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So I just got back from a trip to southern China a few days ago. I was in a “small” (6 million people) city named Qujing in Yunnan province, the province that borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. My company is starting a program there where foreign teachers will go to teach special classes. My job was to go spread the good news and get to know the school staff and students. I was there for a week and although the city itself is not particularly exciting, it did make me consider what I am doing in Beijing. Food is cheap in the south, weather there is MUCH better than Beijing (basically everywhere is better than Beijing), and people are really friendly (partially because there are no foreigners). I spent a lot of time at the school and got to know a lot of the students. Some of them were crying when I left, gave me presents, and were just welcoming and excited to talk to me in a way that I haven’t felt in a while. My job in the office is usually pretty boring, but this aspect of my work helped recharge my mental batteries, because these kids really were inspired and inspiring. A lot of the students only heard me talk for an hour, but during my week there many students approached me and told me that my advice to them made them decide to try this or do this. I also got to speak on Qujing’s FM radio 2 days in a row, entirely in Chinese. I was really nervous the first time, but it went better than I thought and it was a pretty cool experience. My time in Qujing reminded me of a lot of the good and bad things about China, but the friendliness and innocence of the people were striking. I was ready to leave Qujing, but not exactly ready to go back to Beijing…

Life in Beijing is as it was. Summer is here after about 2 weeks of decent weather. Very hot, sticky, and polluted. I know my lovely parents are always wondering when I am coming back, and I haven’t really thought about coming back that much (sorry parents!), but I have thought more and more about leaving Beijing. It is an exciting, fast-paced, interesting, and dynamic place to live, but the once-majestic appeal of the sights and sounds of Beijing have lost a little of their luster. I do love the people here, but I think I would like people in most places that I would choose to live. I have no doubt that I will not live in Beijing permanently, but it does offer a chance to learn a lot and have a lot of free time, which I like. I know people read about the pollution and people here, but you really can’t understand how bad the pollution is and how many people are here until you see it. As I said before, Qujing has 6 million people and is considered a small city. Most Chinese people have never even heard of it. This was amazing and exciting to me before…now it seems more like a burden.

I am also getting more and more disappointed with myself. I have been given so many amazing opportunities, talents, and been surrounded by the best people that I have met in my life. I have done, seen, and enjoyed so much in my life, but I feel this growing anger with myself for not doing more. This has always been a feeling I have had, but I always thought I am different or special in some way and things will work out for me. I still feel that things will “work out”, but I want to work hard and not just work out. I have never really felt this way before. People always say that you need to find something that you really love to do, and then it doesn’t feel like work. I am trying to do this now for the first time, and hopefully can gain enough intellectual capital so that I am able to create a job for myself rather than continuing to be employed by other people.

I told you that this blog was going to get more bloggy. I need a place to vent and will turn to this every once in a while when my friends are tired of hearing it from me. Everything is good here though and I will hopefully talk to some of you soon. Hope everyone is doing well, 再见 (bye).

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Got a bit busy with the holidays, but finally wrapping up my final week of the challenge, from Tangshan!

Tuesday, November 22nd
After waking up multiple days with neck pain, I thought it would be appropriate to make my first trip to a Chinese chiropractor recommended by a friend. Having been to a few chiropractors in the US, I found the experience quite similar yet overall less comprehensive than past experience. Instead of taking x-rays and asking about my lifestyle, I just pointed to where it hurt, got a massage, an adjustment and was given some magnesium to ease muscle tension. The massage was a nice component, which I have never received in the states, as well as the doctor being bi-lingual (since he also practices in California.) However, I only spent a total of twenty minutes with him and was quite shocked to get a bill over 700RMB! I’m interested in visiting a more traditional office, but my Chinese isn’t good enough to go without a friend to translate.

That evening I attended Carol Liu’s inspiring documentary, Restoring the Light, about rural blindness and healthcare issues in China. The movie was exactly what I needed, a good cry and reminder of problems bigger than paying too much for the chiropractor. Professor Scott Rozelle from Stanford also gave an insightful talk about healthcare and priorities, illustrating for example, that eliminating one-third of China’s budget to reach the moon could fund vitamins, food and worm detection for all of the children in western, rural China. In my eyes, the event also highlighted another theme of local culture; China’s discomfort with allowing foreigners (or anyone) to highlight social issues. More than one Chinese audience member responded on the defensive to Professor Rozelle’s statistics regarding rural poverty and healthcare, citing that Obama’s healthcare plan also didn’t make significant strides in solving US healthcare issues. It’s unfortunate that this is the message gleaned from such fieldwork, but addresses some of the sensitivities present in beginning to accurately diagnose social problems in China.

Wednesday, November 23rd
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Malaika Hahne, the new Executive Director of Little Flower Projects. She took me out to their orphanage in Shunyi, where I was incredibly impressed by not only the facility and organization of the center, but the compassion and dedication of the staff. Although each ayi is responsible for two babies, many of the staff seem to know each child intimately. Malaika’s compassion to help these children was genuinely heart-warming, and her efforts seem to be paying off, as Little Flower Projects is making quite a name for itself in the local community. Nothing puts a smile on your face more than holding a little smiling baby.

For lunch I had a locally-sourced lunch made from Chef Sue’s trial-run dishes for a future class, and hosted a charity cooking class at The Hutong.

