When I first saw this I finally understood why it was so smoggy on campus sometimes. In the photograph the wind is doing its job well. The smoke from the burning coal is pulled away from the campus, or at least over our heads. But the wind isn't always blowing, and often the smoke tends to collect around the campus. Some days we must walk through a thin haze of this smoke. Carbon Dioxide and Sulfur Dioxide are the main by-products, but I'm not sure which one makes you cough. We usually use our t-shirts as filter masks and it's generally enough for me. This struck me as a genuine problem that I could help remedy. Again I marched forward to help the community and again I was left only with my own ignorance to ponder at the end.
I have been in China long enough to understand that there are many things I cannot expect to happen. I know that there are a lot of things that people don't want to think about and they prefer to push the blame upwards and away (if only this would happen consistently with the smoke). I figured I would begin with the students and go from there. Before I started to ask students about the smoke, however, I wondered if I were going to far. What was this smoke doing? I mean, of course, by becoming smoke (from it's previous state as coal) it was serving a purpose. I allowed the question to rest in the back of my mind as I questioned students about the smoke. Universally students agreed that the smoke was very bad and that everyone would be healthier without it. Step one complete. Most of the students followed this with the following phrase: 没办法 (mei banfa), which basically means "there is no other way" or "we have no choice." Immediately thinking this was due to government or school officials generally not allowing a change I blindly continued to think of ways to make a change.
I decided to at least raise some awareness about the problem. Again I wondered about what the coal was heating and if, perhaps, closing this place down would put a family out of work. Would that be worthwhile? How do I decide what should happen in such a case, especially since I am a foreigner living abroad? I could find these details out later, I thought, and I continued to think about how to present an awareness campaign. Already I had plenty of willing English majors to help with translation. A little knowledge from reputable sources could lead to posters and potential lectures. Finding a way to convince school officials to allow posters and lectures to occur was another hurdle I had to clear. As it turns out, I never had to do this.
While walking with some students after dark I commented on the smoke and pointed to the place that we couldn't see (it was all the way across campus and it was dark, but we could still smell and taste the smoke in the air). The students looked at me and gave me the same response: "We have no choice." This time I was ready to inspire them and ignite their passions against a gross injustice: their right to breathe clean air was being violated! "But why not?" I asked, "You can change it if you really want to!" They looked at one another, spoke in Chinese, and then one turned to me and said in English, "If they stop the smoke we will not have warm showers."
I was shocked. I felt such shame at ever thinking I could presumptuous enough to spread awareness about something which was such a difficult situation. I felt sad, too. There really isn't much of a choice. In China, 85% of the electricity alone comes from coal, not to mention the coal used for heat alone. America uses approximately 1 billion tons of coal compared with 2.5 billion tons in China. Energy is valuable and coal is cheap; what can we do?
"So what now?" I often think. What can I do, besides sit here and watch it happen? I can boil in my own anger, but more often I am caught thinking the same thing over and over again: there is no choice and that hurts. In America, what we consider basic rights are not always honored in China. Sometimes I felt that I could do anything in America, and in China I have not been able to suppress this. Instead of realizing the limitations, I struggle and fight against it (at least mentally). For now I will keep my ears and eyes open for solutions to this and other problems, looking for a way that I can help. I can only hope that 2 years do not slip past before I find a way to make a positive change.
Posted by Concerned Citizen at 5:40 AM