Made in China | 31 January 2016

Text: Psalm 19

Speaker: Ruth Leonard

On the ride to the airport I soak up the sky -the amazing clouds, the vast deep, brilliant blue. Before entering the terminal, I take my last deep breath of Columbus air. I won’t breathe it again until I return. Hours later the plane descends into a brown haze, I land in Beijing, and the sky is no more. Lest you think me overly dramatic, I’ve been doing this since 2003. I have only seen the pollution grow worse,—much worse.

The first time our family landed, we were aware of a smell—an acrid sensation we had never experienced. It permeated everything, but became much more pronounced when we arrived in Xinxiang. You got used to it. You accepted it. If the air cleared for some reason, everyone was happy. A day with blue skies was nearly a holiday. It was a faintish blue, but it offered a hopefulness. But that happened so infrequently I would note it down on my calendar. And we would take a photo.
Xinxiang is southwest of Beijing, about the same distance as Columbus is to Washington D.C. Before leaving the country after a semester of teaching I developed a routine. I would finish the last of the grading of final exams, then catch a train to Beijing. I’d stay a night at the apartment of our Mennonite Central Committee country representatives for fun, before happily leaving for the airport to return to Columbus. In our talks over dinner the conversation would always turn to the pollution. We had an odd little competition. They would always insist it was the worst in Beijing. I knew it was not.
A few years ago I used my iPad to take a video of the trip. When I boarded the train in Xinxiang, I could see perhaps 100 yards out the windows. As the train pulled out of town, the gray “fog” suffocating the city continued out over the fields—fields where wheat and corn were grown around small villages. Over hundreds of miles, it remained the same.  At the time of day when fog should lift and be burned off by the sun— if it were fog, it hung on. A brightish spot in the sky showed me the sun was up there, if very faintly.  Nine hours later, I pulled into Beijing. The grayness there actually was thinner.
Weirdly, proudly- I produced my evidence to my friends. They saw the video, and were shocked— it WAS worse in Xinxiang. Not so long ago the US Embassy in Beijing put up an electronic sign that posted numbers each day. The numbers showed the air quality. Nobody really knew what it meant but the numbers were high. Then the Chinese government put up a similar sign. However, the numbers never matched. These numbers were always lower.
I am often amused when I read articles about China when I am here. Even after all of the years I’ve spent there, I still do not know what I am seeing much of the time. Interpretations can often be misinterpretations. I don’t know what that gray stuff is. I am not sure where it comes from. I do know that coal is used—a lot of it. It is dumped in huge piles around the city. And I am very grateful for it. I know that means heat. I know there are factories around Xinxiang, but they are hidden in the gray. I am aware of a copper tubing factory, a steel plant, and a textile manufacturer. I have no idea where they are. When we first arrived in town we were told that we lived very near mountains. In three years, we never saw them.
We also wondered where the trees were. Mile after mile from Beijing to Xinxiang—no trees. If you did see a tree, it was by a village or in a town. There they might line a road, marching along perfectly spaced apart. There were no birds. Gradually I grew to know that if I heard a bird–I should look for a cage. Old men kept birds as pets. They would load their bikes with their cages and take them to the park to visit with other old men with cages. I know what Silent Spring sounds like. Flies and mosquitos, however, are plentiful. They thrive. And the smell. There is always the smell. It changes day to day. I suppose that it is coming from different kinds of factories. But I don’t really know.
The cycle was always the same. The skies would be faintly gray. Then it would become more dense. And more dense. And even more so. The colors of life became muted. It was always like looking through a gray veil. Walking across campus with thousands and thousands of students I’d see new car owners dusting off their vehicles with mops. The “dust” was deep. It was gray and like ash. Everything had dust on it-the leaves on bushes, the blades of grass. Many of the girls wore thin little cloth masks across their mouths. These came in an array of colors and patterns. They had English on them—”hungry”, “cool baby”, “I am fat”. They looked like panda faces. They were sold where “girls’ things “ were sold. Often they just hung from ears and covered chins, not mouths. They must have been useless in keeping out dirt. I never bothered.
