10 November 2010

Dragonflies vs. Wasps

Is it my imagination, or are we experiencing a particularly long and tempestuous dragonfly season? I associate dragonflies with the heat of summer, clouds of colorful buzzing insects as harbingers of thunderstorms. Yet this year we seem to have had more clouds of dragonflies than cloudbursts. Although now, deep into autumn, there are no longer thousands swooping and diving outside my window (as in the photo, taken a couple weeks ago), any time I open my window screens, one or two manage to dash inside and buzz furiously on the ceiling.

Wasps, too, have been invading my room for the past few days. Even with windows and doors shut tight, I'll enter to find four or five orange wasps tapping at the glass, trying to find a way out. How did they get in? I spent hours waiting in ambush before I discovered a machine-tooled hole in one of the aluminum window frames which they were obviously misinterpreting as the entrance to a nest, crawling through, and then finding themselves, like Alice, not in a world they knew, but the bizarre Wonderland of my home studio.

When I discover wasps or dragonflies trapped inside, I try to shoo them out. I slide open a window and try to help them to discover their escape route. These species have remarkably different tactics. A wasp will explore every corner of the window pane. When coming upon the opaque aluminum frame, the wasp will return to the glass to search some more. Left on its own, it might make two or three complete explorations of the windowpane before concluding the futility of getting through it. It will then fly around to look for another see-through opening. Eventually it finds the open window.

Sometimes I'll nudge it along, with a well-extended magazine, toward the opening. The wasp will resist, trying to remain on the transparent pane, but eventually give in and either follow my guidance or fly to another window. In either case, I see intelligence at work, methodically searching the glass for an escape route and, only after thorough examination, looking elsewhere. There is no hint of panic, no indication of fear. Even my nudging doesn't provoke a defense response. Wasps, to me, are frightening to look at, but worthy of respect.

Dragonflies, on the other hand, thrash around the room, buzzing noisily against ceiling panels, book cases and windows. If they don't immediately manage an escape through a transparent pane, they scamper off somewhere else, their wings beating furiously. A nudge with the extended magazine sends them into a terrified dither. There is no intelligence at work here. Their noise and frantic manner make me more nervous than venemous wasps.

Yet when it comes down to it, which one would I willingly kill? In the rare case of a stubborn or belligerent wasp, unwilling to follow instinct or instruction toward the open window, I've been known to reluctantly electrocute them with my battery-powered insect zapper. Yet I would never contemplate that with a moronic, irritating dragonfly. Why is that?

These dragonflies are a stunning day-glo electric blue. Their long, slender torsos and translucent biplane wings make them particularly elegant insects. To harm one would be like attacking a beautiful, innocent child, whereas to attack a sinister-looking hunchbacked wasp is akin to battling a shrewd movie villain. Yet trapped dragonflies are actually louder, more nerve-wracking and more likely to bump into you than trapped wasps. Why don't I hate the more annoying insect? I doubt that I'm alone in this gut response. Are we, on an instinctual, animal level, more willing to forgive beauty than to forgive intelligence?

On a human social level, we let pretty (and often genuinely stupid) female starlets get away with felonies with little more than a slapped wrist, while a young British university student I know, who has very dark skin (which, in the context of everyday Hong Kong racism, is not considered beautiful), was beaten by police and spent two weeks in prison for the crime of accidentally touching a woman behind him when he slipped on a rain-slickened steep sidewalk.

Only beauty prevails in this world. I resolve, in my own small way, to fight against that. From now on, I will be more tolerant toward wasps and lessen my regard for dragonflies.

07 November 2010

Ode to Garbage

"I've never seen so much garbage in my life!"

That was my mother's first response on her visit to Wang Tong a number of years ago. She'd envisioned it, from my letters and phone calls, as a picturesque rural idyll nestling in the arms of butterfly-covered hills and peopled by the Chinese equivalent of hobbits.

