凉野 LIANGYE ～ The Green Barista
Chinese version below
The Chinese Changemakers
In the summer of 2021, after 6 years in the bustling city of Shanghai working in sustainability, I decided it was time for a new adventure.
I packed my belongings into a storage space and rented an electric car to go meet the Chinese changemakers I was fortunate to meet throughout the years.
Their stories are those who capture me the most, the ones I find most inspiring, and the ones that I find the most joy in conversing with.
The name of this new endeavor is the KAILU project; [kāi lù 开路] means 'to blaze a new trail', 'let's go', and 'open road'. Not only do I love the translation, as I am literally going on the road to meet the Chinese Changemakers, but I also love the underlying message that it conveys: to blaze a new trail for our future, the planet, and the ones living on it.
In this section of the journal, I aim to bring some travel stories, the interviews with the Changemakers, and some of my thoughts on sustainability in China.
Meeting the Liangye, The Green Barista
I reach Sichuan on August 1st, 2021, and plan on meeting with the Six Senses Resort in Qingcheng Mountain, just an hour from Chengdu, the capital.
My stay with them is not until a few days, so I decide to go visit Siguniangshan [the four sisters' mountain], in the Tibetan region of the province. The drive is about 7 hours from my place in Chongqing, so Khailou and I set out early.
We’re only a couple of hours away when we check-in through a toll gate where they ask us for a negative covid test. A new spread just sprouted in different places around the country, including Chengdu. The officers were very helpful and showed us a small town an hour away from where we could get our tests, and try again the next day. We arrive in Dujiangyan, a beautiful small city nestled next to Qingcheng mountain. After finding the hospital, and doing the test, I find us a nice hotel on the outskirts of the city. The next day, after picking up our test and before hitting the road, I look up a place to grab a coffee. Infinite Café is located on a quiet back street in the old town of Dujiangyan. Liangye the barista just opened the shop and takes my order. The shop is light and comfortable, there is a stack of books about coffee in the corner, and old toy story pictures on the wall, you can tell there’s something about Buzz Lightyear that he enjoys. Liangye and I strike up a conversation about who we are, why am I here, where do I come from, where am I going, and what we’re about. I tell him I work in sustainability in China … a silence, he’s thinking. He then started a 30-minute monologue sharing his thoughts on the topic, and how he perceives this term in his own industry. I was quite impressed and I didn’t dare interrupt him.
Before heading out, I asked him if we could have this conversation again after coming back from the mountains and recorded. “Mei wenti” he replied "no problem". Shorter than a week later, I was back at Infinite Café. It was a beautiful summer morning, so he set up a table with two chairs outside and we started our conversation again.
LIANGYE – SUSTAINABLE BARISTA Alizee: How do you understand sustainability in your work? LY: In the old days, coffee was actually not a popular drink in China. People would go for tea. But nowadays, you could see more coffee houses opening up in cities like Shanghai. People found that a lot of things in this business are recyclable, for example, the coffee grounds we just left. This is such a good example that the business is so deeply connected with the concept of sustainability. We usually tell our customers that they could take them away if they want, so they could use them in their flower pot, or simply just put them into their ashtrays, (which would give the room a pleasant smell). The whole industry goes along with the concept of environmental protection and sustainability. And also when it comes to the package, we tend to choose the more huanbao (environmental protection) ones. People used to use a lot of plastic packages, the non-degradable materials, but now, we tend to avoid them. Now we would prefer cups made of paper, porcelain, or glass no matter the order is a drink-in or a take-away. These are only a small part of the sustainability in the coffee business.
I believe that the major part comes from the growing and producing industry. Because that’s where more serious problems are concerned. It concerns the soil, the water, the fertilizer, and the pesticides. Fortunately, we’ve inherited the most precious experiences and values from our farmer ancestors in China, especially in Yunnan. When it comes to farming, we Chinese people fully respect the law of nature. That is to say, we prefer using our bare hands rather than relying on chemical products. For example, if there was a pest, we would use our hands to pick them away, or maybe we could introduce some other species to cancel them out. I think this is exactly what huanbao is about. Actually, you can feel the trend these couple of years not only from the coffee industry. My family is deeply associated with agriculture, my brother runs a vegetable business and my father is a vet. So I guess you can say that my family has a lot to do with the concept of nature. In fact, I think we have to think of nature as an integral whole when we talk about huanbao (environmental protection). Take me as an example, when I was a kid, we can just get out of the house and jump into the river to swim. The water was extremely clean and we didn’t need to worry that there might be harmful stuff in the water. But nowadays, it might be because of the growth of the population and consumption, you can easily find trash in the river. We can no longer swim in the river as we wish and the only place to go for a swim is in a disinfected swimming pool.
