China and the drunkenness of things being various

and on we go

and on we go

It is time to leave China behind and close this particular chapter of my WCMT fellowship trip. India beckons.

Let’s try and summarise a few things China has taught me.

1. The environment is a delicate subject, but shame isn’t necessarily the best or only tactic to change it. Exposing bad practice isn’t a ticket to eliminating it. There’s a subtle psychology to how it can be achieved. I’ll be interested to follow Green Stone and how they get on. As CSD in Beijing showed, when waste treatment goes right, it is an asset. Imagine if at Baotou they were inviting journalists to visit their world class zero waste plant, instead of expending energy keeping people out?
2. Scale is something we need to think about. For those of us on the applied side of bioremediation we need to think big, and then increase by a factor of 10. This is really fertile ground for collaborations.
3. There’s a growing cohort of young female scientists, as well as some fantastically talented women working in the environmental sector. Perhaps this has been somewhat lacking in times gone by. When I see photographs of the boards of companies they appear to be composed only of suited men with only an eye on finances. These brilliant, determined ladies – who exist everywhere I went China: from Baotou to Beijing to Kunming. I hope that their STEM careers are nurtured.
4. How to value the environment is a question that the country is wrestling with. I wasn’t privy to any high school classes, but teaching the importance of ecosystems is vital. “The environment” isn’t a place in Guangxi you visit on holiday. Underneath is an intangible safety net that prevents smog in Beijing and desertification in Inner Mongolia.
5. “I’d like to invite you for lunch” is a beautiful sentence. Sharing a meal, sharing experiences is a really important thing. It is where you really get to know and like eachother. Nobody hosts a lunch like they do here. And my, the food!

There’s many things about China that leave me puzzled: how did people manage before every object let out an electronic squeal or a piercing beep? Exactly who designed all of those behemothic train stations, where you are emptied from the carriage into a cavernous human canal, where inevitably an escalator only exists for one part of the transit? However, these are mere quirks, and what stays with me is the generosity of the people I’ve met, their passion and persistence under sometimes trying conditions, and their openness towards me as a visitor. Frank, funny and warm – usually all three.

Have I told you all the stories? No perhaps not. There are small acts of kindness – an invitation to an event at a cafe, or a friendly exchange at a shop counter. There’s an evening spent listening to the steady drumming of rain in Langtze, half remembering lines from a MacNiece poem called Snow that says “World is suddener than we fancy it”; The five senses involved in eating tarro straight from the fire, peeling the hot skin and inhaling the steamy vapour, dancing it between burning fingers. The disorientation in a railway waiting room, feeling dizzy from the interference of multiple tannoy announcements overlapping like ripples in a pool. The small triumph of ordering a bus ticket in mandarin.

And the lights…neon light, sunlight, moonlight.

I’ll reserve some juicy bits to recall to you over other cups of tea. Some I’ll keep for myself.

Otherwise all that remains: pith from a chinese grapefruit, rind of a mandarin orange, stone from a preserved sour plum.


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