I woke up to a flurry of texts in our EAPSI WeChat group (seriously one of the highlights of this experience, sharing our diverse China experiences with 39 other American grad students), comparing air pollution in our various cities – 284 in Shanghai and 349 in Beijing.
There are several air quality apps available, and I check a few of them. I don’t know which one this woman in Shanghai is using, but I kind of love it. In addition to the “air soup” comment, there is a picture of a man wearing a mask next to . . . a glass of wine?
Apparently this is the suggested method of dealing with it. This led to my new motto: “Drink up, the AQI is over 300 somewhere.”
One of the apps I use is called Air Quality China. It offers four monitoring stations for Beijing, with hourly data over the last 24 hours and daily data over the last 30 days.
The other one is 墨迹天气, a Chinese weather app. One of my friends was surprised to hear that pollution changes as often as weather, but really all the weather apps here do pollution, too. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen. The home screen is a litlte girl dressed for the day’s conditions, with the temperature, highs and lows, current pollution, and tomorrow’s forecast.
Scrolling down, you can see an hour-by-hour forecast for the next 24 hours as well as a weekly forecast, plus a bunch of other information like what license plates are permitted to drive today, the date on the lunar calendar, fishing conditions, and what kind of clothes and makeup you should wear (true story!! The answer to the former always seems to be t-shirts, and the answer to the latter (taking into account temperature, humidity, and windspeed) was non-oil-based foundation.) If you click on the AQI number, it tells you where your current city is ranked among 626 of China’s cities – this morning, we were #619.
Anyway, I should say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing weather app I’ve ever seen . . . when the weather is good:
But this morning the scene looked positively post-apocalyptic.
The reading on 墨迹天气 when I woke up was exactly 300, which is the boundary between “Very Unhealthy” and “Hazardous”. The icon for Very Unhealthy is a full-fledged gas mask, like trench warfare style; later I saw that for Hazardous they don’t pull any punches and just use a skull.
I laid in bed a little longer, reading those messages and staring out the window in despair. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but now I think some part of my subconscious was waiting for some authority figure to recognize that the conditions outside were terrible and give me permission (or an order!) to not leave the hotel. Like when I was a kid in Minnesota and we saw the snow built up outside and watched the TV raptly, listening for a school cancellation.
Alas, none came. I got up, put on my big girl pants and my face mask, and biked to work. I saw, like, maybe eight people wearing masks all day. But I also saw two people jogging, which just . . . what?! There is no way the overall effect of that activity is positive.
I even wore my mask when biking to lunch. The lab window was open all day, so it’s really all an exercise in futility, but I do what I can. I asked one guy if he ever wears a mask, and he said “you get used to it”. There’s something powerful and sad in that statement. Powerful because, what an incredible machine the human body is, that it can take particulate matter as input when expecting a pleasant combination of oxygen and nitrogen, and still function normally. Sad because, while the human body (and mind, and spirit) can accomodate any number of terrible situations, it would be better if it did not have to.
I’m still feeling 20% nauseous 80% of the time, so I picked at my lunch.
On the way home, I saw out the window a worker squatting on top of the next building over, welding. The light is so distinctive, it immediately caught my attention. He was holding his hand up in front of his face, quickly lowering it and raising it again to ‘protect’ his eyes. And immediately, I’m back at the farm, watching the workers weld rebar. I remember the day Huo JieKuai repeatedly refused my offers to get him a welding mask, and came to work the next day with horribly sunburnt eyeballs.
One of [the many] ways in which China seems like a paradox to me is the attitude towards health. I read a lot of China news, and there’s so many stories about this animal being poached or that animal being driven to extinction because of the Chinese demand for one of its body parts for traditional medicine. There are also stories about the growing demand for organic or, at least, trustworthy food sources after incidents like the melamine scare of 2008. My roommate suggested I buy fish oil pills to China if I had any old people to visit; tourists to the Bay Area always visit Costco or GNC to buy quality supplements in bulk. No meal with Chinese people would be complete without being gently forced to eat something because “it’s good for your body”. My life in China is one of constant chiding about my love of ice water, which is apparently terrible for you.
But, at the same time . . . the official pronouncement of today’s air quality is that it is Hazardous, masks and air purifiers are Necessary, outdoor sports are Not Suitable, and open windows are Not Recommended, but 99% of what I saw was no masks, outdoor activities as usual, and “open ALL the windows!”. Smoking, despite a June 1 ban in public places, is still huge. Welding masks and other basic safety precautions used in American machine shops were scorned.
Upon further thought, I realized that this is probably no different than the hypocrisy of American attitudes about health. We demand the best health care but don’t generally take the proper preventative measures. I think tanning bed use is still depressingly high, and most Stanford students don’t wear helmets while riding their bikes.
I think we are all selective about the things we worry about, and the ways we feel capable of action. In China, there seems to be a high value on traditional medicine and ways of eating, but these traditional beliefs don’t seem up to the challenges of modern China, with 1.3 billion people competing for these scarce ingredients and some of the worst air pollution in the world. In the US, we place our trust in technology and reactionary medicine, and undervalue preventative measures.
After work, I biked to the U-Center at 5 to meet Hannah, another EAPSI fellow. My work chair is broken in 3 places so I needed to invest in some pillows, and she was looking for a wallet. I bought an adorable and super squishy stuffed elephant, and then we stopped at Paris Baguette. I’ve been a somewhat vocal critic of eating American food in China, so it was with some self-loathing that I did this. But my reasoning is solid: American food in China is generally sold at American prices and is not as good as American food in America; while Chinese food in China is both way cheaper and way better than both American food in China and Chinese food in America. I try to enjoy what I have, when I have it.
With that said, I haven’t been hungry in a few days and I’m trying to give my stomach what it thinks it wants if it will agree to then eat it. So I bought a garlic baguette, a cream-filled donut, and egg tarts (which aren’t even American, they’re Portuguese and imported so long ago they’re essentially Chinese). And I ate, and my stomach was reasonably happy about it.