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.

Postcards from the Baltic Sea

  1. The Palace of Culture

Before heading towards the Baltic Sea, I have to stop in Warsaw and stay in one of those over heated small hotel rooms which stink of smoke. Well, each time I visit Poland, I get a mixed sense of desolation and nostalgia. Even though this time I come here for the Weather Station’s project to do with the issues of climate change, still, I feel I am a cultural tourist – wandering in those foreign streets reminiscent of some old Polish films I watched when I was in China.  From a historical point of view, one can say Poland is a sorrowful land, that gives an impression like the solemn landscape of Siberia seen through a Dostoevsky novel. As a Chinese growing up in a communist house, we had some interesting ideological connections with East European countries. Bolesław Bierut’s name is still mentioned a lot in post-Mao era China. As I walk along some stately broad street in the center of Warsaw, I feel I am back again in Beijing, passing through a gigantic brutalist urban space, trying to find somewhere agreeable to sit and think. Actually, the more I walk around Warsaw, the more the city resembles for me Harbin – the northern capital of Chinese Manchuria. Harbin has this particular style of architecture that shows up in Warsaw: a mix of classical European mansions and brutalist socialist buildings.

The Palace of Cultural and Science was the place where I screened my film UFO In Her Eyes some years ago. I thought it was a perfect place (a gift from Soviet Union) to screen a film about totalitarianism. The building itself reminds me of my mother. For about twenty years, my mother worked in the Cultural Palace of our hometown Wenling in South East China. The Cultural Palace of my hometown was not as grand as the one here, but its function and its style were very similar – serve the people with well intentioned entertainment. And my mother was proud of her job, until one day the building was torn down along with other socialist buildings in my hometown. For some nostalgic reason, I do hope this grand building survives in Poland, not only symbolically, but also pragmatically, despite its complex ideological background.

  1. Czesław Miłosz

Last night I was drinking with some obscure Polish artists in Café Amatorska, discussing the gloomy future of our planet. ‘Stop worrying! Humans will die, but the planet is not going to die! That will be the scenario. It’s a good scenario as far as other species concerned.’ They told me in Vodka infused loud voices: ‘Human species are over-rated! The most selfish species should have been wiped out long ago’. Obviously this bunch of Poles was not Christians. ‘You know what’s the most ecological way to live?’ A painter stared at me earnestly: ‘It’s this: we humans must stop giving birth. So the most destructive species can eventually die out. Charge me with the crime of Against Humanity? Oh yes, please!’ He concluded bitterly. Perhaps they were right, and were more absolute than me. The night continued with sarcasm. But I have never been a good drinker, nor do I like to indulge in fantasies of an apocalyptic world. So I left early with a headache.

This morning, on a train to the Baltic Sea, I am clear-headed, and want to write again. I enter the dinning car, ordering a bowl of Zurek – Sour Soup – meanwhile reading a book from Czesław Miłosz. Is there any connection between this sour soup and Milosz? There must be. Both are great stuff. Sour soup is one of my favourite Polish dishes. The thick broth comes with a boiled egg and sausages, a hearty thing to eat in the cold weather. Miłosz, the exiled poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, was someone whose poetry I loved reading when I was still writing poems in Beijing. He was hugely important in China with his books – especially ‘The Captive Mind’ and ‘Miłosz’s Alphabet’. Exiled in France then in the USA for 30 years, his writings examined the moral and psychological pressures of life under a totalitarian regime. In that respect, Milosz is similar to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except the latter went through a much harder life in Stalin’s gulags. I, naturally, feel akin to these writers, especially when they talk about the dilemma of the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, and the alienation of living in the western ‘free’ world. Even though Miłosz had a good professorial position in California, he still referred to himself as ‘The Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue’. He returned to Poland after decades of life in the west and died in Kraków at the age of 93.  Some of best lines from Milosz in my opinions are these:

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

 

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

I close the book, thinking back to the conversation we had in Café Amatorska last night about the end of the world. Yes, no one believes it is happening now, as long as the sun and the moon are above.

  1. Gdańsk

It’s a three hour train ride from Warsaw to Gdańsk. I pass the grey yellow plains of April. Ah, northern landscape, I sigh. How ironic that a southern person like me has ended up in the north. All my adult life seems to be about living in the cold and big northern cities: Beijing, London, Berlin, Zurich. And how I dream everyday about returning to a warm and lush semi tropical land. I miss the heat and those big leaves and smelly flowers. In my eyes, those small-leaved northern trees are never as beautiful as the big-leaved tropical plants. But probably there are fewer and fewer big leaved plants surviving in my tropical land. This is not only a metaphor but a reality: the tropical land is going. It only exists in our memory or imagination. It only remains in an anthropologist’s photo archive. The Amazon rainforest appears only enchanting in those well-angled expensively-produced documentary films. Perhaps the day when Claude Lévi-Strauss finished ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the tropical land had already been swallowed by the northern civilization – the process that began in England with the pre-Victorian era factory chimneys.

