Monday, December 26, 2011

Culture Corner: Cartoon Arm Condoms

There is an episode of The Simpsons wherein Homer gets in a feud with the head of the Springfield Sanitation Dept., ends up running for the office, and of course, wins. (What else would they base the episode on?)  While campaigning, Homer’s slogan is: “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” in reference to all of the dirty tasks, like taking out the rubbish or cleaning the toilet, we perform on a regular basis.  Having to hire so many new employees to do these deeds, he quickly runs the city budget dry, causes fights, and so on.   It’s The Simpsons.

Well, Homer’s campaign slogan effectively sums up the overwhelming majority of Chinese people’s thinking when it comes to keeping their environment clean.  As a result, it’s most a filthy country.  I’m not only referring to city life, which can also be quite dirty in the west (check out the less glamorous parts of New York or Boston and you’ll know what I mean), but also Chinese lakes, rivers, mountains, etc.  And it all starts with the Chinese government.  Attempting to develop the country at a break-neck pace without heed of the environmental damage they are causing, the people follow suit, waiting for somebody else to clean up the rubbish.  (I believe that person is Father Time, but perhaps we won’t like his methods.) There is so much dust in the air that after it rains, you can see a literal ring of dirt around each car that has washed off since it previously rained.  I could dust my apartment three times a week and never keep it clean. And I know three people who wear contacts that have gotten minor eye infections, all from the incredible amount of construction occurring in Nanjing.

And I know the same thing is happening in every other Chinese city. We’ve all seen
Asians (and now others around the world) wearing cloth masks over their mouths and noses when going about their business in a city. I used to think this was because of the pollution in the air.  But no, it turns out the pollution is secondary to the bacteria and viruses floating in the air. After spending some quality time mutating in the pools of stagnant water and rivers (also known as waste disposals) around the city and fueled by the perpetual addition of chemicals and rubbish generated while developing the country, these microbes apparently float through the air attached to the dust and are a threat to health.  From what I have seen, there is nothing being constructed in the way of environmental control measures to counter this, only more office buildings to “carry China into the future” - no matter how many cough, hack, or keel over.  Population control?

Last autumn I climbed Yellow Mountain, a nature preserve purported to be the most popular destination for Chinese tourists and the most beautiful place in China. Well, while the Appalachian Trail in America has little white stripes painted on the trail every one-hundred feet or so to guide you along, it is likewise impossible to get lost at Huangshan.  Despite numerous rubbish containers, there was a literal trail of rubbish leading me from the bottom to the top. I witnessed scores of people (some wearing high heels) jettisoning things like a space shuttle launch, water bottles, ponchos, skewered duck meat all sent arching through the air.  With banners of red plastic and cheap yellow raincoats flapping from the beautiful umbrella pines atop the rocky spires, the art of photography is taken to a new level: how to block out the Chinese bunting?

Everyday in Nanjing I see at least one person toss rubbish - cartoon style - over their shoulder, or out a bus window. Seeing this happen when walking with Chinese friends, I used to ask: “Why did that person just chuck their half-finished Slurpee on the street”, to which I would always receive the same answer: “Oh, somebody will clean that up. Don’t worry.” Well, that “somebody” does exist in China the form of street cleaners, but in nowhere near the quantity necessary to handle the amount of trash generated by the believers in Homer.  It goes without saying, the reason you take off your shoes when entering someone’s house is not because of millennia old customs. No, it’s because nobody wants you tracking any of the thick layer of grime on the streets into their house. Because, for some people – unfortunately the poorer - the street is literally their rubbish bin. I’ve been told today’s Nanjing is nothing compared to the scene ten years ago, which I can’t imagine.

Most interesting of all is that most Chinese people are quite hygienic and clean. Laundry and bathing are priorities. Thus, in order to move about in their filthy environment, people carry newspapers, not to read and distract themselves from the mess, but as a barrier in case they should desire to sit somewhere, anywhere. More advanced protection measures are taken in what I can only describe as “cartoon arm condoms.”  Featuring Tweety Bird, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and the rest of the illegally merchandised cartoon gang, all ages of females can be seen wearing these elbow high cloth protectors to prevent the attachment of dirt to their jacket or shirt sleeves.  It begs the question: how they can want so badly to keep themselves clean but not the environment in which they live?  Truly, it is a paradox only humans could create.

Story time.  I was in the grocery shop the other day, and in front of me in “line” (for those who have been to China, you know why I put “line” in quotes) was a man carrying some groceries in his arms. Spotting an ever-so-thin layer of dust on one of his items, he began shouting at the clerk and pointing at it.  She calmly took the item, wiped the dust off with her sleeve protector, and handed it back to the man. Thinking she was essentially throwing it back in his face, I waited for the explosion.  But none came. He smiled, paid, and went on his way.  It was then I realized the power of the cartoon arm condom.  (I assume after consuming the item, the man threw the wrapper on the ground.  It’s a good thing he spotted the dust, otherwise the ground would’ve gotten dirty.)
Working on my second cold in six months, this culture corner has been nothing but negative, so in the next I hope to expound the virtues of the Chinese people, as there are more of these than negatives.

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