Monday, March 19, 2012

Feeling Convicted

Today I bring you a guest post from my dear friend Dragon Mama. She's an American expat currently living in Beijing with her husband, two boys and dachshund. She is the person who has made me feel the most convicted (in a good way) in my life. In fact, she's probably most responsible for my environmental fervor and overall crunchiness. Oh and she's the person who slammed a voter registration form on my desk when I was 22, looked me dead in the eye and said, "apathy is not an option." I have voted diligently ever since. In a word she's amazing.  

This piece, copied with her permission, was originally posted on her blog Her Name is Dragon. It made me feel convicted all over again and made me take a moment to pause and reflect on MY priorities. I wanted to share it with you, in the hopes that you might also be moved by her observations.

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99 Bottles of Gas in My Van

At age 12, I declared myself a vegetarian because "I like cows." I donated my allowance to PETA. I cried when developers began paving over the Tucson desert, destroying coyotes' and horned-toads' natural habitat. I declared war on golf courses. (Have you heard me snort when you've asked whether I play/like golf? You're lucky I just snort--you should hear my internal excoriations.)

In short, I became a tree-hugger and for years have stubbornly clung to my self-imposed moniker, trying my best to make Greenpeace proud. In sum: I love nature and hate what human's voracious appetite for convenience/wealth is doing to it.

Until moving to China, I was been pretty pleased with my enviro cred and pretty underwhelmed by everyone else who is not on the same bus. Until our trip to Burma, I would have readily ticked off my "impressive" list of green accomplishments to anyone willing to listen.


My Erstwhile Impressive List
(Please feel free to roll your eyes and skip this)

1. We don't have a car here in Beijing.
2. I've never had air conditioning
3. I only use vinegar, baking soda and natural, biodegradable soap for ALL my cleaning needs.
4. I participate in CSA (community-supported agriculture) for my fruits and veggies. (Not true in China.) I'm not vegetarian, but I can get pretty close to it.
5. I buy organic, I buy local.
6. I never use paper towels or paper napkins, I use washable, reusable rags.
7. I never use plastic sandwich bags for kids' lunches
8. 80% of the boys' clothes/toys/books are second-hand
9. I have a clothes line and use it whenever possible.
10. I recycle and compost (even in China.)
11. My family uses public transportation whenever possible.
12. Austin rides his bike to work (I get association points for this.)
13. I use non-toxic products, like paint, and drive anything toxic to the household hazardous waste sites.
14. I gather used batteries from people so Amazon.com can recycle them.
15. I diapered my babies with cloth and washed them myself and dried them out on the line.
16. We don't even use a heater in Beijing! (We use our passive solar heating very well!)


Now, if you read this list. Ignore it. It's pathetic. Here's why:

When me moved to China, we could only take what could fit into box roughly the size of a washing machine and our checked baggage, mainly duffle bags sausaged with clothes and shoes. We had a much larger shipment coming by boat which was scheduled to arrive between 1 and six months after us.

We lived well off this one box. We did great. We were fine. We were happy. Our earthly Beijing possessions consisted mostly of Legos, kitchen utensils and children's books. We had to supplement the box with a trip to Ikea to buy bed sheets for the larger beds in our apartment, but mostly we lacked nothing and did not miss our American "stuff," aside from our bikes and my pole.

So when our sea shipment arrived I was horrified. WHAT WAS ALL THIS SHIT? And why did I feel the need to bring it? With each box that was dumped into my living room--there were 56 in all--I felt my cheeks burning hotter. It was like unwrapping a department store. It was judgment day in my own heart. I immediately began foisting items onto the movers: "Here take this!" "You want this?" "A gift from America, the world's most egregious consumers!""With love, from Macy's!"

My moment of shame was intensified by our Ayi's presence. She was there to witness my abject hedonism, my consumption addiction, my one-woman assault on our gorgeous earth. Unloading our clothes was the worst part. I cringed until I had lockjaw when she pulled out one, two, three, four, five pairs of Austin's jeans. Five pairs? This does not include all his pants. I thought all along that we were modest apparel consumers, after all our clothes fit into two tiny, circa 1930 closets. We've never had these walk-in closets that are bigger than most world denizens' living quarters or anything. Really, how irresponsible are we?

I wanted to dismiss our Ayi early, I couldn't bear the shame. I could not look her in the eye. I was thinking of how to say "you can go home now" with my two classes worth of Chinese (Ayi does not speak a word of English) when she held up a pair of jeans riddled with holes and shellacked in coal miner's patina. She asked me a question. I did not understand. She always knows when I'm confused because I bobblehead and my jaw drops open. She is sweet enough to pantomime until I understand, and acted out throwing-away-the-pants. Surely I had meant to discard them? Trashed-out jeans such as these were not suitable to wear in public.

"Oh! NO! NO! NO! Those are nice jeans! The are expensive! They are designer! We bought them with holes and grease and stains! You can't throw those........" Yep, I was speaking in English again as my most patient and intelligent Ayi carefully placed the designer jeans on the heap of other designer jeans.

I began to giggle. Then laugh. Then laugh so hard tears welled in my eyes. I felt so stupid, so hypocritical, yet I know that Ayi was not judging me for my consumption. I think most humans secretly or openly aspire to reach the American standard of living. How can I tell her it's too much? I want to warn her of the pitfalls, the fact that money in many cases comes before family, before God. How can I let her know that the world cannot support an American lifestyle for everyone?


Our trip to Burma was the second proverbial slap in my ignorant face. Tree Hugger? Please. In an ivory tower, there ain't no trees.

Burma was like time traveling. Progress has passed the country entirely. The fields of Burma are still plowed by oxen, water hand-carried from wells and cars are scarce. Gasoline is purchased out of used water bottles and liquor bottles at road-side stands. I did not see a single gas station in all of Burma, not even in Yangon, the capital city.

I saw two cars outside of Yangon and the occasional tractor. There aren't yet decent paved roads. Taxis were horse-drawn in Bagan. Some enterprising Burmese take simple tractor engines and attached them to pickup truck cab to make some incredibly loud and jittery vehicles that looked comical with their exposed belts whirring and the exhaust huffing and puffing. You certainly don't need gas or oil for heating. The country is bloody hot--the cool, dry season posting temperatures in the 90s.

This will change, I give it ten years. Don't get me wrong, I want progress for the beautiful Burmese. I want everybody in this world to have access to education, healthcare, clean water and healthy food. I am just not optimistic enough to believe our earth has the resources to sustain 7 billion 3-car families.

So my youngest son Finn was studying the petrol stand under the tamarind tree when he asked: "Mommy, how many bottles would it take to fill up our mini-van in Seattle?"

"About Ninety Nine." Ninety nine. Ninety-nine fucking bottles of petrol in my van. Ninety-nine bottles to haul my over-privileged family to The Children's Museum of Everett, to private swim lessons, to Remlinger Farms, to the beach, to Whole Foods, to the Science Center, to the library, to sundry parks, camping, hiking, biking.

At least I don't drive an RV.

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