Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Snow removal
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Well, while I'm here in Harbin (where it isn't very cold at all any more) the American midwest has been clobbered by snowstorms. This seems manifestly unfair to me, somehow . . . I have to keep reminding myself that missing the snow because I'm spending my sabbatical in China is not half bad, you know?

There's very little snow around here, as it happens. I ordered some Yak Trax and Barb was going to send them to me, but I think the time has passed. It's certainly cold enough to snow, but at times like this I realize that I'm actually living pretty near to a rather large desert, and the climate isn't all that damp around here.

And what snow we do get is dispatched with rather speedily, it turns out. People have been asking me how they deal with the snow here. We learned from Mr. Zhang that they put dirt on the streets (not salt) to make them less slippery, which works pretty well, although it makes an incredible mess when you go into a building. The fuwuyuans (foo-yoo-wans) run around after you with mops, cleaning up the footprints; as I mentioned before, my boots really gather the crud, so I always feel a bit guilty about walking on the clean floors . . . I've stopped wearing them in favor of walking shoes, actually, because I no longer need the insulation from the cold.

As for sidewalks and the like, here's what they do:


That's right, they shovel it. Mostly by hand.


And when they've gotten it into neat little piles, here's what they do:


They load it onto bikes, or maybe trucks:


(That big silver sphere is not actually in that truck. It's really a sculpture that's behind the truck, but this was the only angle I could manage for this shot.)

And what about those pesky ice patches, you ask? Take a look:


There's a shopkeeper breaking up the ice in front of her store.

I have to say, I find these methods of snow removal extremely appealing. I hate snowblowers; maybe if they came with mufflers I'd feel differently, but the noise just completely spoils the effect of a nice blanket of snow, as far as I'm concerned. When I was a kid and snow fell, all the neighbors went out and shoveled and it was a social event. A friend here tells me that when she was a kid, it was tacitly understood that when the snow fell, everyone in her apartment block went to get their shovels because they were responsible for clearing the sidewalks around where they lived.

Clearing snow by hand is healthier than using machines and it's way more environmentally friendly. I don't mean to sound quaintly prosaic about the Chinese or about snow; I'm sure that if the Chinese had their druthers, they'd have snowblowers, too. But I wonder what it would take for Americans to dial back their expectations about machinery, and I wonder what the Chinese will lose when they become rich enough to buy themselves out of doing this manually. As oil prices go crazy again, I can't help but think we'd all be a lot better off if we started voluntarily to think about the times and occasions when we can forego the gas-guzzling, on whatever level. Snow provides one such opportunity.

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