Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 4

When I say that I am worried about flame retardants, I am particularly worried about brominated flame retardants and chlorinated tris. I found this article from 2004 helpful for understanding the chemistry of these flame retardants. I find these types of flame retardants especially scary because a) they bioaccumulate (i.e. once they are in your body they are going to stay in your body for a very long time, possibly the rest of one’s life) and b) they generally are carcinogenic and disrupt the endocrine system. I don’t want cancer, and I already have a vulnerable endocrine system. Specifically, I’m in the grey zone between ‘does not have Hashimoto’s disease’ and ‘has Hashimoto’s disease’ and I want to preserve my thyroid’s ability to make hormones so that I don’t need to take prescription hormones.

Ironically, one of the household products with the highest levels of brominated flame retardants is plastic casings in computers – and hey, I’m using a computer right now. Here is an article about brominated flame retardants in electronics. It makes me glad that it’s been over 15 years since there has been a TV in my room (well, except when I was in Taiwan, but the TV was far from my bed and I almost never touched it), and glad that I insisted on keeping computers out of my room until my mid-teens. And my keyboard, which I am using to type this post, may also contain high levels of brominated flame retardants. Great. I’m going to wash my hands after I finish typing this.

But this is about my bed, not my electronics.

And the answer is, yes, my new futon mattress contains a flame retardant chemical.

BUT the only flame retardant chemical it contains is sodium borate, more commonly known as borax. Borax does not bioaccumulate, is not a carcinogen, and one needs a fairly high dose in order to be poisoned. I don’t plan to eat my mattress, so I’m not worried about exposing myself to a high dose. The borax will make it more complicated to compost my mattress after its no longer useful as a mattress, but it is still biodegradable in some circumstances (I’m almost certain a municipal composting facility could handle it), so it’s not going to poison the world for thousands of years or something. There are some who claim that sodium borate is not ‘green’ or safe to use at home, but upon further research, I did not find those claims convincing (here is an essay about that).

Besides being a flame retardant, borax is also a bed bug deterrent. I have never had a problem with bed bugs, and I want to keep it that way.

And borax is also antifungal. For reasons I explained in the previous post, I appreciate a little extra help keeping the mold at bay. Borax is not antibacterial, so benign bacteria are welcome to live in my bed (I think our living environments already have too many antibacterial chemicals – antibacterials in my mattress would be overkill).

Of course, I learn that pillows can have flame retardants too. Where aren’t there flame retardants?

I took a closer look at my pillow and found that 1) it is 100% polyester (probably a lot less flame retardants than foam pillows, but possibly still has toxic flame retardants) 2) it was moldy and 3) it was generally gross. The last two things weren’t really a surprise since I have been using this pillow since I returned to San Francisco in 2014, and it was probably an old pillow lying about the house back then (i.e. not new), and I’ve never cleaned it, and I drool in my sleep.

I decided to replace it with a millet hull / buckwheat hull pillow. Since buckwheat pillows are common in Japan, it’s consistent with the washiku aesthetic of the mattress and goza mats. I also liked the idea of being able to combine millet and buckwheat in whatever ratio was most comfortable to me.

I started out with having it be a full buckwheat pillow (not millet). A lot of people report that they need a night or two to get used to using a buckwheat pillow. Not me – I thought it was very comfortable right away. Then again, I also think paperback books are okay pillows, so I’m not the most discerning of pillow connoisseurs. Then I experimented with a few different buckwheat / millet ratios. I think the main thing millet hulls add is that they are quieter than buckwheat hulls. I think the thing where hull pillows really excel (for use/comfort) is that they provide excellent support for the head, which means I move my head less when I’m in bed. I did have a problem for a little while with my ear getting sore after lying on the pillow all night, but I fixed that problem by adjusting the fill.

I also think a queen size pillow is a bigger than I need. Not that having a big pillow is a problem – it’s just more than I need.

While I appreciate the versatility of being able to have various buckwheat/millet ratios in my pillow, I think in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend less money and just buy a smaller pure buckwheat pillow (BUT definitely one with a zipper – it is important to be able to adjust/replace hulls).

I still drool when I sleep. Thus, the hulls may eventually get moldy. In fact, they will probably get moldy even faster than polyester. I suppose if that happens I could just replace the hulls, and use the old hulls as mulch in the backyard.

***

Out of the five mattresses which were in my old bed, the two old futons and the feather mattress are now gone. We arranged a bulk item pickup with the local recycling/trash service, and we got rid of some other bulky items which are no longer usable (we can request ten items be removed per pickup). I assume they will recycle the parts which can be recycled, and send what cannot be recycled to a landfill.

The box spring mattresses – including the one which was poking me in the back – are now in our basement.

Since we easily have ten items for the bulky item pickup, I did not insist on putting the box spring mattresses in the pickup. But I am irritated because I want to have space in the basement for things which are potentially useful, not mattresses which we are never going to use again, and which will become harder to move as my dad loses physical mobility. My mom is the one who insisted on keeping those mattresses, at least for now. Yes, even the mattress that pokes people in the back. She says ‘what if we have overnight guests?’ Hey, we already have a guest mattress, and we would have to rearrange a lot of furniture to make space for a second guest bed. It would be easier to put people in sleeping bags/tents in the backyard than to place TWO guest beds in our home – especially since the mattresses in question have to be moved by two people (what if my dad is no longer in good enough shape to move the mattress at that time?) whereas I can set up tents/sleeping bags by myself. And why would we want to offer guests a mattress which pokes them in the back?

