Reflections of an Environmental Refugee

c Xianyi Shen http://bit.ly/1JP258v

c Xianyi Shen
http://bit.ly/1JP258v

Most of my days in my twenties were spent alone writing in a rented one bedroom apartment on 15th floor in Beijing’s Wudaokou District. Fast and furious, I wrote on a first generation PC which only had one function – Chinese typing software for Word. This workaholic life continued until one morning my mother called me requesting that I return home immediately: ‘Your father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the final stage of throat cancer.’

With the guilt of not having made a visit to my parents in a number of years, I instantly stopped everything in Beijing and flew back to Zhejiang, which now had a brand new airport near my hometown. In terms of the Confucian tradition, I was not a good daughter. Fulfilling filial duty had not really been the focus of my attention for a long time. At that time, I thought the demands of being a dutiful daughter were purely an ideological tool for suppression of women. (Years later when I read English feminist writer Juliet Mitchell‘s Women’s Estate, I thought how accurate had been here analysis that the patriarchal family order created women as secondary people.) No wonder her work was not promoted in China! But setting aside all these reservations born from my political stance, I decided to give in to my mother’s request. My father was the only person in my family I respected. Not because he was my father but because his artistic spirit was something I valued and had modeled my own artistic life on. So I left Beijing, taking all my film script work and unfinished novels with me. When I finally got to the hospital in my hometown, I saw my mother’s darting, sometimes, frantic blood shot eyes and my brother’s sallow, depressed face. I knew the situation was bad. That night, my father went through a seven hour operation – because of the spread of the cancer cells to his neck and lymph nodes, they had to remove his larynx entirely. We stayed outside of the operation room, weary and on edge, waiting for what felt like a delayed death sentence. Next morning, when my father woke up, it became apparent to both us and him that he would not be able to speak again. This was a shocking reality, as bad as his not being able to swallow water or to urinate or engage in the simplest physical tasks. He lay on his bed, staring blankly at the food tube fed through his nose and into his stomach.

My father lay on his hospital bed for three weeks. He shared his room with four other patients. During that time we saw two cancer patients die in front of us. The nurses came to remove their bodies, while the remaining family members cried in their devastation. One of the patients who died was a very young girl. She was only 12 and she had had neck cancer. She died two days after her operation. This case especially shook my father, who always believed that the mind was stronger than the physical body. He thought a body would follow the will of a mind which would prevail through any condition of physical weakness, something very much in line with Mao Zedong’s way of thinking. But the cancer ward taught him a heavy lesson. Mind is powerless when it comes to a certain illness.

My mother tried everything to improve my father’s health. Apart from the mix of western pills and traditional herbal medicines, she regularly brought him a turtle to consume, to improve his nutrition. Chinese believe that turtles are long-lived creatures and there are some organic materials in their bodies that can enhance a human body’s strength. First she cooked a turtle soup for a long time with all sorts of herbs. After my father drank the soup she would then take the turtle shell to make plastrons. He would eat the shell powder. I didn’t know if that way of eating worked for his illness. But with all the radiotherapy he did later on and the western medication, he nevertheless survived for another thirteen years.

During the days we stayed in the cancer ward, we were quite troubled by seeing so many new cancer patients being carried into the hospital and dying on their beds. The wards were full, the new patients had to sleep on makeshift beds in the corridors as well as the narrow space in between the staircases. Nurses and doctors were bombarded by demands from the patients and their families. The invalids puked, coughed, and howled, seemingly, at every possible moment. The place was like a hell on earth. There was no human dignity in a Chinese hospital like this one we stayed. Zhejiang was a fast developing industrial province with many large-scale factories, there had been lots of talk about water and soil pollution, that the factories released chemical waste into the rivers. But no one could really conduct a thorough investigation provide clear evidence of the links between heavy pollution and bad effects on human health. All the big factories were state backed. For example, many women and young kids who had never smoked, nevertheless died of lung cancer. Why was that? Some doctor theorized that airborne particles known as PM2.5 (meaning they are 2.5 micrometers or smaller) contributed to many death cases of the lung cancer patients. When inhaled, these tiny and often toxic particles would pass through lung membranes and enter the bloodstream. While they didn’t always cause cancer, they were a ubiquitous byproduct of burning coal. But in China, PM2.5 has become a part of life.

Another time I read a report from the World health Organization. It said there were 13 million Chinese people dying from cancer each year and this number was rising. According to this figure, if there were 55 million people in my province, then, one could expect that about 500,000 people were dying of cancer each year. During the last two decades, there were many ‘cancer villages’ and ‘HIV villages’ appearing in China. It said in those villages every family had someone who died of cancer or blood infection. And these cases were directly linked to environmental issues. Now even the Beijing government was quite alert about the problem. They released a report recently saying more than 70 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes had been polluted. This made me wonder, if that was admitted by the Chinese government through official channels, then what would the percentage be according to independent organizations like NGOs or the World Health Organization? You wouldn’t want to hear the real facts. Was that the reason we Chinese only drank boiled water?

My father’s cancer was the catalyst for my thinking about the fragility of human health in relation to our environment and for an increasing sense of foreboding, indeed, gloom, in particular, about China. I saw my earlier life in Beijing, frantically living within an urban system out of control, trying to meet writing deadlines, running from computer to another job and back again, always catapulting myself into the next project, but all the time surviving with a kind of tunnel vision. My life was run through with this desire for personal achievement at any cost. The phrase rings through my mind, at any cost, which sums up so much of what China is about. My costs were personal but also political. China in the last 60 years has been driven to national goals, at any cost. The cost was becoming more and more apparent. Cancer is eating up the population, even as another industrial park is built, or power station constructed.

My mother died of terminal stomach cancer just a year after my father finally succumbed to cancer. I didn’t know how much her condition was the result of environmental contamination, or perhaps it was just widow’s cancer. But I know she had been suffering from the condition for a while and that the doctor’s had misdiagnosed her ailment—they had given her pills for a heart condition rather than for stomach cancer. After both my parents died, I felt I was indeed an environmental refugee living in western Europe. Is the rain in Spain the same rain as the rain that falls on the Huabei plain in Northern China? Is the snow that falls on a Beijing roof the same that falls on top of the People’s Palace in Warsaw? If so, there are no more places for environmental refugees. It’s the same water system on this planet Earth.

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