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tranSMOGrifying

jonah wu

In L.A. there is terrible dust. Dust everywhere. From day one in this city you are cleaning it out of your nostrils, like dredging black tar from the cavern. It disgusts you, the soot of this place, the way it creeps inside you. Eventually, as you settle into your new zip code, your snot starts to run clear again. You have to wonder: to what have you acclimatized? Overwhelmed by the onslaught of muck, does your body no longer recognize its pollution as foreign? It’s the only explanation. Otherwise—has the smog absorbed you whole?

 

*

 

In an effort to clear up the air ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government decided to impose strict measures on industry and citizens alike. Heavily polluting plants were temporarily closed, gasoline prices were hiked, and—most notably—cars with odd-numbered license plates were allowed to drive only on odd-numbered days, and even-numbered on even-numbered days. It was like a Cortázar story come to life. Most impressively, these restrictions actually worked. You could finally see the blue in Beijing skies for the first time! Any international reservations about the air quality would be averted. Foreign athletes could arrive on Chinese shores and feel safe churning the clean air through their lungs as they ran, tackled, and leapt their way through the city for applause.

 

That summer, you were visiting your grandmother in Shanghai, some six hours south of Beijing by train, and even here, there was a newfound clarity to the air. Everyone made sure to comment on it, exchanging it as customary greeting. The sky isn’t as grey, began every conversation, and it even smells better outside. At her house, your grandmother was telling you about the-good-old-days, as older people are wont to do. “It’s the cars,” she said. “I can’t get used to the cars. All that noise and commotion. You used to be able to go everywhere in Shanghai on bicycle. Now, I can’t even cross the street without fear of getting run over.”

 

Odd numbers on odd days. A simplistic solution that altered a whole country’s environmental impact by orderly design. Restraining if not nature, then the humans who could affect it and be affected by it. Shortly after the end of the Paralympics in September, once all the foreign athletes had departed and international attention had once again refocused elsewhere, the restrictions lifted. Since then, thousands of Chinese citizens each year continue to die from the effects of the dirty air on their bodies.

 

*

 

In L.A., if the sunset is beautiful—shocking pinks, purples, turning your bedroom blue with blush—it is because of the smog. This teaches you that everything, even beauty, has a cost. This color of sunset shows up regularly across local Instagram accounts, splashed across the metasphere like an irreverent mural. Even yours, you’re ashamed to say. Digital likes traded for the toxicity in your lungs. In the dirt, growing into the trees.

You begin to dream of the smog. Polluting not just your reality, but your inner peace. It invades harshly, in the form of a poison fog just beyond the front door of your apartment. Pink, just like that tainted sunset. A haze so hazardous that you have to plug all the cracks under doors and keep the windows closed. It is banging on the walls to get in.

 

Awake, with so much “real life” to attend to, the nightmare seems inconsequential. But just a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrives and everyone is forced indoors under lockdown. In the dream, you remember warning your roommate not to open the doors and invite the contamination inside. An eerie mirror of your new reality. You wonder briefly if you had brought the toxic, unbreathable air to life with your transmogrified body, your innards turned outwards. And now everywhere you go, you are seeping, seeping, seeping waste.

 

*

 

The Chinese government had one more trick up their collective sleeve to clear air pollution quickly and effectively. Cloud-seeding, or blueskying, it was called. Shooting rockets filled with silver iodine into the sky caused clouds to produce rain, and when done several days in advance of a scheduled event (like the Olympic Games), the rain would further disperse the pollutants in the air, keeping skies sunny and clear for televised sports. A concept so surreal it sounded more like it came out of a Murakami novel than a state agency. By all measures, blueskying was a success. With China front and center on the global stage during the summer of 2008, it was a purposeful showing of scientific strength, of a modernization so modern that nature had been brought to heel.

But these technological advances, of course, do not come absent politics. Along with the rain came the displacement of 1.5 million Beijing residents, in order to make space for all the construction necessary for the Olympics. This was not a unique circumstance for Beijing, and in fact remains a crucial and primary argument against the Olympics Games—that poor, houseless, and low-income populations in host cities are always evicted and hidden away, making a pointed statement about who is allowed to stay in their homes and who is instructed to leave. Which neighborhoods are considered important enough to be spared demolition, and why? Who is proffered forth as the “representation” of their country before incoming visitors, and what is the worth of a conversation that lacks the voices of its most vulnerable and persecuted?

Even after the 2008 Olympics, blueskying remained a popular procedure to clear the air ahead of international events. It became possible to tell when a city was about to expect foreign visitors by the hue of the sky. Some instances of blueskying required residents to switch from coal to gas,  but because poorer residents had limited access to the gas supply, they went without heating for the night. Like the Olympics, environmentalism had become a performance steeped in classism. If the pollution, which the state had the ability to eradicate at will, didn’t kill you first, then the infrastructure of poverty would slink in to do the dirty deed instead.