At first, she was even against getting rid of the moldy futons and the useless feather mattress. However, once it sunk it just how useless these mattresses are, she agreed to have them removed.

My mom has trouble letting go of a lot of material goods, not just these mattresses. My guess is that it has to do with her childhood experience of poverty, when getting adequate clothing for everyone in her family was a struggle.

And that is why my bed was piled up with all of these bad mattresses in first place. Those five mattresses were not there because they were each contributing to my sleep. I would have slept just as well with the bottom box mattress as will the five mattresses – better, because I would not have been poked in the back. Heck, I was probably exposed to even more toxins/mold with those five mattresses than I would have been if there had only been a single box mattress. All those mattresses were there because it was a place to store them, not to serve my benefit.

I do not think my parents really thought through all of the costs and benefits of keeping those mattresses in my room. I do not blame them, because until these past few months, I had not thought through the costs and benefits of all of those mattresses myself.

If we put in another request for bulky item removal, I am going to try to persuade her to agree to get rid of these mattresses. I really would prefer to have more space in the basement.

In the next part and final part, I will talk about three alternative types of natural/simple beds which cost less than 1000 USD (i.e. are not as outrageously expensive as most natural/organic beds sold in the USA), and why I decided not to try them.

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Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 1

I wrote this post about my tent having toxic flame retardants. As I was writing the post, I was dimly aware that a lot of furniture in my home probably has toxic flame retardants too, and that objectively, the flame retardants in my home were probably harming much more than flame retardants in my tent. However, I had a mental block. Why? Because I’m not used to choosing furniture in my home.

Until now, I’ve basically never exercised any choice about furniture in my home (except maybe something on the scale of moving a chair). I currently live in my childhood home, which means that pretty much all of the furniture was chosen by my parents, not me. I’m used to having them make decisions about adding or removing furniture, not me. In Taiwan, I only lived in furnished apartments, which meant that my landlord chose the furniture in my home (which I liked because it saved me the bother and expense of having to buy and move furniture).

By contrast, I’ve generally picked out my own camping gear, so I am used to taking responsibility for whether the camping gear suits my needs and preferences.

Until very recently, my bed was literally five different mattresses piled one on top of the other, all on top of a metal bed frame. I did not even know how many mattresses there were until I removed them one by one. Those mattresses have been there ever since I returned to the United States in late 2014. Were they there before I left the United States? I don’t remember. I didn’t pay attention to what my parents did to my bed when I was absent.

When I returned home after my big trip this summer (2017), I noticed that the top mattress has springs which were poking through the fabric and thus poking me. This made it difficult to sleep. So I did the rational thing and … piled some extra sheets on top of the mattress to cushion it, and then pulled out my lightest sleeping bag to sleep inside it on top of the sheet pile. It was a decent kludge for when I wanted to go to sleep and didn’t have time/energy to do anything about the mattress. However, instead of trying to change the mattress, I just kept on using the kludge for more than two months.

I took this photo while I was in the process of paring down my old bed. The mattress which was poking me in the back is leaning against the wall on the left side. Inside that mattress protector in the back of the picture was the bad feather mattress. The red thing in the foreground is a quilt which I am still using now.

It eventually sunk in that, if I were concerned about exposing myself to toxic flame retardants, I could do a lot more to reduce my exposure by changing my bedroom than changing my tent. And it sunk in that changing mattresses would probably lead to better sleeping than just keeping the sheets piled on pokey bedsprings. So I finally decided to get rid of ALL of those mattresses I had been sleeping on and buy a brand new mattress.

Fortunately, I made this decision just in time for Black Friday. Thus, I was able to get a traditional Japanese futon mattress (also known as ‘shiki futon’) that was made purely from organic cotton grown in Texas for less than 300 USD (including taxes). If you have any idea how expensive organic cotton is, then you appreciate what a bargain this is. Specifically, I bought this futon (Twin XL size, 3 inch, organic cotton case).

Why organic cotton as opposed to ‘conventional’ cotton. This explains the difference in environmental impact. In addition to the general environmental reasons, if I’m trying to avoid toxins, it makes sense to avoid the toxins used in processing ‘conventional’ cotton. I’ve also noticed, when I compared organic cotton fabric to equivalent conventional cotton fabric, that the organic cotton fabric is higher quality and lasts longer. I think it’s worth paying triple the price to get organic cotton (I have seen a new conventional cotton shiki futon for sale for about 100 USD).

I was surprised to learn that this futon is made in San Francisco. I was even more surprised to find myself visiting their factory and showroom in order to buy the futon. I have since learned that there are several businesses with mattress factories which operate in San Francisco, not just this one. Like must of the United States, San Francisco, which once had a lot of manufacturing, has been deindustrialized. Though this was not the deciding factor, I think it’s cool that I now sleep on a mattress which was made in the very same city where I’m using it, which is also the city where I’ve spent most of my life.

