I write this week from Singapore, a city-state that legislates politeness; the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act made it illegal to incite hostility toward most religious groups, and vandalism can beget a caning. Moreover, Singapore fines citizens for jaywalking, importing gum, littering, urinating in public and spitting, misdemeanors that throw China sharply into relief. Singapore is the direct inverse of China. Whether Singapore’s laws have encouraged politeness, or whether a cultural penchant for politeness produced the laws to begin with, is a chicken-and-egg question. This fact remains: I was here only four days, and I witnessed metro passengers relinquish seats to the elderly. Who wouldn’t love a country where a futuristic voice chants hati-hati (careful!) when you disembark from the metro? It’s common for English speakers to mistakenly hear happy–happy, but it’s also logical since Singapore actually tops the Asian happiness charts. Even if true happiness hasn’t actually ensued, at the very least Singapore is reaping safety, cleanliness and semi-religious harmony. I find cleanliness a welcome break from the olfactory abuse that is regularly dispensed in Shanghai.
But this isn’t a blog about Singapore; it’s a blog about China. So I’m going to get to my point. The PRC has a garbage problem.
You can learn a lot about a modern society by watching how it deals with detritus—and while some may argue that China hasn’t fully modernized, Shanghai is a preeminently modern city. For a long time, the U.S. has shipped its garbage to China, which speaks volumes about what the U.S. thinks about China. But now China is refusing America’s garbage, which says volumes, too, about its feelings toward us. As it turns out, a billion people produce a lot of garbage, and Shanghai’s 25 million are contributing their share.
The Chinese have earned worldwide disdain for being litterbugs, and I admit to making snarky comments after witnessing post-apocalyptic airplane cabins. But last week, as I watched a Chinese man casually drop his plastic drink container on the sidewalk, I was struck with a sudden and unexpected cultural revelation: He litters because he can litter, and he can litter because the government makes it profoundly easy for him to litter (there is a gun analogy hidden here somewhere). I even began to wonder if the Chinese actually have to litter because not littering might create a serious employment crisis.
While other modern cities like Singapore automate (and legislate) waste disposal, China has overcommitted to its human labor force. I’m referring here to scores, multitudes if you will, of municipal workers trapped in a type of caste structure, who work for a bloated and inefficient system that produces, as far as I can tell, only diminishing returns. There might be two or three humans walking a given block to pick up litter (or leaves) from the sidewalks on any given day. This is one way that the government keeps people employed, but I have to wonder if China’s commitment to human labor fosters a cultural landscape that promotes littering, which in turn reinforces the over-commitment to human labor. (My head is spinning). One thing seems clear. The Shanghai “blue” municipal employees are performing an endless symphony of pointless notes on cold concrete.
The “bag” we world citizens are left holding (groan) is that the Chinese have become abundant travelers who don’t realize (or don’t care) that other countries approach litter, well, less . . . collectively. We shame and then fine people who drop water bottles or don’t clean up dog poo. It’s an important point. Littering might be the last community standard left in the U.S.
One final observation on trash: Shanghai has embraced one particular area of automation with enthusiasm—the street cleaning tanker vehicle! If you have never imagined that waste collection could intentionally reinforce the Communist Party agenda, then you clearly haven’t heard cleaning vehicles in Shanghai. These trucks blare crushingly infantile instrumental versions of Disney’s It’s a Small World After All. Why would the municipal government choose that particular song? Is the Cuban Missile Crisis relevant? Is it the Golden Sun, or just me?
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all (refrain)
There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small world after all
It feels like a bummer to have started off with sterile Singapore and concluded with Disney, Cuba, and garbage in China, so I’m signing off with a poem by Philip Levine about the inevitability of hard work, day in and day out, in honor of the Shanghai street sweepers in blue.
Every Blessed Day
By Philip Levine from This is Work
First with a glass of water
tasting of iron and then
with more and colder water
over his head he gasps himself
awake. He hears the cheep
of winter birds searching
the snow for crumbs of garbage
and knows exactly how much light
and how much darkness is there
before the dawn, gray and weak,
slips between the buildings.
Closing the door behind him,
he thinks of places he
has never seen but heard
about. Of the great desert
his father said was like
no sea he had ever crossed
and how at dusk or dawn
it held all the shades of red
and blue in its merging shadows,
and though his life was then
a prison he had come to live
for these suspended moments.
Waiting at the corner he feels
the cold at his back and stamps
himself awake again. Seven miles
from the frozen, narrow river.
Even before he looks he knows
the faces on the bus, some
going to work and some coming back,
but each sealed in its hunger
for a different life, a lost life.
Where he’s going or who he is
he doesn’t ask himself, he
doesn’t know and doesn’t know
it matters. He gets off
at the familiar corner, crosses
the emptying parking lots
toward Chevy Gear & Axle #3.
In a few minutes he will hold
his time card above a clock,
and he can drop it in
and hear the moment crunching
down, or he can not, for
either way the day will last
forever. So he lets it fall.
If he feels the elusive calm
his father spoke of and searched
for all his short life, there’s
no way of telling, for now he’s
laughing among them, older men
and kids. He’s saying, “Damn,
we’ve got it made.” He’s
lighting up or chewing with
the others, thousands of miles
from their forgotten homes, each
and every one his father’s son.