My mother always told me that my first word was “recycle.”
Okay, the chances of that being true are slim to none. Although my first words were probably “googoo gaga,” the implications are clear—I have been exceptionally environmentally conscious from a young age. It’s inevitable, really. Having grown up in the Green Age, terms like “composting” and “organic” are thrown around so often that, to me, it seems only natural to recycle my plastic bottle instead of throwing it out or, even better, bringing my own reusable mug to refill. I have discovered that I like to surround myself with like-minded individuals, so my subconscious beliefs in maintaining a healthy planet have never been questioned, but always reinforced.
I had never been forced to reflect on my green practices until my grandmother came to live with my mother and me last year. Never having left China save one time she came to Canada to visit my sister and me when we were babies, she had never been heavily exposed to the media and culture that greatly advertises a green lifestyle. I recall the first time I watched her fold up the cardboard box of crackers and toss it into the trash can, and the look of utter bewilderment on her face when she saw my jaw drop in response. How could I convey the need to do our part to take care of our planet to someone to whom it had never been explained? It’s not easy to make lifestyle changes once you have had them for decades. So, I embarked on a quest; I pledged that, by the time my grandmother returned to China, she would see the environment through my eyes.
I began by observing her day-to-day behaviour and actions. I had alwlays known that she was extremely frugal; it was the way she was raised. It’s a noble quality to possess and often leads to making choices that benefit the environment. For example, in the winter months she would wrap an extra blanket around herself when she slept instead of turning on the heater. Easy, practical… no harm done! However, I often found that her thrifty ways often clouded her judgement in certain situations. When we were at the supermarket, she would always choose to buy the cheapest possible option, never stopping to consider whether or not it was organic, grown locally, and produced ethically.
Still, the question remained. How could I explain it to her? When I said, “Grandma, we’re fortunate enough to be able to afford organic food. It’s the right decision to make,” she would shoo me away and continue her shopping. Verbal communication failed me, and even pictures, which are supposedly worth a thousand words, had proven themselves ineffective in this instance.
I began thinking about the City of Vancouver’s “greenest city by 2020” campaign, promoted for the most part through flyers and posters placed throughout the city. Although all of the ideas that are implemented through this project are definitely ones on which everyone should be educated (green economy, green buildings, local food, public transportation, etc.), I couldn’t help but question its appeal to a large portion of the population. My grandmother experienced an enormous language barrier while in Canada, and although she made a huge effort to communicate with others in whatever way she could, the prospect of going outside on her own and being surrounded so completely by a language she didn’t know was understandably daunting. Not only would the advertisements not be able to reach her, but she wouldn’t even be aware of them if they did. In a place such as Vancouver, where cultural diversity is not only prevalent but also a huge part of our city’s dynamic, I am left questioning whether or not the City chose the best strategy to target their campaign at the largest possible population.
Then it hit me. Words and pictures are not necessarily universal, but experiences are something that everyone, regardless of background, can make connections with. So I began taking my grandmother somewhere different every weekend. We would go for long walks around Stanley Park, linking arms and listening to the soft chirp of the birds. We went to the Capilano suspension bridge, and I watched my grandmother’s jaw drop in awe as she stared out into the distance. We took my dog out to Buntzen Lake for a swim. We did the Grouse Grind and both collapsed from exhaustion at the top, but not before enjoying the breath-taking view from the peak.
Her last weekend in Canada arrived, and I took her to my favourite place in the entire world: Jericho beach. I love this beach so much because, when you sit there, you can see the ocean, the city, and the snow-capped mountains. We sat there for a long while, and when I looked over at her, I saw tears welling up in her eyes. I leaned towards her and asked her if she now understood, and she nodded silently in reply.
In Chinese culture, it is tradition for knowledge to be passed on from generation to generation. Before this time with my grandmother, it never occurred to me that this knowledge did not necessarily have to be passed down, but could be passed up. When I received a letter from my grandmother two months after her departure containing a photo with her and her friends, all holding up their reusable water bottles with huge smiles on their faces, I knew that I had achieved my goal of making my grandmother see things the way I do. The power of education on sustainability not only has the power to invoke change, but also brings people together in a way nothing else can.
And I hope that, when I myself have children, I’ll raise them in such a way that their first words will actually be “recycle.”
- Angela Sun