The factory, of course, is in southeast San Francisco. I consider southeast San Francisco to be part of the rust belt. First of all, there is literally lots of rust – people who love rusty abandoned industrial buildings can have a great time in southeast San Francisco. Deindustralization has hit southeast San Francisco hard. When I hear or read about cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Buffalo, etc., I imagine them as being like southeast San Francisco but with more land area, cheaper housing, less gentrification, and worse infrastructure. My mother expressed concern about me going to the factory/showroom – especially since it’s just a block away from Potrero Terrace, one of San Francisco’s ‘most distressed’ public housing projects – but I wasn’t worried, especially since I’ve never had a problem when I’ve walked through Potrero Terrace before (you can see what Potrero Terrace looks like in this video). Like the rest of the rust belt, southeast San Francisco has a reputation for being full of poverty and crime.

Anyway, back to my new organic cotton shiki futon. Why that and not some other non-toxic mattress?

First of all, it was the second cheapest new non-toxic/organic mattress I was able to find (I will discuss the cheapest, and why I decided against it, in a future post in this series).

Second, it’s consistent with washitsu style. During my extensive travels in Japan, I slept in washitsu-style rooms many times and became rather fond of them. I don’t intend to converting my entire bedroom into an authentic washitsu room, but for years I’ve thought it would be nice to incorporate some of that aesthetic. And now I have.

This washitsu room is actually in Rueisui, Taiwan, not in Japan. However, this inn was built when Japan ruled Taiwan to serve Japanese guests, and the innkeepers have maintained its original Japanese style. I remember that I had to pull out a futon and blankets from the closet and lay them on the tatami floor myself.

Third, it did not have wool. A lot of the nontoxic mattresses use wool because it is naturally fire-resistant and a way to comply with federal fire safety laws without using toxic chemicals. However, I do not want wool because a) I do not want to exploit sheep that way and b) I don’t want a repeat of the moth infestation I experienced in my bedroom as a child.

Fourth, it does not contain latex. I am only allergic to synthetic latex (or more accurately, the chemicals which are sometimes mixed with synthetic latex), not natural latex, but I still feel more secure avoiding natural latex.

Fifth, I like the idea of having a portable bed. My new shiki futon only weighs about 30 pounds (14 kg) so I can easily move it without assistance. I’m going to discuss why portability is important to me in the third post in this series.

The next post? I’m going to talk about what the purpose of a bed actually is.

How Much Do I Need the Internet?

Like just about every internet user who is not on the payroll of a massive internet service provider, I am in favor of net neutrality. In the United States, there is a serious threat that net neutrality will be lost. It would be best to keep net neutrality, but if net neutrality is lost, it would then be good to reduce one’s personal dependence on the internet. And even if net neutrality is preserved, the internet still can pose various threats to personal liberty, which is another reason to limit one’s dependence on the internet.

And I love the irony of writing about this on the internet.

As followers of this blog know, I recently went on a really long trip, mostly in places without electricity or internet service. I did not carry any device which could connect to the internet, so I had even less internet access than most of the people around me – people who carry smartphones could access the internet whenever they stumbled on a place with a wifi signal, whereas I did not just need wifi – I also needed to borrow a device. That meant I, for the most part, did not have internet access at all, and when I did have internet access, it was because someone was doing me a favor and I was using a frustrating smartphone on a mediocre wifi network. This was an excellent exercise for figuring out how much I needed the internet.

My #1 use of the internet is email. I generally only spend a little time on my email account, but when my internet access is very restricted, email gets top priority. Yet most of the emails I get are not that important to me – in fact, I don’t even read most of them. What makes email such a high priority is a) when I was away from home, it was a means of contacting my family (though I could also use a phone) and b) WHAT IF an important email arrived? That was the main reason email was such high priority – chances are, on a given day, I’m not going to receive any important emails, but I have to check my email to make sure that I don’t have any important emails.

My #2 use of the internet was practical information/reservations. When I was on trail, I could get all the practical information I needed by talking to people, but it was sometimes nice to confirm by checking the internet myself. I did need to print maps when I was in Ashland, which is why I had to reserve a longer block of time on the computers at the Ashland public library. However, as soon as I got off the trail, I suddenly needed the internet more urgently to get information on accommodation + transit in Canada, as well as to make reservations (including my reservations for trains and accommodation in Seattle and Portland). I could have done this with a phone and printed guidebook instead, but I didn’t have a printed guidebook for Canada (or Seattle/Portland), so that was that.

During my recent travel, when I got internet access, my usage was usually limited to email and practical information/reservations. However, I occasionally got slightly better internet access. For example, once I was done printing maps at Ashland, I still had some time left over before I was required to yield the computer to the next user. And in Snoqualmie Pass and Vancouver, I had access to internet terminals most of the time at my accommodation. Thus, I could use the internet beyond the strict essentials (I was also allowed to borrow an iPad upon request from the hostel I stayed at in Seattle).

What was my #3 use of the internet when I had extra access? Blogs. I would catch up on blogs. I used some of my extra time in Ashland on reading blogs, I spent a good chunk of time reading blogs in Vancouver, and in Snoqualmie Pass, I even wrote a short post. It became pretty clear to me that, beyond the bare essential practical uses of the internet, blogging is what I value most.

In Snoqualmie Pass, that oasis of internet access (it sure felt like an oasis of internet access to me), after I had taken care of my email, done the practical things I could do, and caught up on as many blogs as I had mental stamina for, I had a ‘what now?’ moment. I had all of this internet access, yet I could not think of a way to use it. I was too used to not having internet.