Until my mother's remark, it had never registered in my brain what a load of nonsense that was. Entering the village on foot, one passes a crumbling shack with a missing wall, stacked to the ceiling--no, that sounds too tidy--engorged with broken bottles, crumbling Styrofoam, rotten plywood, leprous cardboard boxes, corroded moon cake tins, and globs and pustules of unidentifiable debris that had probably been decaying there since the Tang Dynasty.

A few steps later you pass a "garden" of potted plants perched on overturned milk crates lurking behind a fence made from shreds of corrugated iron and chicken wire leaning against barbecue forks and umbrella skeletons planted in the ground, with empty LP gas canisters lending support.

I had walked past these places a thousand times, and never noticed. That's because when you live in a rural Chinese village, you develop special filters over your eyes which paint out the garbage. So when a neighbor, a relative newcomer to the village, suggested we organize a community cleanup day, I was skeptical.

"There isn't that much to clean up," I said.

"What about that nine-foot-tall cement mixer sitting there rusting in the center of the village for the past three years?"

"Oh yeah," I said.

"And those decomposed bicycles over there which probably haven't been ridden since the Japanese occupation."

"Hm." I blinked hard. Those garbage eye filters do a magnificent job. I should figure out how to manufacture them.

A group of us put up posters about the clean-up day, sent e-mails, slid notices into letterboxes and spoke to everyone we met on the footpaths. Obviously those same eye filters also apply to colorful notices affixed to lamp posts. Expressions of support were muted.

On the appointed day we laid out food and drink, cotton gloves and jumbo black garbage bags. The old-time villagers walked past as if their eye filters erased us from view. In the end, a dozen or so people showed up.

When you deliberately remove the filters from your eyes and search for trash, our village turns out to be a goldmine...or is that a cesspit? I'm amazed at how many industrial-sized rubbish bags one can fill with discarded drink boxes in just an hour. It's incredible how many toothless brooms, twisted bicycle wheels, 3½-legged chairs and sun-melted boots are strewn between buildings and along stream banks.

Most of the "locals"--families who have lived here for generations--watched with detached humor as these strange people spent a perfectly good horse racing day picking up litter. One resident was less amused when the mountains of trash in front of her door began to disappear. She tolerated the removal of a chest-high mound of broken Styrofoam from the stolen supermarket trolley chained to her gate. She muttered while her collection of maggot-infested plywood scraps vanished into black bags. But the cracked plastic bucket lid was the final straw. She grabbed it from my friend's hands and shooed us away.

A convoy of hand trolleys moved back and forth to the public rubbish collection facility half a kilometer from the village. Within three hours, six enormous dumpsters were filled to overflowing. Meanwhile, sinister pro-garbage forces alerted the authorities. As I wheeled in the final load, a man in blue uniform, silver kitsch attached to his shoulders, confronted me.

"Is this rubbish from Wang Tong Village?"

Rubbish? What rubbish? I was tempted to say. Wasn't he wearing his garbage eye filters? Instead I confessed: "Yes. Who are you?"

"Environmental Hygiene Department. You're not authorized to drop this here. This collection point is only for household rubbish."

"This is household rubbish," I said. "Which your department hasn't cleaned up for the past twenty-five years."

He stood his ground until I stepped closer. I must have smelled as awful as I looked. He backed away and closed his mouth, probably for fear of whatever was staining my shirt leaping into his nearest orifice.

The following day my wife was chatting with Ah-Po, the village's elderly sole remaining farmer, who gave a thumbs-up to the cleaning effort. So did Luk Suk, the old man who feeds the stray cats. Most others said nothing.

In the end, did it matter that we cleaned up? That we'd removed hundreds of pounds of debris which didn't exist in people’s consciousness? We may as well have played charades, carrying away bags of air. Even I don't notice the difference; that's how powerful my filters are.

Yet it was, strangely, fun. An anti-garbage insurrection that worked.

Next time my mother visits and complains about the trash, at least I'll know she's talking about my blog.

An expanded version of this piece appeared in Culture Magazine.