Clippings: Thinking around the world to Irene

As I nestled into my favorite chair on Sunday morning, watching a light drizzle coat Middlebury’s blacktop streets, I tried to envision the potentially daunting events that Irene and her windy temperament might serve up that day.
Although I never imagined what damage this storm would reap, I couldn’t help but gawk at the tornado of consumer culture launched by dramatic weather reports and mainstream media frenzy.
Many of my neighbors began stockpiling food days in advance. A man I met in Burlington recommended that I purchase a $700 generator for one night without power. And electronic company executives likely view Irene as the great Northeast flashlight boon.
Sitting there, my mind wandered back to my youth, where I once prayed for blackouts because they were “fun!” Back then I clearly couldn’t have been bothered by things like 50 pounds of rotting meat in the freezer or a well pump ceasing to provide running water.
All that I cared about was hide and seek, candle-lit powwows and a possible day off school.
As I let my thoughts slip closer to the present, I realized that it was less than two years since I lived in a place where power and running water outages were as commonplace as a falling maple leaf in autumn.
For six months I lived in Lixian, situated in China’s Hunan Province — a small town (by Chinese standards) of 600,000 people. It was six hours to the closest airport, two hours to the closest train station and its power and water relied solely on a nearby dam.
Whenever the dam was under construction, which was a fairly frequent occurrence for reasons still unbeknownst to me, the power or water or both would shut off.
The worst part about the power and water outages was that you never knew when they were coming. I’d be talking to my parents for the first time in weeks via the software program Skype when all of a sudden — no power. Or I’d be in the shower shampooing my hair when all of a sudden — no water.
“Let me know when you’re going to shut down the dam!” I’d yell uselessly.
Keeping the public informed isn’t really the Chinese government’s forte.
I’ll never forget my first power outage in Lixian. How could I? It was my first week there. My girlfriend Mairead and I didn’t have candles and we had barely begun to unpack.
It was late evening and we went for a walk through the school where we lived and taught. Through the dark veil of night, we saw candles flickering by the hundreds. Students, who attend class from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., were still studying in their homerooms, unfazed by the absence of power.
We left the school and went to a nearby restaurant where people were grilling food by candle light on a griddle heated by coals. They didn’t need power for that.
On our way back home, we stopped by one of many convenience stores still open and picked up some candles. Fruit vendors were open. Snack stands were open. Nobody seemed to care that the power was out. It was just normal.
If the students were expected to study without power, you better believe that we were expected to teach without power. It was irritating to prepare a lesson that incorporated video and all of a sudden — no power.
The worst power outages were the ones in the middle of a winter night. I’d go to bed, tucked tightly into the pink fluffy comforter that the school gave me with the heat blasting from a tiny electric heater in the corner. Then, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up with a burning sensation in my nose. All Vermonters know this feeling of mucous freezing in one’s nose all too well.
No power also meant no warm showers.
But even worse than a power outage was when the water would shut off for days on end.
I remember when we once went without water for five days. Toward the end of that stint, my hair would stick in place like a Gumby doll. I’d grumble to my Chinese friends, but they didn’t really know any other way of life. Their quality of life had improved by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, so they had nothing to complain about.
It was only Mairead and me with our fortunate U.S. upbringings that could juxtapose our setting and lament the luxuries and safety precautions of life in the U.S.
The thought of buying generators, stockpiling food or taking drastic steps to prepare for a terrible storm would have crossed few minds in Lixian, and a personal generator is something that I’ve never seen in China. If a catastrophe — like the one Vermont and many of her people are experiencing — hit Lixian, these people simply would not have had access to the same material goods and public services we in the U.S. have. They wouldn’t have had such protection. 
And while Lixian might have seemed rough at times, it doesn’t compare to most other developing regions of the world, where running water is as miraculous an event as Jesus walking on water.
Sometimes, living in the U.S., it’s easy to forget what we have. When such an incredibly high quality of life becomes the everyday norm, many of us are lulled into an illusion that this level of security and abundance is a global standard.
We’re truly lucky for what we have in this country, and in particular, this state. But more than just materials, we’re lucky to have each other. In the face of Irene’s turmoil, communities across the state are continuing to bond together and lend each other a helping hand.
And that’s something that money just can’t buy.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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