What My Chinese Grandparents Taught Me About Sustainability
It has been more than two years since I last saw my grandparents. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I always tried to make the long journey back to China at least once a year. But now, with the country’s borders shut to non-citizens like me for 19 months and counting, “seeing” them has taken the form of video calls. Our talks are usually short, but as time goes by and the physical distance between me and them remains excruciatingly far, I’ve come to cherish these moments of connection.
I still look forward to the day when I can see them in person again, to the feeling of my grandfather’s hand on mine as he guides me through calligraphy strokes or the taste of my grandmother’s famous “leftover noodles.” But for now, these sessions must suffice. They’re even teaching me things about my grandparents that I didn’t know before.
On our most recent call, for instance, I recounted news stories from COP26 that I’d read online. As is the case for so many young people around the world, climate change weighs heavily on my conscience. I do what I can to try to reduce my carbon footprint — recycling, eating less meat, taking public transportation, opting for sustainable brands — but it feels like there’s always more that I can and should be doing.
Yet, as I explained the concept of COP26 and the importance of sustainable living to my 80-something grandparents, I was surprised to only get an unimpressed shrug from the other end of my screen.
“All they have to do is to live the way we did back in the day. It’s as simple as that.”
And then it struck me, maybe it really can be simple as that.
The way we think about addressing climate change is typically synonymous with looking ahead. It’s a future of renewable energy, carbon neutrality, sustainable sourcing — “new” ways to live, work, and be. And as a result of this mindset, we’ve made a lot of progress in recent decades. It’s incredible to think about the social, economic, and technological advancements we’ve already achieved in our collective efforts to save the planet. From corporations like Tesla that have upended fossil fuel-dependent industries to start-ups like Ecologi that are making it easier for anyone to get active in environmental causes, the level of unconventional thinking applied to this issue has been unparalleled. But what if looking ahead to the future isn’t the only way to think about tackling climate change? What if we can also learn from the past?
Some of the answers to our current problems may be found in traditional lifestyles still common in many parts of the world. Historically, developed countries have been some of the world’s biggest polluters. Growing up in the United States and now living in the United Kingdom, I’m all too familiar with the mindset of getting whatever you want, whenever you want it. But I also remember my early years growing up in Shanghai in the late 1990s, an age before high-speed internet and e-commerce sites touting cheap goods and next-day delivery. The majority of my time in those days was spent with my grandparents, and, thinking back on it, they taught me so much about what it means to live sustainably. I remember the way my grandmother would color my fingernails, not with nail polish but with pigment from the flowers in our garden. Or the way my grandfather used the same tea leaves over and over again, absolutely exhausting them before reaching for a new batch. Still, it wasn’t until I really thought about the stories they used to tell about life in the Chinese countryside that it dawned on me: Sustainability is not a new way of thinking. For much of human history, it was the only way of life.
Decades before Greta Thunberg took to the streets to march for climate change, before world leaders met in Paris to commit, however tenuously, to emissions reductions, before alternative meats and electric cars were invented, my grandparents and others in their generation were living in a way that would make any environmentalist proud. They did not grow up with access to supermarkets, online shopping, or central heating. They ate leftovers, reused everything, and wore layers of clothing to keep themselves warm in the winter. These are habits, rooted in traditional ways of life, that they still practice. In their minds, why would they — why should they — ever want more than what they need? Admittedly, these habits are born out of frugality and scarcity rather than a conscious effort at sustainability, but they nonetheless contain lessons for us about how to take less from our planet and make do with what we have.
I’d be lying if I said it would be easy for me to start living the way my grandparents do. My habits, like theirs, are difficult to break. Personally, air travel is not a privilege I find easy to forgo, no matter how environmentally damaging it may be. And the longer I go without seeing my family, the more eager I am for the borders between the U.K. and China to open so I can get on a plane and visit them.
But living sustainably doesn’t necessarily mean reaching perfection; it’s about making choices. Take composting, for example. I find it difficult to consume or use absolutely everything the way my grandparents did when they were my age, but I figured this was the next best thing. What composting really taught me, however, is just how much I consume. And that’s the catch: The more sustainable you are, the more conscious of your habits you become, and the more you realize how sustainable you can really be. There’s something to the concept of “less is more” that I find myself coming back to. Considering more and consuming less. Just ask your grandparents — they know all about it.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Asia-Pacific Images Studio/E+/People Visual)