The Cancer of Another Nation’s People

The restaurants are closed, shelves in certain parts of the stores are empty, people seem chaotic and self-motivated, uncertainty looms, media sources spouting contradictory “news” – such is life at the beginning of the quarantine for the Covid-19 pandemic. This scenario reminds me of another time in my life when I did not have access to drinkable water for two days. I was living in Harbin, China in 2005 when there was an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin (approximately 350 km away). I felt out of place, out of mind, in denial, and unfazed by all of the what-comes-next’s. Just get through this.

In 2005, I spent a semester studying in China at Ha Gong Da 哈工大, or Harbin Institute of Technology. I had lived and studied in Beijing twice before, so I felt pretty at home in China when I arrived on the overnight train to Harbin. The train conductor wailed “Ha er bin dao le!” and as I sleepily shuffled my body and duffel bag onto the platform, the crepuscular vermillion light of dawn made me realize I was going to be there for six months and I did not even know where I was. The smell of roasting sweet potatoes over charcoal glowing in old oil barrels filled the air.

At this point, I already had an education in geographic exploration and learning how to survive in unfamiliar terrain without knowing the language. By age seventeen, before GPS, I had gotten around many large cities alone. So, I embraced this venture as an exciting new challenge and knew that I would probably feel remarkably different about this place when I left it in a half a year.

My Chinese identity, Yu Quan, began to congeal and simultaneously not exist. My identity there was based on ephemerality. I would live there until December and then return to France and resume a separate identity, my “real” identity–based on time spent anticipating the future, on communities that knew me and knew I would be back.

I was there to evolve my Chinese language skills, but existentially, I oscillated between being foreign, accepting I would never fit in, and sorrow about an expiration date. I didn’t foresee any long distance friendships. I bought only necessary personal items that would last me until I boarded another plane. Just get through this.

Although, I felt more isolated than I had when I lived in Beijing, I enjoyed Harbin and made it a temporary home. There were copious Korean restaurants–places with sushi, spicy broth-based soups and heated blankets–and Russian architecture. It was more walkable than Beijing. In November, the dry winds were strong, it was not as cold as I had expected Siberian China to be. There was no need for a parka or winter gear. There was no snow. I had heard of Harbin, its famous ice sculptures in the winter that you can walk through, as though they were built out of stone. I saw photos of them lit by colored lights.

One unassuming day, I stopped at a habitually dark internet kafei to check email after class and was surrounded, as usual, by silent late-adolescent boys with large headphones on playing video games. At some point, they started rustling. Not playing video games any longer, but not talking either, only the taps of keyboards became more prominent. Living in China, I was used to things sort of happening around me that I didn’t exactly understand, so nothing felt too out of place. Then I went to the grocery store where I typically bought apples, water and spicy noodles with seaweed assembled on the spot. People were hectic and pushy in the store, but again in China, that was not an alarm signal. However, in the beverage aisle, there was nothing except beer. It was the opposite of quarantining for Covid-19 in LA where there was more water than booze in many stores.

That evening the program director called a meeting. She told us there had been an explosion at a chemical plant down the Songhua River, the watershed was poisoned, and Harbin was shutting off the water to the city until further notice. It’s weird because it is hard to imagine what happens when the water is shut off in a major urban center. At that point of my life, I had experienced quite a few different adaptability challenges in places I’d lived, but this was pretty next level. The restaurants were closed, as were the canteens at the university. There was very little open in fact. I ate mainly odd things like crackers and apples I had from before. My friend in the program had brought shelf-stable Indian food that she shared with me. I felt lucky. Grocery stores were open, but the water was rationed when there finally was some, because, as we ubiquitously know now, people have the tendency to hoard only for themselves in times of crisis. That intermediary time was rough because I did not have any water for two days, then we had two six oz. bottles of rations a day. As a health-conscious American (sort of cringing as I write this), I usually drank at least three liters of water a day; needless to say, I was really thirsty and afraid. Our program waited it out; we had to finish the semester, pass Chinese exams, many things were up in the air… again, similar to the pandemic we are currently facing. People were more concerned with immediate conveniences like access to food not made by them and not messing up university credits than they were over how other humans, animals and the earth were dealing with massive-scale toxicity.

