Take a Deep Breath: We’re All to Blame

Wuhan’s mysterious ‘yellow haze’

As a Sinophile and someone who has spent five of the past fifteen years living in China, it is deeply disheartening to read news stories like this one reporting on the mysterious ‘yellow haze’ that descended on the city of Wuhan last week. Seems to me that this unbelievable chemical haze is not caused by the burning of straw as the Chinese government asserts (besides, who would believe the same Chinese government who is telling the U.S. to stop tweeting about the unbearable pollution levels in Beijing?).

A polluted river in the Zhejiang countryside near Baba’s hometown of Cen Cang Yan

Years ago, while on a Fulbright fellowship to China, I visited Cen Cang Yan Village in Zhejiang province, the hometown of my Chinese home stay father (who I call ‘Baba’). As Baba had told me many stories about the beautiful countryside where he grew up, I was appalled to visit an area that was an environmental abomination. Rivers were flooded with plastic waste and sewage. Mountainsides had been completely blasted away by competing construction companies who were mining for stone. The marshland itself was filled in with rocks and sand (taken from said nearby mountains) and row after row of chemical factories clouded the air with noxious gray, black, and yellow gases. (I have since learned that major pharmaceuticals and chemical producers have factories in this area; nearby Shangyu City alone is home to over a thousand umbrella manufacturing plants—yes, that’s right, Shangyu is the world’s umbrella making center.)

Zhejiang chemical factories (I’m proud to say I snapped this shot while sitting in the back of an open truck bed)

Baba’s relatives informed me that the chemical factories make everything from everyday drugs to fertilizers. They are mostly products made for foreign companies. Ever since they have been constructed, the air around Shangyu and Cen Cang Yan has smelled terribly. Even if you wanted to work at the factories, they say, you can only accept a three year contract and then you are let go (I never learned from them the reasoning for this contractual work).

We visited my Chinese father’s family grave site, which was situated on a hillside next to a coal burning plant. Black sludge seeped into the road and collected in an unlined pit next to a field where children played. That night, we were served apples to eat from local fields—the fruit tasted like it had been seeped in acetone and I had to surreptitiously spit it  into my hands under the dinner table. Men and women from this region had bizarrely bulbous fingers and wrists. Cancer rates, I was told by my Chinese father’s uncle, had skyrocketed in the last decade.

The sludge near Baba’s family’s gravesites

But, returning to the U.S., I was shocked when I was shopping with a friend who works in the fashion industry who, when I told her about the pollution in China, responded incredulously, ‘What? Really? I didn’t know that.’ She regularly purchased and sold clothing made in China. She thought China, like in its historical shan-shui paintings, was a beautiful place with green mountains and blue rivers.

It is easy to turn one’s back on the ramifications of our everyday practices. We are only here on this earth for such a short time and none of us truly understands the reasons for our existence here (if someone does have an answer, please post it below as it would help alleviate my constant existential angst – ha!).

So much for China’s shan-shui paintings: This is a mountain carved in half to fill in the marshes on which to build the factories in which to make chemicals to ship abroad to sell to eager consumers (sounds like a sick children’s rhyme)

Yet I hope that we understand how we are inextricably tied to our choices and their consequences (as evidenced by this article on the Sustainability Index of superpowers and emerging nations). The pollution hovering in a yellow haze over Wuhan City can very quickly and easily catch a ride on the jet stream to land in Colorado rivers or on British fields. Furthermore, it is likely produced by the factories making the chemical compound in your daily Advil or the glues holding together your newest pair of Nikes.

I am constantly struggling to walk the line between living in a capitalistic/consumer culture and understanding that each act of consumption comes with widespread and lasting consequences. I wish I had an answer for the proper way to live without being a hermit on Cold Mountain. As Han Shan reminds us:

The people I see in this world
walk dazed in the dust of the road
they don’t know where they are
or how to find the ford
their bloom lasts how many days
their loved ones aren’t close long
even if I had a ton of gold
I’d rather be poor in the woods

For more on China’s environmental collapse, I highly suggest reading Elizabeth Economy’s book The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future.

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About Kaitlin Solimine

Kaitlin Solimine was raised in New Hampshire but has considered China a second home for the past two decades. She is the author of the award-winning forthcoming novel Empire of Glass and co-founder of Hippo Reads, a media start-up connecting academic insights with real world issues. She lives in Singapore.
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