 

*

 

These days, the air is polluted by a virus that, if contracted, will start to conduct an insidious series of damages upon your body. This, too, is an ecological disaster. Consider: what we call large swaths of water are bodies. And humans, as we learn early on in life, are comprised largely of water. On social media, disability activists ring the alarm all day long that the COVID-19 pandemic is a mass-disabling event, and more so than a respiratory disease, it is an attack on your vascular system—the very rivers that carry your blood. SARS-CoV-2 has the ability to rend the vessels of your body to pieces, and it will transmogrify your insides into a landscape of its own desires. A virus has no empathy; its only purpose is to replicate and invade and terraform. This is nature performing its usual work.

Of course, this does not mean that nature goes untouched by humans either. Viral pandemics are the very product of both animal domestication and urbanization. One causes the virus to “jump” from beast to being, and the other proliferates the spread. Our bodies, in turn, become their cities, the necessary worksite for their continued existence. We become, whether we want to or not, the engine in their genetic history. 

And it’s not just the novel coronavirus that turns L.A. air toxic and its sunsets psychedelic. The first pandemic year, there is a wildfire some 40 miles north of you that burns so fiercely that the smoke sweeps through your nearly-treeless city and turns the sky orange. You snap a photo of it for remembrance, unbelieving it to be real. You buy a separate set of masks for this, and for every summer that brings with it ash, soot, and dust. It never had to get this bad. Before European colonization, the Indigenous people of what is now known as California conducted controlled burns, clearing out underbrush that might become kindling and fuel for even more destructive fires, and thereby protecting the plant growth and biodiversity of these forests. This stewardship of the land was an acknowledgement of humans’ place in natural systems—that humans not only exist inside them, but have a role in changing them for the better. But once white settlers came in to remove the Indigenous population, the practice of cultural fires was barred. Fire, from the settlers’ point of view, was not an ally, but a terrifying thing to control and tamp down. Only for time to reveal, slowly, that it is impossible to control a thing you refuse to understand. 

 

*

 

There are ways to protect a human population from a natural disaster, even one so invisible as a pandemic. Across social media, epidemiologists have thrown out the following suggestions for us to continue living our lives while COVID-19 still rages on: better air circulation and filtration systems, more robust testing and contact tracing, access to remote work and learning, continued indoor masking. The list goes on. These would require a fair bit of money and adjustments to our lifestyles, but they are all perfectly achievable.  

 

Instead, government response across the world has been disappointing, even lacking. China’s zero-COVID policy has seen brutal lockdowns with very little state support, leaving citizens for weeks or months in visceral distress, and often without food or recompensed salaries. Here, in the US, we’ve taken the near-opposite approach: ignorance. Americans comprise 4.25% of the world’s population, yet make up 15.6% of global COVID-19 cases—more than double the country with the next highest percentage (India, at 7%). This was the result of repeated inaction and lack of civilian protection from both administrations, plus the diabolic push to return workers to the gears of capitalism. All of this left disabled and immunocompromised Americans at high risk, while disabling many others with long COVID. Low-income and minority communities continued to be most affected. Death and destruction, for the price of a pretty penny.

When institutions of power attempt to control or exploit human bodies, the result is eugenics and genocide. It feels like small coincidence that the US and China have also, in recent years, enacted increasing restrictions on queer and trans expression. What they seem to sanction is an involuntary, imposed transformation of the human body into machine or needless sacrifice, one that serves the needs of the state until it outlives its usefulness. The biological modifications that we choose, that allow a body to be freer and to defy definition, in order to sink one’s self deeper into oneself, are the ones that face legal eradication. But like forests, transness is a wild thing, an intractable form of nature that resists all white supremacist, patriarchal, colonialist attempts to restrain and quell it. Despite these refusals to understand expansive genders, and the restrictions on what we must do for the health of our ecosystems, we tend to our bodies anyway. We clear the brush away, in hopes of brighter summers.

 

*

 

Who is allowed to survive the apocalypse? Oftentimes that question can be translated into another: what is the acceptable body? Many people hold a common, unexamined idea of what a “normal,” even “ideal,” human body should look like: white, cisgender, able-bodied. But the reality, we know, is fuzzier than that. Biological sex is not dichotomous; it weaves and dodges between hormones, organs, chromosomes, and phenotypes, and gender is more nebulous still. Race is a cudgel constructed to dominate and subjugate, and able-bodiedness is a temporary state. All notions of “stasis” are lies. We come as varied as we are many, and various pollutants, pandemics, and other calamities will only continue to inexorably alter us all. There is not a Platonic form among us. Why not create a world that is livable for even our most vulnerable, and let our multiplicity thrive?

 

*

 

The smog is not a permanent fixture in any one body. It drifts, it dissipates. It becomes us all. No one comes out of this clean. It may be too late for you—to flush your dream of that insidious smog. But your skin has always been permeable, vulnerable to outside forces, in the same way that you permeate and change the communities that surround you. So you owe it to yourself to fight for bodily autonomy and environmental justice, which are connected, which are both about what we allow ourselves to become. 

 

And, more urgently, you owe it to yourself to change your body in the way that you want to, in pursuit of liberation, into something gaseous, without borders. Unable to be captured.

jonah wu is a queer, non-binary Chinese American writer and filmmaker currently residing in Los Angeles, CA. They are a two-time Pushcart nominee, and their work can be found in Longleaf Review, beestung, Jellyfish Review, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and others. You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram @rabblerouses.

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