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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

So You’re Moving to China…

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I got around to blogging!  Life has been nutty here again…but I’ll have more on that in my next post.

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I also haven’t forgotten about my poll.  It was a 3 way tie, so I’m going with ‘The Best of Suzhou’.  I’ve been collecting material for weeks

Tonight, after realizing that  I had  bit of spare time, I decided to write a post I’ve been considering for a long time.  This particular post was inspired by an old friend of mine who’s thinking of moving to China.  I was giving her advice this morning and it got me thinking about all the crazy stuff that I’ve gotten used to dealing with living in this strange country.

So here it is…a list of all the stuff that you should know if you’re moving to China!

1.)  The Food is Amazing…and Amazingly Weird….

Item #1 on my list isn’t a shocker.  Chinese food is popular around the world, so there has to be something good about it!  I love Chinese food and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.  There are many different varieties, depending on the regions of origin.  In Sichuan province, you’ll get spicy hot pot, for example.  On the east coast, you’re more likely to get sweet sea food.  No matter where you go in China, the local cuisine is worth a try because WOW…there are some amazing things to eat out here!

Then again, when you say you’ll try a local delicacy, you might get more than you bargained for…

I think most of the world is aware that people in China will eat anything and everything.  From chicken feet to pig face, and everything in between…nothing is off-limits in this country.  I can proudly say I’ve tried everything that’s been offered to me since I got here (still no dog…that may be the one I turn down…), and some of it isn’t bad.

Strangely enough, I enjoy barbecued chicken feet.  There isn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but they’re alright.  I also like chicken tail a lot.  They get nice and crispy on the barbecue.  Organ meat has become far more normal for me to eat as well and I’ve become particularly fond of liver, though brain still grosses me out and chicken gizzards seem pointless and rubbery.

Most of it, however, I simply don’t ‘get’.  I can understand how a starving person might think that pig intestines are the most delicious thing they’ve ever eaten, but for me…they’re kinda gross.  There isn’t much meat in them, and every time I’ve had them…they always faintly taste like poop….maybe it’s in my head…but I swear I taste it.  So I now avoid them when I see them on the menu.

 

2.  Sanitary Standards are VERY Different in China

Currently, I’m teaching a Food and Nutrition class at my school.  It’s basically home economics, but I mostly just teach the students how to cook.  The biggest challenge for me has been teaching them about bacteria, food poisoning and basic sanitation.  It isn’t as easy as it may sound…

There’s no hot water in our kitchens (a norm in China) and I had to teach them to boil water for doing dishes.  When classes other than my own work in the kitchen, the dishes are left a bit oily because cold water just doesn’t clean that stuff off, and soap is often an after-thought…

Teaching them about meat safety has also been a huge issue.  In China, meat is frequently left out, unrefrigerated and uncovered.  Even in the western type stores, like Carrefour and Metro (if you are new to China, seek out those two stores!  They are a must-have for anyone living abroad), you’ll frequently see questionable meat sitting out on the counters.

Similarly, the ideas about personal hygiene are different here.  By the time you are finished your first (of many) colds here in China, you will grow very tired of people telling you to ‘drink hot water’.  It seems to be the cure to everything here in China, while preventative measures, like hand washing, are never discussed.

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Throwing rubbish in the drain….no problem.  Cold water….TERRIBLE idea!
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At the gym, cold water isn’t even an option.  The best you can get is ‘warm’ water (which is still pretty hot), because apparently, cold water is bad for your health…

There are also some pretty nasty habits here, that I have never grown used to.  Spitting, for one, still grosses me out.  People don’t like to swallow their saliva here, so they just spit it out.  This is especially true in poorer areas (where people are less educated regarding the spreading of germs) and with the older generations.  Similarly, Chinese people think that sitting on a toilet seat is dirty, so they will often hop up on top of the seat and squat over top of the toilet, when an actual squatter isn’t around.  The result is usually that urine ends up everywhere (because sit-down toilets aren’t made to be squatted over), which, to me anyway, seems a lot less hygienic than sitting on a toilet seat!

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Furthermore…flushing your toilet paper here is a no-no.  The sewage systems can’t handle the tissue, so public restrooms always smell because of the tp sitting in bins…

3.  Be Prepared for Pollution and Pollution Related Illnesses

Everyone knows that China has a pollution problem.  It’s a topic frequently discussed out here, and Chinese citizens are really starting to pressure their government to regulate factories better for the sake of the air.  In Canada, I’d never really experienced pollution before, and until I moved to Suzhou, I’d never really given air quality a second thought.  Here, students actually know the names of the different air pollutants and what they can do to your lungs.  For example, I had a 13-year-old girl tell me that the PM2.5 levels were very high one day, and that I should wear a special kind of mask so that the particles don’t end up in my lungs.  PM2.5, she informed me, is the most worrisome pollutant because your body doesn’t have any way of flushing it out…the particles stay trapped in your lungs for years.