I basically do not do social media, so that is a large chunk of the internet which I do not use (I have no logged into my Facebook account since January 2010, and I don’t even understand how Twitter works, or Pinterest, or a bunch of other social media sites). There is a social penalty to refusing to use social media, but because this is my long-term state, I have developed a social life which does not rely on social media.

Yes, I do sometimes watch streaming videos on the internet, but I don’t value that as much as blogging. If I somehow lost access to video streaming, it would not be a big deal to me – it wasn’t a big deal that I never streamed videos during my entire two months of travel. In fact, nearly all of the online activities which I value (except the rare occasion when I want to download/upload big files) would work okay at dial-up speeds. And if I could somehow make sure that I never got an important email during my travels (or if I was comfortable with allowing someone else to check my email for me), and had a setup where I did not need the internet to make reservations, I probably would not use the internet at all on my next big backpacking trip.

This reflects my current situation – at other points in my life, I valued various internet services differently than I do now. Many people have much greater economic dependence on the internet than I do. For example, I know that some people in rural parts of the United States rely on Amazon for many purchases because it takes them several hours to drive to a place where they buy things in person (this is actually a situation which existed before the internet; a hundred years ago many rural households in the USA bought many goods from the Sears & Roebuck mail catalog for the same reason). There are also many people who value services such as video streaming and social media a lot more than I do. I do not think I am morally superior to people who value internet services differently than I do (especially since the way I value various internet services changes over time).

In addition to the issue of net neutrality, there is also the problem that the internet is becoming increasingly dominated by a few corporations – namely Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Even if these companies are not behaving badly, I still do not like so much power being so tightly concentrated. Thus, I want to avoid using them (and being dependent on them). I don’t use Facebook or any of their affiliated services anyway because when I tried using Facebook I didn’t like it. Nowadays, I will only buy something on Amazon if I a) really, really want it and b) cannot find any other reasonable way to get it. This is why I have not bought or read any ace fiction books which are only available for sale on Amazon (I can buy ace fiction fiction books which are available for sale elsewhere). Years ago I switched to using DuckDuckGo instead of Google for basic search. I still watch videos on YouTube and use Google Maps, and I even will occasionally give the Google search engine a shot if I’m unsatisfied with the DuckDuckGo results (and I sometimes give Baidu search engine a shot too, even though it’s under Chinese censorship).

Luckily, I’m not personally dependent on any of these companies, and I want to keep it that way.

However, I remain worried about the broader consequences. For an example of how letting one internet company have a lot of power can lead to badness, I remind you of the books which were too gay for Amazon (even though the cause in this case is disputed, it still shows how Amazon can abuse its power). A similar and more example is YouTube restricting LGBT+ content, which also affected ace vloggers (heterosexual videos with explicit sexual content are totally okay for kids but videos talking about asexuality are ‘mature’ and should not be viewed by people under 18 … wait, how does that make sense?)

The less dependent one is on the internet for various services one values (i.e. being able to substitute internet services one values with offline equivalents), the less power the internet – the internet service providers, large internet companies such as Google and Amazon, governments who censor the internet (I occasionally use websites based in China, and I fear that there will be more censorship in the US-based internet in the future) will have over one. I realize it is especially difficult to reduce one’s dependence on the internet if one needs it for a livelihood, but I think it’s something to consider.

Does My Palace Cause Cancer? What Can I Do?

Is my palace (tent) spreading toxic chemicals?

I’m working on a draft of a blog post about Leave No Trace and my experiences with camping. Working on that draft, I started thinking about the chemical impact of tents on the environment, so I decided to do some research, and then decided that this topic was important enough to merit its own blog post.

Spoiler: My palace (i.e. tent) is probably carcinogenic.

Most backpacking tents contain toxic chemicals. There are different types of toxic chemicals they may maintain.

One types of toxic chemical is fluorocarbons. They help waterproof fabrics, including tent fabrics. They also wash off fabric when it rains or water is otherwise applied to the fabric, and they damage the ecosystem, and since they are persistent (i.e. it takes a long time for them to break down) they can spend a lot of time damaging the ecosystem. Lovely. Oh, and fluorocarbons are also bad for humans because they are hormone-disruptors.

I had already been aware that many rain jackets / shells / etc. contain fluorocarbons, that they are a toxic pollutant, that fluorocarbons have been found in even the most ‘pristine’ wilderness areas, and that was one reason I chose fluorocarbon free rain gear for my big hike in Washington (which I ended up not using much because it only rained twice, but if it had rained a lot, my rain gear would not have poisoned the trail ecosystem with fluorocarbons).

However, I had not thought about whether my tent contained fluorocarbons.

Does my tent have fluorocarbons? I do not know, and I have not asked the manufacturer (Big Agnes). Based on my research, my guess is that my tent probably does not contain fluorocarbons. However, that is an educated guess, not a certainty, and maybe I’ve guessed wrong.

Another common type of toxin found in tents are PVC and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). They cause cancer and mess up the ecosystem. The manufacturer of my tent says that my tent is PVC and VOC free, so I don’t have to worry about that, hurray! I will have to pay attention to that if I ever get another tent.

And then there are flame retardants. You can learn many of the gory details by reading this article. The TL;DR is: flame retardants cause cancer, do NOT improve fire safety, and for legal reasons, are found in the vast majority of the tents sold in the United States and Canada. Lovely.