Alizee: What do you wish for the future? I wish in the coming days, maybe years, the concept of huanbao could be accepted by the mass, by everyone. Cause the concept really concerns everyone, it concerns our children, our children’s children, it concerns their quality of life, their freedom. This is such a crucial subject. China has brought out several policies in recent years to push the environmental protection, like the ‘grain for green’ policy, which suggests people return some farmland back to the forest. We also have some public benefit projects carried out by the big companies.
Because that’s where more serious problems are concerned. It concerns the soil, the water, the fertilizer, and the pesticides. Fortunately, we’ve inherited the most precious experiences and values from our farmer ancestors in China, especially in Yunnan. When it comes to farming, we Chinese people fully respect the law of nature. That is to say, we prefer using our bare hands rather than relying on chemical products. For example, if there was a pest, we would use our hands to pick them away, or maybe we could introduce some other species to cancel them out. I think this is exactly what huanbao is about. Actually, you can feel the trend these couple of years not only from the coffee industry. My family is deeply associated with agriculture, my brother runs a vegetable business and my father is a vet. So I guess you can say that my family has a lot to do with the concept of nature. In fact, I think we have to think of nature as an integral whole when we talk about huanbao(environmental protection).
Take me as an example, when I was a kid, we can just get out of the house and jump into the river to swim. The water was extremely clean and we didn’t need to worry that there might be harmful things in the water. But nowadays, it might be because of the growth of the population and consumption, you can easily find trash in the river. We can no longer swim in the river as we wish and the only place to go for a swim is in a disinfected swimming pool. So I wish in the coming days, maybe years, the concept of huanbao could be accepted by the mass, by everyone.
Cause the concept really concerns everyone, it concerns our children, our children’s children, it concerns their quality of life, their freedom. This is such a crucial subject. China has brought out several policies in recent years to push the environmental protection, like the ‘grain for green’ policy, which suggests people return some farmland back to the forest. We also have some public benefit projects carried out by the big companies. There is this man, a boss, the biggest boss in China, Jack Ma, maybe you know him. He started this project which allows every user of his app to have trees planted in the desert zone in China under their own name simply by walking for a certain distance or doing a certain amount of sports. The users could also check their trees anytime they want on the same app. Projects like these give people hope I think.
Alizee: What else do you think is the most important thing to do now?
Education. I don’t think we’ve done enough to stress the importance of the concept of huanbao among the young generation. The kids today are overwhelmed by their homework and the so-called ‘spare-time courses’. Today, piano, tomorrow, guitar, the day after tomorrow, maybe math. They are deprived of their right to get a hug with nature, which I personally think is a much more important thing. I think the parents nowadays should tell their kids when they take them to a park that all the views they are enjoying at the moment would disappear one day, slowly but surely, if they don’t start protecting the environment now. In recent years, animals are dying out too. For example, we used to have snakes and weasels everywhere in the village, even in our kitchen when we were cooking dinner. Now, there are none. What happened then? I think the people should understand that the huanbao, environmental protection is not just what we do, but also what we feel. It is in our consciousness, it’s an idea. So it could be passed on among people.
The other day when I got back home, I saw my brother’s kid playing with our cat, and he was beating it. So I asked him, why would you do that? He said he just thought it would be fun. So I asked him what if he was the cat, what would he feel if someone hit him just for fun. I told him that he should be protecting the cat rather than hurting it. Cause we as human beings, we are strong and capable, and that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we feel like, but a greater responsibility, a responsibility to protect. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the documentary The Cove. It shows how dolphins were brutally hunted and consumed in Japan and I was so stunned and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I mean, I’m fine with people eating meat like chicken, beef, and pork, but dolphins, they are on the edge of distinction. The seawater was turned red by the blood of the dolphins and I was so shocked. Since then, I just realized that I have to do something myself. For example, I would convince my brother not to use too many pesticides when he grows his vegetables. Actually, that was a good thing not only for the environment but also for himself, cause generally, he gets to sell them at a higher price. People know what is better. The pigs raised on pig farms sell at a lower price than those raised in nature. In China, the closer the product is to nature, the more expensive it gets. So now, we farmers tend to raise our stocks and grow our vegetables in a more natural way.