When I was 13…pollution was hardly a concept I’d ever even considered!

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A smoggy day in Suzhou

I don’t know a single teacher that doesn’t catch at least 1 or 2 terrible colds per term here.  I was so sick back in March that I had to be put on oxygen after a short walk to the a nearby clinic.  They put me on 5 different medications to combat the viral infection I had in my lungs and I was honestly really scared because I’d never had such trouble breathing in my entire life!  Even pneumonia hadn’t been as bad as that lung infection was…

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My many meds

4.  Things are Done Differently Here

If health hazards are shrugged off here, I don’t even know how to explain how people here feel about safety.  Workers frequently wear minimal or no equipment went doing construction, and I don’t even want to think about the repetitive strain injuries that some of those people suffer.  I’ve seen women in their 40s and 50s hauling broken concrete out of demolition sights in wicker baskets hanging off their backs…

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All of this was hauled out of the building by hand…on the backs of manual laborers…

And those are just some of the long-term consequences of having  no standardized regulations for safety in the workplace.  Sometimes the consequences are much more current

In funnier instances, some things just don’t seem to make sense here.  Such as:

  1. Our hot water tank being right above our washing machine…but our washing machine wasn’t connected.
  2. Escalators being built outside, instead of under the roofed area…causing them electrical damage every time it rains.
  3. Having air conditioners in every room at a school, but forbidding anyone to turn them on because the cold (or hot…they do heating in the winter) air is bad for your health…
  4. At the school, we use paper so thin that the students have dubbed it ‘toilet paper’.  It’s done because they are trying to use less paper and save the environment…yet no one sees anything wrong with having between 20 and 30 flyers left in your e-bike every week
  5. The government telling employees to smoke more to boost the economy…
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I can’t stress enough:  Cold Water = Bad……transporting food in dirty-cut-up-old containers…FINE!!!

Well, that’s all I have time for tonight!  It looks like this one is going to be a 2-parter!  Come back soon to see the rest of my list which will include:

  • Traffic Laws (and lack of traffic laws)
  • Signs:  The good, the bad and the incoherent

and plenty more!!!

 

 

 

When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

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A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

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I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

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The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

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And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

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A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

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The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

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Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

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Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

There’s still more about India on its way! Thanks for checking in!!!

Movin’ Mumbai – Bustlin’ Bombay

We are sitting at The Mark Cafe, a 2 minute walk from the River Ganges, and it’s Valentine’s day.  Dave and I have a habit of spending the most romantic day of the year in foreign countries, and although this Valentines day has probably been the furthest thing from Romance that we’ve seen, it’s been interesting in its own right.  I’ll be writing about Varanasi, or Banares, next time though.  For now, I’ll be writing about the mayhem that is Mumbai.

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The Mumbai Skyline

Mumbai, formerly called Bombay (during the Brittish rule of India), is a port city on India’s west coast.  It’s the home of Bollywood, the world’s largest open-air street food market and is also India’s most populous city.  There isn’t a whole lot to do in Mumbai, so we didn’t stay very long, but a day and a half was ample time to see the sights that deserve to be seen.

 

What makes Mumbai so remarkable, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is its architecture.  Because the city has been under both Portuguese and British rule in addition to its Hindu and Muslim history, there are so many interesting buildings to see!

One of the difficulties of being in Bombay though, is the security…

There’s some ugly history here.  Some fundamentalist Hindu groups have caused problems for the Muslim population (killing over 1000 Muslims in 1992 and 1993 during riots) and in return, Muslim fundamentalist groups have bombed popular tourist sights and other places of interest in Mumbai.  There has been peace in the city now since 2011, but as precaution, there are metal detectors going into every shopping mall and every tourist sight.  Even going to Starbucks, means having your bag searched, being patted down and walking through a metal detector.  Scary stuff…

But not all of Mumbai was scary…like every city in India, they have an abundance of farm animals running through the streets….Also, the taxis here all have funny designs on their ceilings.  They’re quite nice actually, as far as taxis go.  And everyone uses their meters so HAZZAA!!!  No arguing required!!

My next post will be about the most insane city I have ever visited…stay tuned for my post on Varanasi – Home of the River Ganges.