Gdańsk is another sorrowful place. The most famous thing in recent history about the town is perhaps its German character. After the World War One, Germans formed a majority in the city and Gdańsk was not under Polish sovereignty. In accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig. In  1939, Germany invaded Poland and the attack began in Danzig; later on the Soviet Union trashed the city entirely. Double rape! No wonder the country has produced those incredible poets and artists in the last century. But the future of Gdansk looks uncertain – the houses have been re-built after the war but most of houses are empty and unemployment is high. People are poor here, with all their good qualifications fading in their drawers.

I stand by the once famous port, now abandoned, with broken ships and messy cranes lit along the bank. The area by the water is waiting to be ‘developed’, to ‘shine’ again. I try to stretch my imagination, visualizing the newly built budget hotels one after another along the harbor in the next five years, with the holiday makers from all over the word coming here to kill their summer days.

  1. Sopot

This is where the famous ill-tempered German actor Klaus Kinski came from. One could not be totally convinced that the eccentric German cinema icon actually was born in this calm and pretty little Polish beach town. Now the city has a population of 40,000. Most are elderly people, and then many tourists. On the beach, the Royal Hotel stands proudly on the white sand facing the peaceful blue bay. Somehow, those grand family houses remind me of the rich town of Deauville in northern France. Maybe Poland’s Sopot is the Deauville of France, if you restrict the comparison to landscape.

In the local library I meet a little group of readers who were given some photocopied pages of my novel. In fact, three pages out of my four hundred page long novel. They admitted that they didn’t have time to read through my book. One woman told me she hadn’t read a single book for years after she had her baby. ‘Of course, I understand that,’ I reassured her and everyone else: ‘Don’t worry, we will just chat.’ So we talked about the reality of being Polish, being Chinese, being in between German power and Russia power. It seemed to me that everyone preferred to be under German influence rather than Russian influence. ‘And what about Communism?’ I asked. A blonde woman shook her head violently: ‘No, communism kidnapped our freedom. We prefer to hide in the religious’. Then a man from East Germany added: ‘And capitalism. It’s better. There is no freedom anywhere anyway.’

  1. Hel

Hel is a pine-tree covered beautiful peninsular. ‘It is the end and the beginning of Poland’, as the locals jokingly claim. It is so long and slim that nearly every house is located right next by the water, with a great sea view.

We stay in the Marine Station where they have kept members of many endangered sea species in their lab. The grey seal is a big thing in the Marine Station. They even have four infant seals in the pool at the moment. As I stare at one of the large, fat, young seal babies diving in the water, I am almost sardonically surprised that this big sea mammal has managed to survive alongside human world for so long. And their great whiskers! I can only admire them. I am told that when they sleep, if they are in the water, half of their brains remain awake, so they can detect any danger around them. But if they sleep on the land, both sides of their brains go into sleep mode. I wonder, given human’s barbarian nature, wouldn’t the seals be killed more often on the land than in the water? In order to survive, perhaps they have to learn to not sleep at all.

In the noon, there are about 20 middle school students around the age of 15 walking me through the forest by the sea. Most of them are local, born in Hel with their parents working on the island for the fishing and tourism industry. The boys impatiently want to show me all the war remains on the peninsular. The girls are talking to me about the pollution in the sea. We enter the ruins of bunkers which were built during World War II and look at the burnt forest in the southern end of the land. Young, beautiful, but vulnerable, they seem to be hopeful but also fearful to leave this place and to enter the big cities for their future.

‘Hel is the most beautiful place in Poland. Look the sea and the forest here! But I think maybe California is better.’ A 14 year old boy remarks while I gaze into the shimmering sea shore.

Standing by the edge of the water, a naïve but profound question rings in my ears: where is our future? What is our future? Well, I think the sea is our future. The sea is the place that gives birth to everything. Yet, humans don’t want the sea, Humans want the land, the useful land. One of the ancient folksongs from the Baltic Sea region goes like this:

Now I’ll sing the sea into grass, the seashore into fish,
The sea sand into malt, the sea bottom into a field.

‘Can we imagine a human world without the sea? Or, the Planet without the sea?’ I ask the students around me. They look gloomy when hearing such a question. We wander about some more, strolling by the abandoned fortifications one after another under the bright burning sun of Hel.