“Blue Sky, White Clouds” by Jessica Marlow
As a half-Chinese, half-white female living in the American South, I have long felt a disconnect between my Chinese and American heritage. I learned not one language, but two. I celebrated New Year’s Day not only as the clock struck midnight on January 1st, but also on the day of the new moon between January 21st and February 20th. “Blue Sky, White Clouds” is a product of my realization that despite the dividing lines humans have drawn among ourselves both geographically and culturally, the environment has no boundaries. Health disparities and diseases do not respect borders. Globalization has eroded away barriers between states, countries, and hemispheres. Communities must come together. Societies must overcome their differences and unite against the much larger environmental issues which threaten not just the South Carolina peach farmer or the Beijing urbanite, but both and everyone in between.
Lantian baiyun, one of many Chinese four-character poetic phrases called chengyu, means “blue sky, white clouds.” It is the first chengyu I learned and serves as both the unifying motif and namesake of this story. Though “Blue Sky, White Clouds” visits the life of Reyna, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, as she brings her daughter, Lucy, to China for the first time, it is inspired by a book by Ann Cummins, Yellowcake, which addresses the lives of two families severely affected by the uranium industry in the Navajo Nation. While initially, “Blue Sky, White Clouds” and Yellowcake seem largely disparate, these stories are deceptively similar.
First, both are semi-biographical. Yellowcake was inspired by Cummins’ father who worked in the uranium mines as a young man, while “Blue Sky, White Clouds” was strongly influenced by my mother’s experiences returning to China. Secondly, both address environmental issues in a real-world context. To many, the numerical value of particulate matter in the air can be disregarded as a scientific fact that does not truly affect people’s daily lives, but the strange yet vivid image of a woman bringing 3M masks as a gift for her mother-in-law forces people to recognize the effect air pollution has on real people, just as people do not comprehend the lasting effects of the uranium industry on local residents until fathers begin to die of uranium exposure-related diseases before they can attend their daughters’ weddings.
My mission in writing this short story was to bring the real-world experiences of a woman I know and love dearly to the page in a style both interesting and interpretable to the general public. But more than simply an interesting narrative, I hope the complex interplay of past with present, older generations with younger, and Eastern culture with Western illustrate to readers the dynamism of the health, social, and environmental and issues our modern society faces and will continue to face in the years to come.