I did contact Big Agnes (the manufacturer of my tent) to ask about flame retardants. Their answer was: ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS. They have not told me which flame retardants they use, but the range for flame retardants (in terms of toxicity and effectiveness in fire safety) is not good thru bad, it’s bad thru horrible, so if I get a list of the specific fire retardants they use, all that would tell is is whether they are on the bad end of the spectrum, or the horrible end of the spectrum, and I do not think that information would affect my decisions.

I repeat, BIG AGNES HAS TOLD ME THAT ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS.

I understand that they probably do it for legal reasons, and I thank them for telling me.

Though I did not get this information from Big Agnes, based on my research, it seems that the flame retardants are most likely in the PU coating. If this is so, that means that they are probably not leeching much into the environment (like fluorocarbons, flame retardants are bad news for the ecosystem). On the other hand, they are in the area where I sleep.

So now what? Here are my options:

OPTION 1: REPLACE MY PALACE WITH A NEW TENT

I love my tent! This would make me sad. But knowing that my tent might give me cancer will definitely affect my love for my tent, and will possibly make it harder for me to sleep in my tent.

This would also raise the question of how I would dispose of my tent. Landfill? Let it sit in my closet indefinitely? Sell it – “Hey, I’ve stopped using this tent because it causes cancer – want to buy it?”

Also, this means I would have to get a new shelter. High-quality shelters tend to be expensive, so that would hit my wallet hard. Or I could get a tarp shelter, but they require a lot more skill than tents.

Oh, and I would have to make sure my new tent was also fluorocarbon and flame retardant free, which would exclude most of the tents sold in the USA and Canada because of the legal requirements to poison campers. What tents are fluorocarbon & FR free? The Moonlight tents are fluorocarbon and FR free – and the lightest one weighs about 5 pounds. That weight is a dealbreaker for long-distance use (and I don’t use tents for short-distance purposes often enough to justify buying a tent just for short-distance trips). It looks like, based on the description, that the tent has a lot of cool features, but I would be happy to get rid of some of those features to reduce the weight.

Based on this, its seems that for legal reasons, any tent sold by a major retailer in the USA (such as REI) will have the flame retardants. A tent manufacturer based in the USA but not located in any of the states which require flame retardants in tents and which does not sell through retailers in those states is not legally required to use flame retardants, which limits me to tent manufacturers who do not distribute through retailers across the USA/Canada.

I do not know whether cuben fiber tents contain flame retardants or not. If I ever decided I wanted a cuben fiber tent, I would ask the manufacturers about this. Since I do not want to buy a cuben fiber tent, I am not going to research it at this time. However, one manufacturer of cuben fiber shelters, Mountain Laurel Designs, says that all of their bug netting fabric has flame retardants. That rules out any shelter with bug netting, cuben fiber or no cuben fiber.

It seems the best way to get a lightweight shelter without flame retardants is to import from the UK or the EU. Their laws do not require tents to contain flame retardants, so most tent manufacturers there do not use flame retardants. Which means I may have another option…

OPTION 2: USE MY TAIWANESE TENT

I have used my Taiwanese tent on my PCT section hikes before I received my palace, so I know it can work on the PCT. It is also a brand which is not sold in the USA or Canada at all, so the manufacturer did not care about US/Canadian law. Does Taiwanese law require putting flame retardants in tents? I have no idea. I would have to do more research. I also do not know if my Taiwanese tent contains fluorocarbons. It is unlikely to have PVC or VOCs, but I would have to do additional research to confirm that. And doing research would be challenging since the tent model I have has been discontinued (which does not surprise me, since it is a pretty weird tent).

However, while I CAN use my Taiwanese tent on the PCT, there are reasons why I was willing to buy a new tent for use on the PCT (I continue to use my Taiwanese tent for all non-PCT camping trips). The most important reason was weight, though it also has less interior space and I think the tent poles are annoying (I prefer the 12 stakeouts on my palace to putting up the tent poles on my Taiwanese tent, which tells you just how much those tent poles annoy me). If I put my Taiwanese tent to serious use again, I would also want to buy new stuff sacks, because the current stuff sack sucks.

Nonetheless, if I did the research, and found that my Taiwanese tent had no fluorocarbons / PVC / VOCs / flame retardants, then that would be an option which would not require me to spend any extra money (beyond a new stuff sack, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new tent).

OPTION 3: CONTINUE USING MY PALACE, AND BE CAREFUL

As I said, the most toxic chemicals are probably in the interior coating, not the exterior coating, so continuing to use this tent may still be consistent with the principles of Leave Not Trace (I wouldn’t be leaving a trace on the environment, I’d just leaving a trace on my own body by exposing myself to carcinogens).

Research shows that the flame retardants rub off on hands when pitching a tent (you can read more about that research in the article I linked above), and that if those hands are later used to, say, eat food, the flame retardants can enter the body. However, when I am pitching my palace, I am mostly touching the exterior of the tent, not the interior, so I may not be getting into direct contact with the flame retardants. Finally, I usually pitch my tent with my gloves on (even in summer, I do all long-distance hikes with gloves), and I usually eat with my gloves off. I could make it a rule that I ONLY pitch my tent with gloves on and ONLY eat with gloves off.

