Beckoning Environmental Change within Marginalized Communities
2021, Senior, Creative Writing
My father’s childhood was spent in one of the most rural, impoverished parts of China. His hometown was located far from the city, and to say he was poor was an understatement. Food was a scarcity, the water was murky and full of dirt; yet environmental conditions were the last of their worries because mouths to feed and a roof to stay under were all uncertainties. In 2015, after nearly 35 years since he emigrated from China, he, along with my entire family, was ready to visit his birthplace once again.
Although the trip started with excitement for nine-year-old me—the introduction of new cultures and a hopeful, profound interest in my father’s hometown—I forgot to account for one thing: I couldn’t digest Chinese food. More accurately, I threw up everything I ate.
Whatever I ingested during the trip, like the Xiao Long Baos served at the local restaurant or the Yat Gao Mien that my grandmother made, it would all end up on the floor in the form of sickeningly brown vomit. Unable to digest the food with a weak body, I would go a whole day eating just a pack of Oreos, and would have to force myself to look away when my relatives served mouthwatering Sweet and Sour Soup at the dinner table. Shame would mask my expressions—after all, I felt like an outsider in my own household—unable to participate in an integral part of culture and conversations that took place at the dinner table.
One day, my mother told me the source of my “problem.” Though I didn’t know what I was expecting her to say, it certainly wasn’t what she told me. Taking my hand in hers, she said,
“it’s because the water here is much more contaminated than in America.” She went on to explain how the bacteria in the water used to cook meals or make tea were the source of my upset stomach; my untouched immune system was rejecting the unclean fluids that the privileged me had never taken into my body before.
I felt goosebumps marking all over my body, my memory hiking back to the very first day of arrival. In all of the food I ate, all the tea I drank, all the water we used, there was an abnormal abundance of contamination and lack of seen importance or support from influential authorities. Although a part of myself was relieved, hoping that perhaps fixing this water problem would somehow catapult me back into my family and receive acceptance, I would soon learn that the problem did not just lie within my father’s small hometown.
Specifically, my findings led me to a conclusion that the discrepancy in the quality of water between China’s wealthy and poor was unmatched—the contrariety surprising me. For example, the proper deliverance of sanitation services in Zhejiang can vary from 35% (in the lower plains) to as low as 1.7% (in the mountainous areas). Although 35% is definitely not a high percentage by any means, it comparably serves an important role when contrasted with the 1.7%; highlighting an important distinction and hierarchy in sanitation and quality of water within marginalized communities themselves. Moreover, this notion is demonstrated even in their urinals and traditional toilets, which in rural areas consists of underground containers topped by wooden planks. Even so, local and central governments are not focusing on the issue and working to improve necessary drinking and conventional useful water supply.
I later took this curiosity to the internet, scavenging articles outside of encyclopedias and online pdfs. Within a single click I was led into a new location—Flint, Michigan. In 2014, there was an uproar as it came to light that 12 people passed away as a result of Legionnaires disease consequent to consuming contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Additionally, nearly 12,000 children came into contact with lead in old water pipes, causing a near 58% increase in fetal deaths. As 40% of Flint, Michigan citizens lived below the poverty line, the water crisis in 2014 was later linked to the city’s majority black population, as stated by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, recognizing that these problems—water uncleanliness and racial injustice—are intertwined with each other.
Expanding this concept onto a larger scale, I started to apply the trend in inequality and racially motivated environmental injustice to a global level. Not only did I realize that it affected impoverished communities, but my research pointed that it impacted POC and those within indigenous communities—disappointing, but unsurprising that once again people within these communities were thrown underneath the bus.
Although it is widely taken for granted and seen as a given accessibility, the alarming rates at which the water uncleanliness subtly seeps into the hands of these systematically oppressed groups lead into a larger notion of generational racism and economic prioritization. This problem can only be solved if we, as citizens and children of Mother Earth. decide to collectively take action and try and change this inequality.
Water is a preeminent lens in viewing our societal issues, especially regarding environmental injustice. Though the gap in the quality of water within China and America was undeniably different, the problem never lied with myself, or the community, it lied within the government and authority that ceased to take initiative to focus on these problems. We must come to terms with understanding the intersectionality between POC, indigenous people(s), and those living in impoverished communities that ties into environmental injustice and water cleanliness. In order to fight for justice, we must identify that the problem does not lie in the consumers—regardless of our situation, clean water is a basic human right that we all should have access to, whether in the states, China, or any other part of the world.
To bridge the environmental inequality in marginalized communities, we must first address the problem and spread awareness. Affected populations themselves sometimes fail to notice their lacking water cleanliness or environmental resources, so it is our responsibility as someone who has the privilege to access information regarding this issue to bring it forth to our local communities. From there, we can expand our horizon and beckon a change when collective opinions unite and take the initiative to do so. As the government officials and upper authority have the legal power to implement and execute water cleanliness and close the disparity gap, we must bring forth our opinions and input a clear voice in the change that we want and deserve to see.
By educating ourselves and continuously growing to respect and understand the dire situations handed off to denigrated groups of people, we will finally be able to take a step forward and shed light onto this prevalent issue.
Water goes beyond being a basic necessity and human right—it elucidates the desperate need for justice in a system that is still lacking; one that continuously ceases to oppress those in already marginalized communities. Water is much more than a mere liquid, a drink, but rather is a lens through which we can see the reflection of societal problems and subsequent possible solutions.
While the water reflects the environmental issues stemming from systematic oppression and inequality towards POC, indigenous people, and impoverished communities, it also portrays an illustration of power. When I look into the water—clean or contaminated, in America or in China—I see the same face staring back at me. It’s one of determination and ambition; ready to tackle the future and address the prevalence of dismantling the system and delivering clean, safe water for everyone, one by one—starting with rural areas such as my father’s hometown.
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Knowing that I wanted to incorporate my own experiences into the creative writing submission, I was excited, yet frustrated, in knowing I had to re-live my memories and research the reality of environmental injustice, which is still unfulfilled in many marginalized communities. However, I ultimately ended this piece with feelings of gratitude and motivation, rekindling my fire for wanting to contribute back to the community that deserves safe water and the subsequent deliverance of environmental justice. For any reader, I hope that the message is clear: TAKE ACTION, SPREAD AWARENESS, CONTACT YOUR REPRESENTATIVES! After conducting research I myself was astounded for a second time—this time because the numbers felt too real, the effect of injustice too severe. Thus, I plan on taking the initiative to follow my own advice, inform others, and continuously educate myself in order to properly take necessary action.