Before I wrote this, I researched this event (I felt I’d almost blocked out) to make sense of what happened. To my surprise, as many things are not published in regard to industrial pollution in China, there was a paper on the spill that answered many of my questions. This was one of the first internationally referenced incidents from China regarding pollution.

The explosion happened on November 13th. The local authorities hid the explosion for five days, before they informed the central government in Beijing. It took the government until November 25th to tell Harbin. The news became global because the Songhua River went to Russia and it would thus become the cancer of another nation’s people. During the first few days, the squat toilets filled and overflowed with feces and whatever else you can imagine. After that, they turned the water back on, telling people to only use it for flushing the toilet, but I imagine people did whatever they wanted to. Bathe-at-your-own-risk-type-of-thing. Just get through this.

During this time of chaos and uncertainty, I maintained my routine of classes-homework-sleep because there was not much else to do without Wi-Fi. Similar to now, I must manage time productively, when time itself has become very strange. Time has become amorphous as the days fold together not doing much out of my routine. I felt refracted through time and space and unable to pinpoint when and where “I” existed and who that person was. Recently, I feel I am losing grasp of what life used to feel like before social distancing as phases of my life have begun to ossify in the solitude, as I try to make my actions and decisions add up to a better global future.

I researched the explosion, the toxins in the water: Benzene is  carcinogenic. It can cause birth defects, and definitely reduce life span. At twenty-one, I joked about that last one, but I still think of that to this day, fifteen years later, and wonder. At the time, I had no idea what to believe, had no facts, and because China screens the internet, there was absolutely nothing about the spill online. Now I know that when the pollution slick arrived in Harbin, the peak nitrobenzene concentration was 0.531mg/liter (roughly 34 times that of the US EPA recommended limit). Short term benzene exposure can cause severe anemia, cyanosis, and jaundice; long term can damage the nervous system. I also know now that this type of incident in the area known as the “industrial cradle of China” was not rare. Local environmental regulation was not well enforced and with the lack of emergency response plans, it led to large scale disaster. When the truth of what happened was unraveled, high-ranking officials were implicated. The shame of their involvement resulted in the suicide of the mayor of Jilin. From this tragedy, a silver lining came: environmental regulation became a platform for transparency and accountability as opposed to personal responsibility and cultural shame.

Ten days after they informed us of the chemical spill, the few foreign students in my program and I departed Harbin – on the same rickety overnight train that brought me there – back to Beijing. Through the freezing night, the scent of baijiu liquor and smoke on the train, I became pensive and torn, thinking of how many people were not able to leave the chemical infused environment. I was privileged and knew it. And that did not change how much I wanted to get out of there. We finished the semester in Beijing. The city had grown and internationalized a lot since I lived there; everything was rebuilt for the Olympics to occur in a couple years. No one knew about the benzene spill. No one cared.

I think now of this experience as I grapple with how to understand the world, how best to live in the world, to be a part of the common or greater good as we struggle with a pandemic. The main problem I find myself with is feeling powerless at the global level. Policy has proven to be ineffective and effaced by the wave of a presidential hand. I also feel betrayed by those in charge and the lack of leadership. And I am sick of science, as well as human and environmental rights, being political issues. This is our future, not a hoax.

In this vein, I know that the current people in charge of federal decisions and regulations will not make the choices needed to create a better future. I know I must do the work myself, communally, to make the changes necessary in order to survive. To sew the strands of nature back into our daily lives and to heal together with the earth. I don’t just mean the bucket in my shower to water the food I grow. It is the children in my life I teach about the wisdom of the earth and respecting and reciprocating relationships. It is voting in every local election as well as state and sticking up for every injustice whether it is incidental or fundamental. It is cooking a meal for someone who does not have one. We all have different ways of contributing. I do not want to “just get through this,” I want to get through this and not question if there is something I could have done differently.

Franz is an urban sustainability practitioner and MFA student at Antioch University. With an international background and previous masters’ in urban design, she concentrates her writing on how cities impact the psyches of citizens. She lives in Los Angeles.