Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China, part 2

This post is the second in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province. Read Part 1 here.

I got the opportunity to visit this power plant in Linfen because of an obscure family connection.  Xiong, whose job at the power plant, according to him, is to “keep people in line,” has a son, Y–, who is married to my dad’s former graduate student.  Y– is tall and broad for a Chinese guy, with a crinkly teddy bear smile.  He has the same face as his pet border collie.  He and his wife live in Texas now, but they used to come over to my house for all major holidays while I was in high school.

Xiong is shorter than his son, but they have the same face—crinkly eyes, crooked smile, puppylike demeanor.  He and his wife moved to Linfen five years ago from X____, Jiangxi, a city in the south.  They came to work for this power plant—he’d been here since the conception of the plant in 2009.

China has a less arbitrary definition of north and south than the Mason-Dixon line—“south” is anything south of 长江, the Yangtze River, the longest river in China.  There are cultural differences between the north and south, the most definitive of which is that southerners traditionally eat rice, and northerners eat wheat and other grains.  However, southern and northern culture are anything but homogeneous, and I can’t tell how many of the generalizations people tell me about north and south are actually true.  For example, northerners are supposed to be more honest, but southerners are better with money.  Also, southerners are better-looking and make prettier food.

I had trouble understanding why anyone would move to colorless Linfen.

“Why did you leave Jiangxi for here?” I asked him, trying to keep the disdain out of my voice.

“The plant in Jiangxi I was working at was much older, and much smaller,” he said.  “This job pays better, and it’s more exciting.”

The money isn’t worth the pollution, I thought to myself.

“We bought a home in Xi’an,” he added.  “We’re just planning on staying here until retirement.”

Xiong’s response reminded me of a trait I’d observed among many Chinese people, including my own family—the tendency to stomach undesirable situations because they promised a brighter or stabler future.  I’m very American in my preference for short-term, transient pleasure.  I keep spending excessive amounts of money on beer.

“Can you get used to life in the north?” I asked him.  On the train, I’d heard a guy from Anhui—also in the south—complaining about noodles.  I’d had my earphones in and was pretending to read because I didn’t want to talk to anybody.  From what I’d overheard, he was spending a few months up north completing a mining-related project for his company.

“All these noodles up north,” the stranger on the train said to the girl sitting across from me.  “I can eat rice every meal of the day.  But you Shanxi folk eat noodles.  I can’t digest these goddamn noodles.”

Xiong didn’t agree.

“Oh yeah, I can definitely live here,” he said.  “The south doesn’t get heating in the winter.  Up north, it’s really cold in the winter, but everywhere is heated—at home, in the supermarkets, in the shops.”


A Linfen coal stove, used for both cooking and heating, used in houses that still aren’t hooked up to the heating plant.

“None of the south gets heating? Still? Why?” I asked.

Xiong shrugged.  “It’s Chinese energy policy,” he said.  “It’s always been this way.”

“Even if you’re just on the southern border of the Yangtze River, you still don’t get heating?” I pressed.  The policy seemed so binary for something as varied as climate.

“Yes,” he replied.  “The Jiangxi winter would be about 0 degrees Celsius outside.  Indoors, we’d have to wear all our clothes and crowd around a coal stove.  It was such a pain to crawl into bed, the blankets would be so cold…”


While I was in Linfen, the power plant was actually holding an employee ping-pong competition with some of the neighboring plants.  Xiong took me to the opening ceremony of the competition.  His wife had prepared a dance with a few other employees for the ceremony.

The opening ceremony of the ping-pong competition.

The opening ceremony of the ping-pong competition.

We left the office in the middle of the afternoon to gather in the courtyard of one of the new buildings in the plant.  The first part of the ceremony was to take place outside, complete with fake cannons and firecrackers, on a red carpet in front of some giant banners.

“One of the big bosses from Beijing is coming,” Xiong told me as we waited in the cold.  The plant was a subsidiary of a larger government-owned enterprise, and one of the leaders was showing up to the competition.  When a fancy car approached the building, employees began swarming.


The escorts hold ribbons for the bigshots.

I, however, was more interested in a line of young women wearing long, tight red-and-black dresses and stilettos.  The dresses had high collars and made them look slightly like vampires.  They were holding large signs and ribbons, and their role in the ceremony seemed largely decorative.  I couldn’t resist talking to one of them.

“Some of us work here at the plant,” she told me.  “But the rest are hired professionals.”

Their mastery of wearing tight dresses was undeniable.


The firecrackers.

