December 9, 2010

Keeping clean in a very dirty place

When the sky has to work so hard to turn blue, all that smog has to settle somewhere -- and that somewhere is our apartment. Each week Alex and I take turns cleaning the floors and dusting off desks and shelves in our apartment. We sweep, then we use a dust cloth broom, and finally we mop. Every four or five days we do this, and each time wads of dust and dirt are swept up and the mop water is a creepy grey color. 

For being such a dirty country, Chinese people are seemingly very clean. They're obsessed with dusting and keeping floors clean but looking out the window reveals a nondescript sky and endless amounts of traffic. Every few yards on the street, people in bright orange jumpsuits ride three-wheel bicycles equipped with a bin in the back and a little grass broom to sweep up the streets. They sweep leaves, trash and keep storm drains clear. They also only make 1000RMB each month, or around $150 USD. They manage to pay rent, eat, and more often than not send money to their family in a village somewhere in western China on that salary. 

It's easier to not feel guilty about littering here because you know it will be picked up within a matter of minutes, and for every piece of trash that doesn't make it to the receptacle you know it's keeping someone's job. At the same time, is it more harm than help? They're not really making enough money to have any sort of freedom in their life and if I litter, isn't that just reinforcing their less-than-idyllic circumstances? Also, I feel like littering is just not going to help the sky's color out at all.

Regardless, the army of street sweepers are ever-present on each block. Their colleagues, the hedge trimmers, carefully manicure the miles and miles of geometric shrubbery lining medians of highways and major thoroughfares in the city. Not a leaf nor wrapper ever seems to be out of place on the streets of Hangzhou.

Once everything is nicely groomed and swept, the cleaning crews break out the big dogs: the street cleaners. Every day, at least once if not five or six times, every major street (including mine) gets a shower. Water trucks that sound more like the ice cream man cruise up and down the streets each day, wasting Lord knows how much water. The trucks blare children's songs and lullabies, the consistent favorite seems to be "Happy Birthday." It's always a good morning waking up to that song repeatedly blared through the neighborhood. 

The streets here are cleaner than any city of this size I've ever been in. They're much cleaner than Rome (no rogue doggie piles to watch out for here), they lack the filth of my old neighborhood in DC, and they have a pristine quality to them that New York will never be able to achieve. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate some grit to a city -- it gives it character and it feels more authentic. 

I feel like the sparkling streets of Hangzhou are just another effort from the Chinese to save face. As long as they shine like gems on their own, who needs undiluted, pure sunshine to really make them sparkle?

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