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2019 Best Literary - Annie Ning

成都 (Chengdu)

I didn’t notice
2008
When the sky was already greying
And the people were already coughing
And although I saw everyone wearing face masks
I didn’t notice

I was too young
Still single digits
To realize the big big world beyond smokers on the sidewalks
And food stalls in the streets
And aunties taking walks beside calm green lakes
Green. They were green

And I didn’t notice
2011
How the city was still aging
How the air was disintegrating
And although I saw more people wearing face masks
I didn’t notice

Because one day the clouds cleared and the sky turned blue
And in the distance, a mountain, just the peak, peered through
And my aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas all said
It’s the first time we’ve seen that in nearly a year
And I didn’t notice
I had never seen it there before either

And I didn’t notice
When I went home and the sky was still blue
When I went home and the grass was still fresh
And I thought that surely this was the way it always was
The way it’ll always be
I thought surely

It took me a while. Until 2016.
Grandpa came for the summer, to see the states.
And he said the air here, it’s so easy to breathe,
It’s not heavy.
And you have a yard in the back, blooming with weeds,
But blooming nonetheless.
And I can feel the Sun even on cloudy days,
Instead of barely at all.
Imagine that.

Imagine that.
Imagine the gardens we could grow.
Humming an indistinct song,
Grow big tomato plants and squash vines.
Watch peppers sprout bottoms up and rabbits crunch on cucumber leaves.
No space back home. Too crowded.
No sunlight either. Too cloudy.
But the air here is so easy to breathe;
I’m sure the plants think so too.
Imagine that.
He puts his hands behind his back,
And hums.

I want to go back,
I don’t want to go back,
I want to go back,
I don’t.

To return to that city inside the mountains,
Trapped between different smokestacks.
I’m scared to notice the weight of the air
The coughing and the greying sky
I’m scared because I didn’t notice the first time
And I no longer know what to decide

I want to go back,
I don’t want to go back,
I want to go back,
I don’t.

I look up, through screen windows
Through light air and clear blue
I’m scared to be hopeful for such a difficult thing
But I spot the wisp of clouds in the distance
And I think I want to see it again
That mountain in the sky

I want to go back,
I don’t want to go back,
I want to go back,
I don’t.

I want to go back,
I don’t want to go back,
I want to go back,
I—

成都 (Chengdu)

This poem deals with climate change, global warming, and the very visible consequences that result from it. My parents and relatives visiting from China would comment on the immediate difference in air quality, visibility—even being able to see seagulls became something exotic. These were all things I’d taken for granted, having grown up in the US, and I realized not only that but also that the two times I had returned to China, I hadn’t noticed a thing. Possibly due to the fact that I was an oblivious child, or just that my memory had failed me, but either way it became something that haunted the back of my head because I didn’t want this image of calm, morning-walks-to-the-supermarket-with-grandma Chengdu to be broken by smog and plastic litter. And then the guilt of not wanting to visit would take its turn haunting me, and the cycle would begin again.

I also wanted, in this piece, to highlight the way people who do live in Chinese cities have become desensitized to what we find almost barbaric, what we look down upon—letting smog cloud and clot the skies. And yet they live all the same, everyday, learning and working and marching on under that unending grey. Every summer my grandpa visits our house in the US, he grows a big garden in the backyard. We have fresh vegetables for the entire season because his zeal cannot be contained. Every year the plot in the back gets expanded so that it’s just a little bit bigger, growing just like the plants. And then when autumn comes, he returns to Chengdu, and lives there just the same. The fog is just a fact of life. To me, as a child, it was like that as well. Saying ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘the sky is grey’ held no different meanings to me back then because I’d always assumed that that was just the way things were. Unfortunately not. And so I waver now, unsure whether to return or not, unsure whether to believe in the garden in the backyard or to finally face the reality of the smokestacks in our ancestral city. I wanted the poem to highlight these differing realities, and the mind of an unsure, but wishing child. Because I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Still yet, I haven’t reached an answer.