Thursday, November 24th
On Thursday I either completely lost my mind, or decided that I really needed to go all out during the last week of the challenge. Fighting off the urge to go across the street to Jenny Lou’s for soymilk and kitty litter, I ran in the freezing cold to Jinkelong. The run back ended up being much colder and difficult than I expected, and it took all I had to waddle home clutching my bag of litter with both arms and freezing hands.

Thursday night was Thanksgiving, which I celebrated with a group of expat and Chinese friends; turkey and gong bao ji ding was quite the combination!

Friday, November 25th
I spent the morning biking around the city doing errands and buying supplies for a corporate holiday party. In the evening I met up with Joel Shucuat from The Orchid, who introduced me to the social networking wonders of WeiXin. I spent the night leaving voice messages, throwing bottles out to sea, and shaking to find friends. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the WeiXin app, it’s a great way for foreigners to make Chinese friends and practice their Chinese! We also snacked on some local Hainan chicken while Joel frantically arranged dinner preparations for the guests at his hotel.

Saturday, November 26th
I taught in the morning and was informed by the school nurse that there was 500+ API…perhaps the most polluted day I have experienced in Beijing. I waited til the air cleared a bit in the evening, and went on my last training run before the half marathon. I know I shouldn’t have run, but it was my last reasonable period of free time before the race. Although I noticed the cold a lot more than the air quality, my clothes reeked of coal when I got home. This was the first time I had noticed the pollution is such a tangible way, and was quite disheartened to think about how much Beijinger’s lives are affected by the poor air quality.

Sunday, November 27th
On Sunday I was a real expat. I helped plan a traditional American birthday party alongside my co-workers, which included homemade birthday cake, baseball and rugby in Chaoyang park and flipping burgers at The Filling Station in Shunyi. It was incredibly fun and decidedly UN-local.

Monday, November 28th
On Monday I recruited my friend Tom Pattinson to show me his favorite Shaanxi restaurant around the hutongs where we work. We chowed down on their famed roujiamo and dumplings, which was perfect a perfect meal for a cold winter day. That evening my friends arrived from the US and we had a feast at Jing Zun duck restaurant. Eating local is quite ful-filling!

Tuesday, November 29th
On Tuesday I became tour guide for a day and took my friends to Dong Jiao Market, one of my favorite spots in Beijing. I showed them around some food stalls, the wet market and tea warehouse. During an extended tea ceremony we bought way too much tea and learned more about Nanjing greens, Taiwan oolongs and Huyi Shan blacks. They liked the black and oolongs, while I preferred the greens and whites. It was so fun to briefly introduce friends to the Chinese tea culture I love, and pick-up a bag of awesome An Ji Zhejiang cha. That night we also had hot pot on Gui Jie!

Wednesday, November 30th -END OF CHALLENGE
Appropriately, I celebrated the last day of the challenge with KTV! The Hutong staff and I donned Santa hats and rockstar gear and belted out tunes from Michael Jackson to The Carter Sisters, to which my Chinese colleagues knew the lyrics better than I. Chinese culture never ceases to amaze me.

Thursday, December 1st
I promptly went to Jenny Lou’s and loaded up on Silk soymilk and cereal, the two things I missed most during this adventure.

Saturday, December 3rd
I headed off to Shanghai to run in my first Chinese half-marathon. Race day was a story within itself, but overall the race was a big success and despite gaining a few pounds, my predominantly Chinese diet did not prevent me from crossing the finish line with a personal best.

I think it’s pretty obvious that my lifestyle is far from local. Throughout this challenge I bounced between feelings of guilt and satisfaction, but overall feel content that this personal quest helped me reflect on my expat lifestyle and motivate me to seek out new experiences in the capital. I realized that while I loved living in the typically Chinese city of Tangshan, it’s the ability to choose between western/international and Chinese options that makes me most content about living in Beijing. However, this experience made me miss my Chinese “hometown” so much that I’m writing this conclusion from a brief visit back to Tangshan.

To sum up my experience, I thought I would give a few tips gleaned from living and traveling for nearly two years in China, for us lao wais who want to have a more local China experience:

1. Learn basic Chinese. Although I haven’t taken formal classes, I often carry around a dictionary, notebook and ipod full of Chinese lessons. I can’t tell you how much more fun China becomes speaking a bit of Mandarin. Learning Chinese doesn’t have to happen in a classroom; I prefer getting one-on-one Chinese lessons from taxi drivers, masseuses, shop owners, co-workers and even my elementary-aged English students. Start with pointing in markets and go from there!

2. Make Chinese friends…but how? Cheesy as it sounds, lots of normal and friendly local Chinese use social networking sites like WeLiveInBeijing, BJ Stuff and The Beijinger to find language partners and friends.

3. Spend time in a smaller Chinese city. It’s nearly impossible not to learn more about Chinese food, hobbies and language if you live in a place with far less foreign exposure, and there are a variety of solid programs that will assist you in this experience. My friend Robbie Fried runs the Chinese Language Institute in Guilin, which I would highly recommend for this type of immersion. Additionally, Tangshan is only two hours east of Beijing, and private English centers there are always looking for foreign teachers; I would be happy to connect you!

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