For instance, my mom, who is still a farmer now, would just plant a tree and leave it alone, we don’t use pesticides or fertilizers. And then, we raise a herd of chicken in the same yard and when the fruit mature and fall off the tree, we share them with our chicken. In a word, environmental protection is a very complicated issue. It doesn’t have to mean trouble, sometimes, it also means a better income and a mutual benefit. I think this would be the right path in the future, a really good thing. Maybe in foreign countries, things would be different. Chickens locked in a cage for the entire life and send to our dining table before they ever get to see the sun. I guess it’s a pretty common thing in the US. I imagine from time to time the future, if there’s going to be one day when my kids ask me, ‘what is this, dad?’ holding a picture of a chicken. These are the problems I worry about and of course the problem of resources.
When my kid is growing up, he/she will need education which is growing more and more costly nowadays. Some would think that better resources are found in cities compared to the countryside. So if I don’t work hard, my kids would most likely be stuck in the countryside with me. I don’t really care about whether it’s in the city or the countryside that my kids take their education. What I’m afraid of is that they won’t be happy because they won’t be able to see some of the most fundamental things, the essence of life, or in other words, if they lose the connection with nature. So if we don’t act now to actually protect what we have now, maybe our future generations will only see the world as it should be seen in a documentary or a zoo.
Alizee: How do you feel about where you are now?
I am very happy here in Dujiangyan. We have our guobao (national treasure) here, the pandas. We have natural reserves for pandas here in Dujiangyan where they live in the most natural way. But in a zoo, animals are kept in cages and boxes, which I think to an certain extent implies our own situations as modern human beings. We’ve experienced some extreme weather in China this year, like the flood in Zhengzhou, Henan.
Think about if the temperature keeps going up, the coastal cities are very likely to be covered by seawater one day. These facts calls for attention. Besides, I think factories should shoulder their responsibilities. I think most people living in the countryside are more conscious about the environment compared to those who live in cities. The farmers are fully aware that if they don’t protect the earth, the production could be reduced in the future while in the cities, the influence might not be that direct and obvious. Lots of people also ignore the problems of cars. We have electric cars and traditional ones that burn gas.
So the topic really touches every corner of our daily life. We can’t tell people what to do but it’s our obligation to bring out a better option or at least be able to tell the good from the bad ourselves. 10 or 15 years ago, there were still a lot of families that couldn’t afford a car in China. But now, cars are everywhere. When we are choosing electric cars, we might unintentionally affect the income of traditional car companies. So they would exaggerate the disadvantages of the electric cars. And of course, people will listen. And such is a vicious circle. But actually, in big cities like Chengdu and Shanghai, public transportations are so convenient for everyone and it is so green. In small cities, things are different.
IC: I think it’s because, in China, there are still a lot of people whose income isn’t enough for them to choose, even if they know which is better. Some are even still struggling to put bread on the table. There is still a great pressure to survive. In the developed countries like the US and the UK, people are conscious about the environmental protection fundamentally because the people don’t need to worry too much about surviving. But in China, surviving is still a complex problem. We need a place to live, we need money for the wedding and the marriage, we need money for the future of our kids. If we don’t have the money yet, instead of thinking about protecting the environment, we’d rather spend the time and energy to make more money. People living in the countryside are OK, but those who live in cities are really under a lot of pressure. They might don’t feel as happy and satisfied as well as we do. We could enjoy the happiness everyday in the countryside. I don’t really need to worry about too many things. I just go to sleep every night, get up the next morning and open up my coffee shop and do my coffee. I can be happy everyday. But my friend in Shanghai who also works in a coffee shop, things are totally different for him. He need to worry about the income everyday so he could know if it’s enough to pay for the rent, even the transportation fee. He will also have many many taxes to pay. So if you ask him what does he think about huanbao, the environmental protection, he might tell you, ‘Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ People in the countryside might not be conscious themselves either, but what they actually do is closely related.
