We moved from Xizhou, a small village on Lake Erhai, to the city of Kunming midway through the program. The contrast was immediate. In Xizhou we had an easy time making connections with the people we met, and they were excited to share their stories and friendship with us. Kunming is a large city with far less individuality. Making connections with people was much more difficult and the shops were more corporate and less unique.
Connection to place was also more difficult to identify in Kunming. Like many large cities, the materials used to build the cities and the resources that power every-day life are removed from view. We lived on a bustling street at the Yunnan University Hotel. Every day we could walk down the street and get all the food and commodities we needed, without any connection with the places that were impacted. Where did our trash go? What rivers were dammed to create the energy we use to charge our phones? Who grew our food? Val Plumwood writes about this in her article, “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling.” Plumwood sees shadow places as places that are harmed by the impacts of keeping other locations beautiful and functional. People might see themselves as living in a small bioregion that is entirely self-sufficient, but other places are destroyed to create that illusion. For example, China is a shadow place for the United States. China produces massive amounts of the goods we use every day, from plastic toys to iPhone parts to solar panels. This production harms their environment, such as pollution in Erhai Lake near Xizhou that was partly caused by factories on the Dali plain.
Xizhou has its own shadow places, though. The touristy center hides the water pollution and fertilizer use in the surrounding area, and the mining required to find the beautiful marble that the area is known for destroys local mountain slopes. The market that seems to provide local produce and windmills that we assumed provided power for the area are actually part of the same global system that connects food distribution and power.
I made this painting using soil from the Cangshan Range near Xizhou, indigo dye made with plants from the local mountains and tea from Kunming that was probably grown in Japan. The painting represents how cities are built from materials that come from the earth and are still a part of nature. We are all connected and every action, no matter how small, impacts people across the world.