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  Field Notes From
China's Growing Pains

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China's Growing Pains On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Bob Sacha

China's Growing Pains On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Author

Jasper Becker

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Mark Thiessen (top) and Bob Sacha


China's Growing Pains

Field Notes From Photographer
Bob Sacha

Best Worst Quirkiest
    As I walked down a mountain in Yunnan Province, which is next to Tibet, I saw a "living buddha" coming up. In Buddhism, the way I understand it, when you die after becoming enlightened, you can choose to be reborn on Earth and you're identified as a living buddha. It's such an odd thing to see spirituality in China, so to see this amazingly serene monk in Buddhist robes walking up the mountain felt so out of the ordinary. Moreover, this is a holy mountain, so its trees hadn't been cut down. We were doing a story dealing with environmental problems and struggles, so to see something spiritual in that beautiful woodland was like seeing a ray of light. It sounds kind of corny, but after observing terrible pollution and breathing bad air, witnessing something spiritual encouraged me to keep going.

    Working on a story about environmental degradation in China meant constantly being in towns with incredible air pollution. Most of it is caused by factories burning coal, which is a very dirty energy source. I drove into an industrial town once and saw what looked like a fog enveloping the city. I asked the driver about it, and he said, "No, that's pollution."
    The air in some Chinese cities is awful. It's thick and hazy all the time, and it has a yellowish cast, as if your glasses are really dirty. You never see anything clearly or sharply, and there's never a bright blue sky.
    I went to China twice for this story, and each time I came down with these severe sinus infections from breathing the air. I'd never had a sinus infection before in my life, and they're incredibly painful. It felt as if someone had driven a nail into my head. But while this might have been a bad experience for me, just imagine what it's like for the people who live in those cities. They breathe that air all the time.

    When I went to China the first time for this story, I wanted to take a cell phone that would work there. Some cellular phone networks in the U.S. operate on the same system used in China, and my cell phone company said they had some that would function in China. At the store they offered me three—one in stock and two I could order online. They were all very expensive and clunky. But they said, "This is it. Take it or leave it."
    I chose one, and after arriving in the capital city of a Chinese province, not a very wealthy province, I stuck my head in one of the cell phone stores. There were a hundred different European and Chinese models on sale, including the three I had been offered at home. Not only did the shop have a lot more models, the ones they had were cooler and much cheaper. I thought that was really wild.


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