Another thing we talk about very often now is the food safety issue, which is to secure the safety of our food, not only for us, but also for our future generations. I think this concerns the concept you mentioned before, the sustainability. It’s an important thing. We can still enjoy the taste of many things now, but will our kids be able to do the same? For example, chocolate. What if I tell you that coco will disappear from the earth 50 years from now, what then? Your kids might ask you how it tasted like, I don’t even know how to explain. This is no joke, this is an on-going fact. The earth is heating up. It’s a coconut tree over there. Coconut trees always grow beside the sea, if the sea level keeps going up, there won’t be any places to grow a coconut tree anymore. What then? So we must learn to cherish what we have now and start to make a change. We drink coffee everyday now, but do you know that in Brazil, which is a huge coffee bean exporting country, the production of the coffee beans is shrinking every year. The fact shows us that maybe in 10, 20 years, coffee might actually become a luxury. In China, we don’t have a huge production of coffee beans ourselves, maybe it’s only enough for the domestic consuming. But in the western countries where coffee is largely needed, the price might go steeply high. I think this is why the huanbao and sustainability are such important issues. Once we overuse a natural resource, the price will go up. It’s simple enough. For example, rice. In the old days, the price for regular rice was actually pretty low. But now, rice on the market is divided into different grades according to the area, quality, etc., so does the price. So when you think about it, you might see that everything around us could go the same way, categorized and graded.
Alizee: How is it that you have thought about these things, and others haven't yet?
IC: I don’t really have that much pressure in my life and the place I live is closer to nature. I could capture the mild changes in a more sensitive way. Our house is surrounded by trees and farmlands. I’m lucky that I can eat safely which might not be as easy for the people living in cities. It’s hard for them to tell if the food is safe if they get everything from the supermarket.
So under such circumstances, I have more time thinking about huanbao and considering the consequences of many things. If we don’t protect our earth, the most obvious thing would be the price of the vegetables would go up. For the furniture made of wood, the same, the chairs, the tables, everything. Because these types of resources are nonrenewable. Some say wood is renewable. I say, No. You only need 10 minutes to cut down a tree but 100 years to grow. Lots of people don’t care, but I do. I care about the price. Unless we blend this awareness into our education, things won’t go a good way.
Alizee: You mentioned that Yunnan is different and more environmentally conscious than other places in China. Can you explain why you think that?
LY: Yunnan is the main place to grow coffee in China and the environment is relatively more primitive. The conditions for people to live there are not as convenient so they can’t really use pesticides on a large scale even if they wanted to. So people are growing coffee trees there in the most traditional way with human labor. And the outcome often depends on the weather too.
So if the extreme weather keeps happening and developing, one day it will definitely affect Yunnan too together with its coffee industry. Besides, Yunnan is a place where water is a scarce resource. I think the more scarce the water is in a place, the people there would use it in a more reasonable way. So you can see that in Yunnan, people try their best to avoid wasting water and to protect the water sources.
In China, there is a strong awareness about saving water for everyone. The place we are at now doesn’t have the problem but not in Yunnan. The place is mountainous, which means that not only the transportation is more difficult, but also they have a higher altitude which is actually more suitable for growing coffee.
In China, we don’t worry about the quality of our coffee beans, but how to maintain the production, and how to keep the environment good enough for the coffee trees to grow. That’s the real difficulty. Maybe one day all will be gone because of one single case of natural disaster. I care because this is my job, this concerns me so much. Actually, we often have some relevant activities going on.
For example, we always give some money back to the coffee farmers in addition to the original payment for their products. We do this because we know that they don’t earn enough money and if we don’t help them in possible ways, there will be fewer and fewer people who would even care to grow coffee anymore. And of course, if the production reduces, the price goes up.
We don’t really have a choice and this, I think, is sustainability. We need to make some changes from the very beginning of the industry. We need to be able to help the farmers, first of all, survive, so that they would have time and energy to think about how to make better of their life and work.
Want to enjoy a coffee or a conversation at Infinite Café on your next trip to Dujiangyan?
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