The news here will show people with large medical-looking masks in Beijing. I never saw those. Traffic became a nightmare. A twenty minute bus ride became one or two hours long. When the “fog”, as it is always called, becomes that dense the traffic creeps. Slowly, slowly a car will go into an intersection and play chicken with the others approaching. The traffic lights become invisible. Police attempt to guide the cars to their lanes. And we cough. And cough. And many get the “flu”. I blow my nose and it is black. I lose my voice. But the elephant in the room, or perhaps the herd of elephants is not talked about. What would be the point? You just live.
After a week when you think it can’t possibly become worse, for some reason it breaks. Stars appear in the skies, and a day dawns faintly blue. Families air out the old folks in the parks and hang laundry up to dry on every landing and balcony and over bushes. Kids play noisily after school and everyone goes shopping and out to eat. And then it starts again. And nobody knows why.
Spring means winds. And the winds bring dirt. I first experienced this riding home on a bike. I saw people ahead of me suddenly stop and put a foot down, then cover their heads with whatever jacket they had on. I did the same, not knowing what was coming. THEN! It hit! A fury of wind and a sandstorm of particles that forced themselves right through every single layer of my clothing. When it let up, my mouth was full of grit, as were my nose, my eyes. Another Spring, I was teaching downtown on the 7th floor. I looked out the window- suddenly an approaching towering brown cloud engulfed everything—the 35 story buildings and all below just disappeared. I was slow to comprehend what I was seeing. However, a parent knew. She jumped up and slammed the windows closed just before our building was hit by the roaring cloud of dirt. Then I remembered I had left MY apartment windows open. That was a mistake. I returned to find an inch of dirt on every surface. Erosion is painful.
MCC originally sent us to this place because we could teach kids from the countryside, peasants, as they called themselves. They came from throughout Henan Province, and other neighboring provinces. The vast majority of them were pretty poor. They were the first of their families to attend college. And by learning English, they would be able to compete. These first students knew what it was like to be hungry.  One of them, Zhao Feng, the young man that many of you have met, came from a village along the Yellow River. We grew to love that village, and his family. It was like going camping in a way for us. It was dirty and hot in the summer, and dirty and freezing in the winter. But his family and friends took us in as jia ren—family. Feng remembers his mother giving one hard boiled egg to his Dad for lunch. His father would ride 8 miles to work on a bike. He would eat the white of the egg for lunch, and at the end of the day bring the yolk to little Feng. I heard many such stories.
Now, young people have left those villages to do business in cities, to build new cities, and to make things in the many factories. Everywhere buildings 35 stories tall have replaced old ones in towns like Xinxiang. These buildings go up quickly, but they start looking old and weathered within three years.
Xinxiang now feels like New York City—but the traffic is worse.  There is mass transit to be sure— taxis, busses, trains and fast trains, But it is the cars that have overtaken everywhere. 10 years ago we only saw black government cars, and most people rode bikes. Then came some very expensive cars owned by the wealthy—Audis, BMWs. “Normal” cars began to appear in vast profusion in the last four years. A Ford is a common sight. High school kids ride bikes, but few others. Feng now lives in a very fancy apartment/home on the 22nd floor overlooking downtown Xinxiang. It is so clean and shiny and has two bathrooms that are indoors and warm! He can shower every day if he likes! What unimaginable luxury, undreamed of a few short years ago!  And this is the norm, not the exception. I am quite sure most of my former students live this way, or aspire to.