I wanted to ask her more questions, but the bigshots had exited their car, and the ceremony was starting.  The escorts began presenting them with ribbons.  Several people made excessive speeches, and then the fanfare began.  The cannons blasted confetti, and they started setting off the firecrackers.  I was originally intrigued, as I’d never seen firecrackers before, but pretty soon I was running into the building with the rest of the power plant employees.  Up close, the firecrackers sounded like they could blow my head off.  We evacuated the area into the gymnasium, where the rest of the ceremony would take place.

The ceremony was ridiculously overblown.  I suspected that it was mainly for the benefit of the bigshots, and that no one really cared about the ping-pong competition.  None of the ping-pong players looked very professional.  Some of them were slightly chubby, and most of them looked like they were in their thirties and forties.  The escorts marched them into their seats.

“You can tell which ones are professional escorts, and which ones are from our plant,” Xiong said knowledgeably to me.  I laughed and allowed myself to check them out again.  Goodbye, feminism!

After they played the national anthem, and multiple people made boring speeches, the show began.  I sat politely in my power plant uniform, nodding along with the various dances and songs.  I later sent a photograph of it to Joseph, who told me that some of them were modeled after ethnic minority dances.


Line dancing.

I told Xiong afterwards that it was an “interesting” show.  That wasn’t a lie.  I hadn’t enjoyed myself at all, but I certainly wasn’t bored.

“We’re actually having another plant-wide performance a few weeks from now for the New Year,” Xiong told me.  “It’ll be bigger and better!”

“Are you performing in it?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I don’t know what I’m doing yet.  And I’m not going to be the centerpiece of the show, by any means.  But there will be all sorts of dances, songs, skits.  You should come!”

“Don’t be silly, she’s not going to come all the way to Linfen to watch an end-of-year power plant employee show,” his wife said.

It was true.  But I wanted very badly for it to be otherwise.


One of the photos we took from the roof of Xiong's apartment building.

One of the photos we took from the roof of Xiong’s apartment building.

Xiong lived in an apartment building that was specifically a dormitory for employees of the power plant.  The building was very new. He and his wife shared a small but glossy one-bedroom apartment that she mopped every day because of the Shanxi dust.  The space was small enough that they opted not to have a dining table, and instead balanced a wooden board on a small nightstand at mealtimes.  They ate from the sofa, and after they finished, while Xiong did the dishes, Xiong’s wife would wipe off the wooden board and stash it away in the corner of the room.

They put me in a friend’s one-room studio upstairs—the guy apparently had another home in Linfen, which he preferred to live in.

“It snowed today!” Xiong said to me one morning when I descended for breakfast from my room on the eleventh floor to their apartment on the seventh.  “Looks nice, doesn’t it?”

I looked out the window.  Linfen did look more amiable covered in a thin layer of white snow.  At least the thick clouds looked appropriate—I couldn’t tell if they were smog or simply the weather.

“Want to go on the roof?” he asked me excitedly.  “We could take some photos of the city!”

“Sure,” I said.  I did want to take photos, but not for the same reason that he did.  He clearly thought the snow was beautiful.  I wanted to take photos of the greyness and post it on my blog to show off that I’d been to one of the armpits of the Earth.

Xiong got the key to roof from one of the building managers and shouldered his nice Sony camera, which had its brand name neatly covered with a small strip of black electrical tape.  I assumed this was still part of the aftershocks of the recent Diaoyu Islands mess—Chinese people didn’t want to be seen owning Japanese brands, either because they were irrational fervent nationalists, or because they feared getting the shit beaten out of them by irrational fervent nationalists.

We clambered up several flights of stairs to the roof.  “Careful not to close that door,” he warned me as I followed him out of the building into the crisp morning air, which also unfortunately smelled of sewage.  “We’ll be locked out.”

He and I strolled to opposite sides of the roof to take photos with our respective cameras.  I tried to capture the ugly charm of snowy Linfen while Xiong tried to figure out the panorama setting on his camera.  We circled around the roof, taking photos from different angles.

On the way back to the apartment, Xiong showed me the photos that he took.  “I tried to take a few from each side of the roof,” he said, scrolling through the pictures on his camera.  He paused on one of the photos of the Linfen skyline. He’d captured a set of squatter apartment buildings in front of the building we lived in.  They were frosted with white from the snow, but the window frames and sides of the buildings were streaked with dark soot and dust.

Then Xiong finally voiced what I’d been thinking the entire time.

“It’s not actually that pretty,” he said.

Read Part 3 here.


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