Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city. Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to. We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet. If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption
Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world. In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

BN-OJ027_POLDET_G_20160607063315
The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency. For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems. The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City. Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues. Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

Water Pollution image in Haina, Dominican Republic - water pollution images -2
This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt. I look forward to my time in Canada every year. The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5. Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

First-Nation-in-Ontarios-Chemical-Valley-affected-by-pollutants
This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere. If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…
The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad. That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

map
Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones). Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different. We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way. On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300. During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale. What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

mmexport1494048171224
This was today’s reading in Suzhou. 596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place. Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside. I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment. I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

suzhou-pollution-2
Dave took these pictures last year. Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams. To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic. The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’. One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.). I was FLOORED that she knew those terms. I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary. I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’. All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles. PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5. Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues. Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news. It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis. Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better. I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air. My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution. The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
1gxEWn.So.91
You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time. Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life. I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier. I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

walking-burns-more-calories-than-you-thought

Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked. It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park. When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city. In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.


How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors. At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment. My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air. Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before. Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…). If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website. They’re well worth the money.


How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here. I know the risks, but I still take them. There are risks living in Manitoba as well. Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem. I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

1
Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal. I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone. I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue. But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made? The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs. One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains. You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world. I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office. I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience. What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world. For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’. Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

mmexport1493625925800
If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again.

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

Spring Term- The Life of a Teacher

I have about 10 blog posts planned at the moment, but have had so little free time that they’ve all just been sitting in my head Spring term has been a little bit crazy, and when you add in holidays, birthdays and regular life into the mix…finding downtime can be tricky! So, I thought an update on all my projects was a good idea…

Life since we returned from India has been eventful in both good and bad ways. When we got back to Suzhou, I started going to the gym again, but realized that I didn’t have anywhere near the energy I should have. I was actually feeling all around pretty terrible…by the time my lung infection hit full force, my body was having difficulty getting enough oxygen. I ended up at the Sing Medical walk-in clinic in SIP (the area of Suzhou where we live), where I was put on 5 different medication and told to stay in bed for the next week…

IMG_20160314_200002
The doctor wasn’t sure if it was a bacterial or viral lung infection, but he was fairly sure that it had been building up for some time…I think it began in India…but it might have even been before that.

Since that necessary ‘mini vacation’, life hasn’t really stopped. I’ve been put in charge of the yearbook committee and the drama festival this term (two huge projects!) and I’ve also been helping out with some grade 8 exam preparation and of course, I have all my regular classes as well. It’s been a busy few months!

IMG_20160321_130829
Brain Storming for the school yearbook. Yearbooks aren’t a ‘thing’ in China, so this is SUPER exciting for the students!

My favourite project has definitely been the Drama Festival. 4/5 of the classes that are participating in the event are taught by yours truly, so I’ve had my hands full preparing sets and props, teaching the students how to write a play, and of course, actually writing the plays. This festival has actually given me the chance to teach the students a whole set of new skills, and I really feel that they’ve gotten a lot out of these projects.

Of course, when it came down to actually writing the plays, that was mostly left up to me. So working with their plot lines and character profiles, I got to put my creative writing skills to use! It was a tonne of fun and although it meant spending my long weekend holiday at Starbucks, it was well worth my time and efforts! I am SO looking forward to seeing what these plays look like up on stage on April 22nd!

IMG_20151224_143244
This project has also given an opportunity to develop leadership skills in many of the stronger students.

Drama has been a blast this semester, and I have to say that Food and Nutrition has been on an upswing as well! Last term, and at the very beginning of this term, I was struggling with keeping the kitchen up to an acceptable standard of cleanliness. My students do alright, but students from the high school were using the kitchen in their free time and leaving quite a few messes to clean up.

And, in addition to the regular challenges you’d expect to face in a Home Economics-type class, there are some serious differences in culture when it comes to health and safety. It’s been quite the battle trying to teach the students about mold and bacteria. While in the past, it’s been perfectly acceptable to just stack up wet dishes into the cupboards (that aren’t finished…they have raw wood inside), the mold problem I faced in September made me determined to teach them the value of properly cleaning up. My students learned these skills pretty quickly, but as I mentioned earlier, I share the kitchen with other classes, and not all of the other classes were so quick to catch on.

My writing class continues to be one of the most rewarding things I do at the school. I love teaching those kids and they’re so engaged and interested in my lessons that they are making leaps and bounds as far as their writing is concerned. My biggest success has been a student named Jared, who went from getting 30-40% on his homework last term, to 75-80% this term! Something clicked for him and now he’s finishing 3rd place in the class on tests! That’s huge for a mainland kid, because it means that he beat kids from Singapore and Malaysia, who have been learning English most of their lives. I’m very proud of him.

IMG_20160304_100803
A classroom selfie. I very much look forward to Friday mornings, when I get my 80 minutes with these 13 year olds 🙂

And of course, in addition to being an incredibly hard-working group of students, they’re funny too! They played a very cute trick on me on April Fools day!

IMG_20160401_083042
I came into the classroom and this is what I saw! They had all put their hoodies on backwards and were sitting backwards in their seats. Little Tom was also hiding in the teacher’s desk and he jumped out at me as soon as I started teaching! I screamed and jumped about 3 feet in the air. I’m pretty sure I added about a year onto these kids’ lives with laughter!!

Life outside of the school has been busy too. With both Dave and I having birthdays in April, it’s already usually a busy month. As it turns out, our good friend, Jeff, also has a birthday in April and his friends Matt and Lisa came out for a visit as well, so we’ve been having lots of parties as of late!

I’ve gotta say though, the best part so far was the one we had last night. I turned the big three oh, and some of my favourite people took me out to Beijiang (a Chinese Muslim restaurant with INCREDIBLE food!) and then to KTV! It was such a great night! I can hardly talk today because my voice is so tired from singing…but it felt so good to be out! I have met some awesome people in Suzhou and last night I felt incredibly lucky to be out with them.

So that’s been life lately….it’s been full and awesome and 50 shades of crazy! Oh, one last thing…I already got Dave his birthday present! I found them for sale on the Suzhou Buy and Sell and I’m SOOO happy I did!!!

I’ll be back soon…though I’m not sure if I’ll be around again before the drama festival on the 22nd. As always…thanks for reading!

PS…Hugo and Poe say hi!