Everywhere everyone is buying, buying, buying. The consumption makes the atmosphere feel like Christmastime here. Night markets line all of the streets and there are at least 5 shopping malls with movie theaters. There is a vast market for cheaply made things in China-clothes, shoes,toys, phones, electronics. The goods we see marked “Made In China” are often not available there, or if they are they’re very expensive. That is why when Chinese students come here they shop for the “real” Nike and Apple products. Companies we think of as American are not thought of that way there. I overheard a student asking another “does the K in KFC stand for Korea?” I was asked “do you have Coca Cola in your country? I tell a proud Ford owner that I live near where Henry Ford first built his cars, and there is a blank stare—a  total lack of comprehension.
In Zhengzhou, the capital city of my province and only 15 minutes away by fast train, there is a Foxcon plant. iPhones are made there. There are 120,000 workers in that plant. A few years ago I had happy college students who were going to work there over the Chinese New Year festival. They were giddy–they would only “have” to stay in their cold homes in villages for a few days with family. Then they could work a month in the warm factory and make 3000 yuan, good money for unskilled workers! I love my iPhone and iPad. I would text and Skype with my sons and husband and parents daily and stay connected half a world away. That is astonishing. But there is no doubt in my mind that the making of stuff comes at a terrible cost. I have spoken of the air. I have not spoken of the rivers. They are unspeakably foul.
The rush to modernize has come at a terrible cost to the environment. Here, on the news I hear anger that China has taken jobs away from Americans. I hear anger at the people and I am frustrated because I know people at the other end. And I know that with jobs there and newfound money and unsatiated consumerism  comes an environment that will shorten my friend’s lives. The jobs were given to them because they would work for cheap. If they were paid little then I would be able to buy amazing products that are clean and beautiful. But making them has used coal which has fouled the air, just not MY air.  I have experienced how we—Americans and Chinese— are all tangled in a web together of buying and selling and making and trashing and I’ve seen that all of our choices have consequences.
Students that I have helped visit America are wealthy. Only the wealthy can get visas from our government. Their parents came from villages, created companies, made wealth, and their children are living the “Chinese Dream”. This take-off on the American dream was a chapter in a book I was given to use in the university. It is quite a status symbol for them to send their kids abroad. The kids take photos of the blue skies of Columbus with its puffy white clouds and share them with their parents as we would share photos of mountains or the ocean. One of the wealthy factory owners of Xinxiang moved his wife and daughter to southern China so that they would be in a better environment. He commutes the thousand miles every week by fast train to oversee operations. After little Monica and her Mom visited Columbus, Monica’s mother worried that they had not moved far enough away.
Recently one of my students’ families drove me in their new van to the mountains outside of Xinxiang for a picnic and to hike in “the nature.” We climbed up the many, many properly dangerous steps to the very top of the mountain. What I viewed then amazed me- looking down, I saw that the other side of the mountain was being mined and crushed into cement in a huge factory!
In autumn, on top of the normal “fog”, farmers burn off their corn stalks after the harvests, then they immediately plant wheat.  This burning is strictly against the law. But everyone knows the police do not enforce the law at night. All across the province there are bonfires in the fields. My small school is on the 19th floor of an apartment building. 150 kids from 3 to middle school come there in the evenings and on the weekends to learn English. A year ago the smoke and “fog” was the worst I have ever experienced. One night around 3 am I woke myself gasping for breath.  A smoky, chemical smell fouled the air. I am tough, but at that moment I knew my body — not my mind—was saying, “ This is it. No more”.
The next day, I rode out to a nearby village to go on a field trip to an aviary and small zoo with a Montessori nursery school. I love those little kids! They are the sweetest, most fun-loving children I have ever taught. We set off in two hired buses. All of the kids had on matching school sweatshirts! It was a holiday! The local tv film crew filmed my every movement! The kids were so happy! But as I looked out the window, all I could see for miles was gray and tree upon tree coated in cement dust—it hung in the air. I was taking a field trip into Armageddon! And the aviary astonishingly was built just on the OTHER side of a huge cement factory! I looked up— there was the back side of that mountain I had climbed being crushed into building supplies!!! It was THAT cement factory!  The kids held my hands. We fed ducks. We ALL breathed that air. Nobody spoke of it. Why would you? It just is.
