Today, I found myself at one of the most dismal places I have ever been in my life.
I went with my adviser and two of my labmates to Duerping Coal Mine. Duerping is about thirty minutes outside of Taiyuan. It’s been in operation since 1956. Last year, according to people at the mine, they produced 5 millions tonnes of coal, and they expect the mine still has 40-50 more years of coal to go. It’s a state-owned enterprise, under the large umbrella of Xishan Coal and Electricity Power, which is according to Wikipedia, is the largest coking coal production enterprise in China and the second largest in the world.
I told my adviser, Professor Cao, that I wanted to see a mine. Because my adviser is the best, he contacted a former classmate of his who is now a bigshot at Duerping, and he drove me and two labmates, Leili and Xiao Deng, out to the mine this morning. The apartment skyscrapers of Taiyuan gradually changed into shorter, more decrepit buildings. I watched the faded blue-grey smog of Taiyuan descend into denser, purer white-grey. I saw houses that resembled shittily built 四合院 (traditional Chinese courtyard), hastily painted an ugly teal, smeared with black coal dust. Piles of unfinished, trashlike construction lay on every other corner—a common sight in China, but somehow uglier than I’d ever seen it. Cao pulled into the mine parking lot. We got out of the car to squint into the smog-swathed mountains toward the mine.
“This is typical coal community architecture,” Xiao Deng said knowledgeably to me as we looked around us.
“What does that mean?”
“Everything is smeared with black,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Yep.”
Cao’s friend Xie arranged for the coal propaganda department to give us a tour. The word “propaganda”–宣传, xuanchuan–has a different connotation than it does in English. There’s no element of conspiracy or manipulation in xuanchuan like there is in propaganda, and in some contexts, it simply means the same thing as publicity. We got two ladies as our guides, one of them holding a giant video camera that she didn’t know how to use. She kept pointing it at us randomly for a few seconds, and then at the ground. I couldn’t tell what she was trying to film. The other girl was wearing a green dress and was pretty cute, especially against the backdrop of smoke and smog. Focus on the bright things in this place, I thought to myself. I kept coughing into my coat. We were only half an hour outside of Taiyuan, and I couldn’t breathe anymore. She was the only brightly colored thing against the grey landscape. Even I blended in with the surroundings with my beige coat.
“Xiao Chenrr here”—that’s what Cao calls me in his thick Datong accent, it’s a nickname that perhaps translates best to “Young Chen”—“is from America,” he told the propaganda ladies. “I guess the air is a lot better there. We don’t cough here anymore, we’re used to this.”
The propaganda ladies chuckled halfheartedly. They took us into a hallway with panels of large Communist-style posters with lots of happy touched-up photos of scenes from around the mine.
“Here’s our dangmama, 党妈妈,” the cute one said, pointing to a picture of a seventy-year-old woman sitting in a throne-like chair surrounded by young smiling faces. I’d never heard that phrase before, but it meant exactly what it sounded like—Party Mama. A matronly model citizen is glorified by the Party.
“She used to bring rice porridge out to the miners,” she said. A Molly Pitcher type, I thought to myself. Molly Porridge.
“Wow! And people still visit her even now?” Cao said. I had to admire Cao’s enthusiasm.
“Yes, workers will visit her and bring gifts on major holidays,” our tour guide replied.
We walked to the entrance of the mine.
“It used to be a lot cruder than this to go down into the mine,” the cute tour guide said. “Now it’s kind of like an amusement park ride.”
It looked like a ski lift into hell. A bunch of benches on lifts rotated around and descended into darkness. I tried to peer into the depths.
“Have you ever been down in the mine?” Cao asked the cute tour guide.
“Yes, one time I took reporters from Xinhua News Agency down there,” she said.
“How cold is it down there?” I asked. No stupid questions.
“They need what you’re wearing, plus another coat,” she said, and we all laughed. What a hoot, coal miners and their outerwear.
“But women don’t usually get to go down into the mine,” she said. She’s a badass, I thought to myself. I’d wanted to go down into the mine. Except not really, I was barely able to breathe as it was. “Women usually pick rocks out of the coal conveyor belt,” she said, pointing above us at a storage area.
“What?” I said. I didn’t hear her right because that job sounded like the stupidest thing I had ever heard.
“If you have rocks in with the coal, your coal won’t burn with as high of an efficiency,” she explained.
Nope, I heard her right. And she had to fucking explain to me that having rocks in your coal will make your energy efficiency lower. Thank God she didn’t know that I had an Oberlin physics education. Look at me, failed intellectual elitist, I thought to myself.
After the tour was over, the tour guides took us back to Xie’s office. He called some lady from next door to pour tea for us. I was a bit confused about that. Who was that lady? She was wearing a nice pantsuit, and he was also yanking her around like some sort of housekeeper. Pantsuit don’t deserve that, dude. I didn’t have time to dwell on her, though, because then came the elaborate song-and-dance number that is a Chinese invitation to lunch.
“Just stay a little longer, have some lunch with me,” Xie said.
“No, we’ve been taking advantage of your hospitality for far too long,” Cao said.
“We never see each other, what’s a little lunch between friends?” Xie said.
“We’ve been too much trouble already,” Cao said.
They talked about their kids for a little while. Xie’s kid went to Tsinghua, one of the top two elite universities in China. The government throws money at it. You’re a big deal if you go there. Everyone was impressed with Xie’s kid. Then it recommenced.
“Come on, just stay for some lunch,” Xie said.
“I really couldn’t,” Cao said.
We talked for a little bit about coal mines in China. Xie says that the recent 18th Party Congress is probably going to relax regulations on mines more. I asked him what regulations or pollution controls they had on the mine.
“We don’t really have pollution controls,” he said. “You see the big silo where we keep the coal? That used to be open to the air. I suppose that is our pollution control. We put a lid on that thing.”
“Mmm,” I said.
Xie started inviting us to lunch again.
“Come on, let’s eat some lunch,” he said, getting up.
“We really can’t,” Cao said. Xie dragged him toward the door, and we all followed.
“We really shouldn’t be such a burden to you,” Cao said, allowing himself to be coerced to lunch.
“It’s no burden,” Xie said as the rest of us stumbled after him to the restaurant.
It looked like it was the one nice restaurant in this mining community. There was a wedding going on outside of the restaurant, with a line of people beating drums in ceremony. Who’s getting married in this mess, I thought to myself. Maybe today’s the day that I see a lump of coal wearing a dress. I hope she’s not wearing white, she’ll be Miss Havisham grey by the end of the ceremony.
“If you’re lucky, you might even get to see the bride,” my labmate Leili said to me. She seemed excited about it. Chinese girls are always excited about weddings. Chinese girls always force me into making generalizations about them.
“I don’t give a shit,” I thought to myself.
After the tour, when we were drinking tea in Xie’s office, he’d asked me, “这地方不错吧?” which means, “Nice place, right?”
One thing I’ve learned in China is how to lie between my teeth. American living isn’t that much more luxurious than living in China. How did you know that I like racist jokes? I’m not gay.
“Yep,” I said, and I drank to that.