The Lessons of KuGong
By Joey Li
An encounter with an old Chinese grandmother during a hot summer day shoveling compost in Brooklyn.
At Community Hill Vinegar Garden, my summers were spent sweating through organic matter in pursuit of suitable compost. While I shoveled through pungent, rotting garbage under the unforgiving sun, a Chinese grandmother stared through the gate. Pushing a cart full of bags overflowing with bottles and cans, she stopped and questioned in Taishanese, “Pretty girl, what are you doing?”
I explained that I was working with Groundcycle, a Brooklyn-based composting project that swapped compost bins with fresh produce. For an hour, I conversed in my sub-par Taishanese.
As we spoke, I recalled my humiliation when my grandmother would take me to recycling centers with bags clinking with bottles. I never understood why she would willingly callous her hands for five cents a can.
Following our conversation, I realized my shame was childish. I should have been inspired. Like most immigrants from Guangdong, kugong (bitter labor) was familiar to my grandparents. They cultivated land, farmed chickens, and gained an income with woodwork. In New York City, my grandmother felt incompetent, with the rows of buildings and constant traffic being a stark difference. Driven by nothing but her will to provide, my grandma sacrificed her days collecting bottles.
The humid and putrid afternoon I spent shoveling through compost was my kugong. Though I will never understand the extent of my grandmother’s kugong, my afternoon taught me the importance of bitter labor and hard work. My grandmother labored for five cents a can, so my focus could be on education. For her, every bottle counted. And for her, I will make sure every second of my education counts, so she will never have to worry about being the one to provide again.
Through Groundcycle, I’ve encountered people of all ages and backgrounds: diverse, unique individuals who are all connected by their passion for sustainability. Over time, environmental sustainability has been glamorized, but it is much more important than reusable bags, metal straws, and saving the turtles. Environmental justice is about the community commitment to promote creative and innovative approaches to engage in environmental justice. Environmental justice requires a collective effort; whether it is bottle collecting or composting, even the smallest exchanges matter.
This piece was inspired by the “My Life With” workshop, where an essay is written in a very methodical, step by step, and sectioned format. While that workshop focused on longer pieces with a longer story, I incorporated it into a shorter story about an encounter I had. While the encounter was short, I felt like this piece was more reflective of my thoughts and the connections and reflections I drew throughout my childhood to now.
Joey Li was born in Guangdong, China and immigrated to the United States when she was three. She likes to read and draw. Her favorite books are "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Her biggest goal for this year is to get into college. She also wants to work on article writing for her high school newspaper. A quirky fact about her is that she likes to hug her knees when she sits.