When I’m inside my tent, I do put my gear in contact with the fabric. Research shows that flame retardants can rub off on gear too, but I would expect touching gear which touched flame retardant to be less bad than directly touching flame retardant. I do not directly touch the interior tent fabric often, and I can try to limit my direct contact with the interior tent fabric even more.

Not enough research has been done to show if there are other ways the flame retardants in tents can enter the human body. It is possible that it may coat dust in the tent, but AFAIK, this has not been proven. Just because is hasn’t been proven does not mean it’s not happening.

I have read that old PU coatings will flake, and I guess that the flame retardants would be in the flakes.

SO, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?

For now, based on what I know, I am going with option three. If I ever see signs that the PU coating is flaking, then I will retire the tent, but until then, I will continue to use it with caution.

Another thing I’m going to try to do is bring more attention to this issue in the trail community. Even if I am successful in taking care of myself, I do not want tent manufacturers to poison my fellow hikers, nor do I want my fellow hikers to spread toxins around the wilderness. And if the trail community does not pay attention to this, then the situation is not going to get better.

Feminist Benefits of Reading Beyond One’s Own Culture

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

According to Goethe, “wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen” which means “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” In English, we speak of fish learning to see water. Though I think it is possible to know something of one’s own language without knowing others, learning a different language is certainly a very powerful tool for become conscious of many aspects of one’s native language.

Likewise, learning about another culture is a powerful tool for becoming more conscious of one’s own culture. By extension, observing patriarchy in another culture can be a very useful tool for better understanding patriarchy in one’s own culture.

I think one of the things which has become apparent in this Rambling Series is that the sexism and misogyny in Jin Yong stories are sometimes similar to Anglophone pop sexism/misogyny, and sometimes different. Comparing the two is a way to learn a lot about patriarchy as expressed in Jin Yong’s stories (and to some extent, Chinese fiction in general, though not all Chinese writers are Jin Yong). It is just as effective for learning about patriarchy as expressed in Anglophone pop fiction.

China, obviously, has been a patriarchal society for all of recorded history, though the nature of patriarchy has varied by region and over the course of the millennia. All large Anglophone societies are also patriarchal, and Anglophone patriarchy likewise varies by region and historical period.

I admit, I am usually suspicious when a native Anglophone deplores Chinese cultures for how it treats women and girls, especially when it comes with the subtext that Anglophone society isn’t nearly so patriarchal (I am saying ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘Sinophone’ since most Anglophone natives don’t make that distinction!) It is true that there are some horrific misogynist practices which have existed in Chinese society which have not existed in Anglophone society. However, when someone is trying to show how Chinese society is so much more horrible to women and girls than Anglophone society, they tend to cherrypick their examples, and ignore all of the bad stuff Anglophone society does which Chinese society does not do. When it seems the point of the analysis is to understand patriarchy in both Anglophone and Sinophone societies, rather than to simply prove that Chinese society is bad, I am more inclined to take it seriously.

There is another benefit to reading outside one’s culture. Since I grew up in the United States, my sore points when it comes to patriarchy have been shaped by American patriarchy. I’m not talking about when I’m doing feminism as an intellectual exercise – I’m talking about me trying to enjoy a story without necessarily examining it critically, and doing my best to ignore the sexism when each instance of that sexist trope YET AGAIN wears me out a little more.

The sore points in Sinophone pop fiction for female readers are sometimes different. For example, female characters are much less likely to be visually sexualized in Sinophone pop culture than Anglophone pop culture. Sinophone pop sexism creates its own sore points, but when they are not the same points where Anglophone pop sexism has ground down on me, I’m not quiet so sore yet.

Even though I’ve focused on comparative feminism and sexism, other aspects of culture can be compared, such as disability, or a zillion other things. However, to pull this off, one needs to expose oneself sufficiently to a culture other than one’s own.

There’s Nothing Stopping Writers from Having Female Protagonists in Wuxia

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Some people might claim that Jin Yong wrote put sexism/misogyny into his stories because he was a product of his time (the 1950s – 1970s) and his society (China / Hong Kong).

On some level, this is true: China / Hong Kong is a patriarchal society, and if it were not, then there probably would have been a lot less sexism/misogyny in his stories.

However, I don’t think ‘Jin Yong is a product of his time and place’ is a sufficient explanation. Why not? One of the shortest answers is: Liang Yusheng.

Liang Yusheng was another popular wuxia writer from Hong Kong in the middle of the 20th century (in fact, he’s the one who encouraged Jin Yong to start writing wuxia in the first place). A lot of Liang Yusheng stories have a female character as the lead protagonist (whereas Jin Yong only wrote one novella with a female lead protagonist). Furthermore, many of the problems I’ve been describing with how Jin Yong treats his female characters don’t apply to Liang Yusheng’s stories, or don’t apply nearly as often.

