the trenches, picking up every little thing.
The other day, while out walking I saw an old woman hold out her hand to a young man for the empty water bottle he was getting ready to throw away. He laughed at her and threw it on the ground. She looked after him, her expression inscrutable. I can only imagine the humiliation and impotent rage she must have felt. I was shocked beyond words at his callousness – not that I have that many Chinese words at my disposal to begin with.
But if I did… what could I have said to him? I wanted to shame him like he shamed her. But then I figured: he couldn’t have a sense of shame to begin with. If he did, he would not have treated that poor woman like that.