Last December you may have seen the Beijing smog in the news. The government closed down schools for a few days. They told people to stay indoors. But I know that is useless. Chinese live outdoors much of the time. And when inside, windows are opened to get “fresh” air. These days had a red alert.
I began to research those numbers that were on the signs in Beijing. They were charting  the Air Quality Index, the aqi. It is a simple thing now to search the aqi of any city in the world. But I never saw this online while I lived in China, and I’m glad I did not. I regularly search Xinxiang, Beijing, and Columbus for comparison now. The numbers are a scale from 0 to 500. 0 to 50 is what you want to be living in, 100 is acceptable. Over 300 is hazardous—prepare to die. On the day Beijing called for a red alert in December, Beijing was at 349, a terrible number. Hazardous indeed. But Xinxiang? It was at 616! I torture myself a bit by charting these numbers, but now I can see scientifically what I was experiencing. On this past Christmas Eve, Zhao Feng sent me a photo taken from his fancy apartment, the photo on the bulletin. He wrote— “White Christmas. Horrible”. That night the air quality index in Xinxiang was at 962. Columbus, btw was at 3! 
On my last Friday night in Xinxiang I fell asleep listening to Rachel Maddow telling me that the president would be coming to Beijing on Monday for a Pacific Rim countries meeting. Many leaders would be there. The weekend was grim and horribly gray. But early Monday a light woke me. I blinked, not knowing what it was. I slowly opened my eyes. It was the SUN. And the sky was Blue. Cautiously, optimistically, I looked out over the countryside from the fast train windows all the way to Beijing. The sky was bright. People were happy! In Beijing banners announcing the conference lined every street to the airport. The presidents would be able to breathe, and for one week, the locals- all the way out to Xinxiang would, too. When you hear that Beijing shuts down factories to clear the air- understand that it is the entire manufacturing system that needs to shut for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
Why tell you any of this? What’s the point? I know that improvements are being attempted. I know that most of those new apartment owners in high rise apartments in Xinxiang where the sun rarely shines own solar panels to heat their water!  I know that the buses and taxis were converted to use natural gas.  I know trees are being planted in swaths along all of the new highways. I know that President Xi Jin Ping has signed commitments to reduce carbon emissions. But the problem is monumental. Its not an us versus them problem. We certainly consume what is produced in China. And so, we are all involved.
I was made in America. My friends were made in China. Whenever I pick up an item with those words inscribed on it, I am forced to think of all I have experienced. It would be easier not to know. But I DO know. And I know that there is a great injustice that I can get on an airplane and leave.  I am also well aware of the carbon emissions in getting there on that plane. In my defense I can say I do use mass transit once in China.
I want my friends to experience God’s good earth. I want my friends to see the sun in a brilliant blue sky and feel God is revealing His glory! But that Psalm (Psalm 19: 1-6) was meaningless to me there. When I was little, my parents would say, “Eat all of your food there are starving children in China.” How could I have known then, that I would grow up to call many of them “friend?” So I give you something new to teach your children, and to remember yourselves. “BREATHE the good clean Columbus air! Fill your lungs and be thankful to God! Take the time to soak up the amazing colors of the Columbus sky, and remember them! Listen to the birds! Be mindful of what you think you need, versus what you want, being made far away. And think of my friends. I am convinced God loves us all equally. Support those who are trying to make a difference and make a cleaner world. There is a lot of work to be done.

This past October (2015) on a particularly brilliant day in Columbus I wrote “The skies are a brilliant blue, the leaves like so many festively wrapped gifts under the tree. But the gifts ARE the trees! Fiery oranges, coppers, yellows–it makes me almost tear up with joy. It certainly makes me smile from down in my soul all the way up to my lips and eyes. Last year I was immersed in gray.”