Bridgette Lin as Lian Nichang in The Bride with White Hair

Liang Yusheng’s most famous story is The White-Haired Demoness, also known in English as Romance of the White-Haired Maiden and The Bride with White Hair. While much of the novel is mediocre, the lead character, Lian Nichang, is one of the most memorable characters is all of wuxia, and I think that’s the reason why they still make new adaptations of the novel to this day (I haven’t seen any of them, but the one I’d be most interested in giving a try is the one starring Ada Choi). She was raised by wolves, so she doesn’t understand why people do such silly things, such as claim that men and women can’t be friends without being lovers (she becomes friends with men, because why the heck not?) She is so iconic that it’s difficult to have a broad discussion of female characters in the the wuxia genre without mentioning her. Much of the story is about Lian Nichang’s romance with a male character – but unlike Jin Yong’s novels, she’s not there to stimulate his character development; he’s there to stimulate her character development. It’s not a problem that female character fall in love and have romances; it’s a problem that most wuxia stories use romance to subsume the female character into the male character’s story.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with have a lead male character. What I DO want is to have a roughly equal mix of stories with a lead male character and a lead female character – and that’s not how it is in wuxia (with the exception of Liang Yusheng’s stories).

This becomes even more starkly obvious when we talk specifically about trans female characters. In the stories of both Jin Yong and Gu Long (Gu Long is the third of the really famous mid-20th century wuxia writers, alongside Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng), all trans women are villains. Furthermore, their trans status is used as evidence of their evil. If you ever need an example of how NOT to write trans women into fiction, I suggest both The Smiling Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) by Jin Yong and Two Peerless Heroes (絕代雙驕) by Gu Long. By contrast, in Seven Swords (七劍下天山) by Liang Yusheng, there is a trans woman who is not an antagonist. Sure, she’s just a minor character, but at least she’s not associated with evil.

Liang Yusheng was not as talented as Jin Yong, which is why his works are not as widely read today, or adapted into other media as frequently (except The White-Haired Demoness, which is adapted more often than Jin Yong’s less popular stories). This unfortunate, because it would be awesome to combine Liang Yusheng’s treatment of female characters with Jin Yong’s talent. However, to the extent that Liang Yusheng is still appreciated today, a lot of is because he handled female characters well. As one wuxia fan on the internet put it “read Liang Yusheng for the good female characters.”

Liang Yusheng came from the same social and cultural milieu as Jin Yong, and was writing wuxia during the same time period. This shows that Jin Yong could have chosen to be less sexist and non-misogynist, and have female lead protagonists. Instead, he chose to be more sexist and misogynist, and only put a lead female protagonist in a single novella. Thus, Jin Yong’s time and place is an insufficient explanation of why there is sexism and misogyny in his stories.

The Heart of the Matter: Is It the Male’s Journey or the Female’s Journey?

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

In the last two parts of this rambling series, I looked at damsels in distress and distressed dudes. It’s pretty clear that Jin Yong does not present female characters as being helpless or being unable to do anything useful, nor does he treat them as prizes for male heroes to win from the villains. If anything, it’s actually the opposite. However, the opposite of one sexist thing might be just another sexist thing.

In Jin Yong stories, rather than having a male character compete for the possession of female characters, there are a lot more instances of female characters competing for the affections of the male protagonist. Sometimes, the male protagonist chooses more than one female character to be his mate (polygyny), but usually he only picks one, and the others ‘lose’ and either live a life of celibacy or has a tragic death. The only exception I can think of right now is Cheng Yaojia (程瑤迦) – she falls in love with the male protagonist but later decides to marry a guy who will actually return her affections and she (presumably) lives happily ever after.

The problem with this is that it makes it seem like that the female characters are there to help the male protagonist on his journey rather than have character development journeys of their own.

An illustration of Zhao Min.

Let’s take Zhao Min as our first example. She is one of my favorite characters in The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre – I felt that the novel became a lot more interesting once she joins the story. She’s ruthless, she’s witty, she’s clever, she wears men’s clothes when she wants to and doesn’t care if everyone knows she’s a woman when she’s doing it, though she does some cruel things she is not a sadist (which makes her more likeable than some of the other villains) and while she is a liar she’s not a hypocrite (which is why even when she’s a ‘villain’ she is more likeable than some of the ‘good’ characters). You can get a better sense of what she’s like by watching the same scene as performed by several different actresses who each have their own interpretation of Zhao Min: 1984, 1994, 2003 and 2009 (only the last two have English subs, but since all of this clips show the same scene from the novel they all have similar dialogue).

At first, Zhao Min is a badass Mongol princess who is determined to keep her family in power and the foil all of those pathetic Chinese people who are trying to end Mongol rule of China – and for her, the end justifies the means. However, during the story, she decides that she does not want to be a princess anymore, and she does not particularly want to be a Mongol either, and she no longer cares if the Chinese drive the Mongols out of China. This COULD have been a great character growth arc – a ruthless and power-hungry mastermind who figures out that some things in life are more important than having power. However, there is just this one little problem…

She gives up on being a badass princess because she fall in love with the male protagonist. After she falls in love with him, she just wants to do things to help him. Thus, it does not read so much like genuine character growth as her just transferring her loyalty from her father and brothers to her lover. For example, she stops doing evil stuff NOT because her moral values changed, but because her lover wouldn’t approve of her doing evil stuff.

Sigh.

I mean, even after she falls in love, she’s still a great character – she’s still wicked smart and sassy – she is just putting all of her talents in service of the male protagonist, rather than using them to pursue her own goals.

Zhao Min does interrupt the male protagonist when he’s about to marry another female character and uses her wits to get him to abandon his own wedding, but it turned out to be for his own good. (Zhao Min is the one in this picture with really long hair).

