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Bong Hits for Water Treatment

December 19, 2011

Yiliang (谊良) county, in the pink, lies within Kunming prefecture (yellow), in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, in light grey (Wikipedia)

In addition to teaching me the basics of water quality monitoring and treatment, my short stint at the Western Water Group water treatment plant in Yiliang, Yunnan introduced me to the lifestyle of rural Chinese officials and businessmen. I reflected on the experience recently.

“Did you make that bong yourself?” I joked to the vice-secretary of Shizong, Yunnan, pointing at the 3 feet tall bamboo water pipe resting on the floor between his legs, an exhausted cigarette limply sticking out at a curious angle toward the bottom.

“This?!” he said, a jovial smile creeping across his face. “No, it was a gift,” he said in the rough Yunnan dialect while exhaling a plume of smoke, which merged with the clouds trapped at the ceiling and stung our eyes red, adding to the brown stains that ran the width of the walls.


The Yiliang plant's two tanks that use bacteria to adjust the chemical makeup of the water (WWG)

I was seated at the chair closest to the door, the position of lowest hierarchy, in a room of Shizong officials and my various superiors at the water treatment plant at which I was working. The CEO of the water treatment company was visiting to discuss with the local officials in an attempt to urge the officials to adhere to the contract–to pay their overdue bills sooner than later, so as to avoid the late fees from the plant. Nevertheless, after discussing the “payment topic,” as my superiors would phrase it in order to minimize perceived discord, the vice-secretary of Shizong took us to a lavish meal outside of the city and toasted every one of us several times, drinking more baijiu, or sorghum alcohol, than the rest of the table combined. After he was done eating and drinking, he convivially and succinctly stated that we were all friends and that he would look into the problem. This experience, masquerading with local officials and how it contrasted with my understanding of stuffy governmental and business meetings in the United States, impressed upon me how business and governmental affairs are conducted in rural China, and perhaps in many other rural areas of the world.

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