And there’s Huang Rong. She’s a great character … but her goal throughout BOTH of the novels in which she appears is to server his male love interest. Yes, she becomes leader of the Beggars’ Sect, but a) she originally became involved in the Beggars’ Sect to make her male love interest stronger (not to make herself stronger, to make HIM stronger) and b) she steps down as leader of the Beggars’ sect so she can be a better wife and mother. She often makes decisions which are not in her own best interests if it serves his interests. And what about her male love interest – does he ever make concessions to help her achieve her goals? No, though to be fair, that would not be easy since she does not seem to much in the way of goals independent of him. Instead, he pursues his own goals for his own reasons, and she’s there to help him.

Also, while *he* gets a major character growth arc, in which he becomes both physically more powerful and develops morally, Huang Rong does not grow much during the story.

Ren Yingying has more of a personal growth arc than Zhao Min and Huang Rong. She starts off as the leader of her own cult of loyal followers, and she is slightly evil, though not really a villain. Yes, she falls in love with the male protagonist, but she does at least have some change of heart which does not entirely revolve around him (she spends time as a prisoner in the Shaolin Temple where she read some Buddhist scriptures which helps her change her ways). Yet her story is still mainly about how she helps the male protagonist or presents him with a dilemma which makes him develop personally. Oh, she does end the civil war and restore peace to the martial arts world – ~entirely off page~.

Ren Yingying is, among other things, a good musician (and yes, that’s relevant to the plot).

Yilin – though I find the way she is sexualized to be creepy – actually does get a halfway decent personal growth arc, and that’s one of the reasons I am particularly fond of her. Yet all of her character growth is centered around helping the male protagonist. The Hengshan nuns in general are cool, since they are a rare example of a group of women in a Jin Yong story who are not totally focused on men, and in fact are more righteous than their male counterparts, though the male protagonist ends up being their leader (yes, the male protagonist becomes the leader of an order of nuns).

And Li Wenxiu, the ~only female Jin Yong protagonist~ (from “White Horse Neighs in the West Wind” – there is a summary on Wikipedia) does have goals which aren’t about serving her male love interest, though she pursues her non-romantic goals much less assiduously than most male Jin Yong protagonists, and she also does not have much character growth.

Of the major Jin Yong female characters, the one who comes closest to having a goal other than serving her male love interest (besides Ren Yingying, who really does have the goal of controlling/pacifying the martial arts world even if that is mostly is off-page) is Xiaolongnü. Her goal is to … have a very quiet life almost completely withdrawn from society. Hey, whatever you think of her goal, at least it’s a goal which isn’t related to serving or pleasing any man. Furthermore, she is the only one who asks her male love interest to at least partially set aside his goals to help her reach her goal. Yes, she also sometimes sets aside her goal to help with his goal, but the fact that he yields AT ALL to her at the expense of his own goal is rare in Jin Yong. And yes, it is an abusive relationship at times (for example, she tries to kill him at one point), but that does not change any of what I have said.

An illustration of Xiaolongnü.

Xiaolongnü also has more personal growth/change than just about any female Jin Yong character – she goes from being an emotionless girl indifferent to the prospect of her own death to being a very sensitive person full of feelings. And what caused this character change? Loving the male protagonist (I know, it’s such a surprise). However, at least after she’s in love she still pursues her original goal.

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that Xiaolongnü/Yang Guo is in some ways a gender reversal of the typical Jin Yong romance – he’s smarter than her, she’s older than him, he’s amazingly handsome (unlike the typically plain-looking male protagonist), she’s much more honest than him, etc. And yet, STILL, it’s really Yang Guo’s story more than Xiaolongnü’s story since his personal struggles, not hers, take center place.

The best single feminist essay I’ve read about ‘strong female characters’ is “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women” by Shana Mlawski. Here’s a quote:

They don’t have to be physically strong, although they can be — The Bride, the women from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ripley, Sarah Connor, and even the half-naked Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop are strong Strong female characters. Strong just means they have their own goals that move beyond “I want to do whatever the male hero wants to do” or “I want to marry the male hero.” “I want to have a baby” is moderately better – moderately. Let’s try to be a little more creative, huh?

(minor aside: yes I noticed that the character from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon the essayist used as an example of good ‘female’ character is arguable a trans male character, but I assume that she can’t read Chinese and thus has never read Iron Rider Silver Vase where that character is depicted as identifying as male.)

I think this really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with how Jin Yong uses his female characters (I mean, there are other sexist and misogynist things in his books which I haven’t addressed in this series, but I’m not trying to address everything). They are generally not treated as characters who grow and pursue whatever aspirations they develop – instead, they mainly function in the story to serve as accessories to the male protagonist and his character growth arc / storyline. She is beautiful to please him (and the presumed straight male readers), her intelligence is there to help him with his quest rather than a quest of her own.

So am I basically just asking for more female protagonists? Actually, I do want more female protagonists, but that’s not the point, or rather, it’s only part of the point. Plenty of male supporting characters in Jin Yong stories have goals which have nothing to do with female love interests, and while the protagonists tend to experience the most character growth, supporting male characters sometimes change and grow too (more often than supporting female characters, I may add).

It’s not about whether the male characters are competing over possession of a female, or the female characters are competing over possession of a male. It’s not about who is ‘weak’ or who is ‘strong’. It’s about who gets to be deemed worthy in their own right, and gets to have their own journey rather than just be part of someone else’s journey.