Monday, June 27, 2011

The Flood

During the subway trek back from Chaoyang last weekend, I read a great short story by Kobo Abe about a philosopher who spots a man melt into liquid before his eyes, and rightfully predicts that people will keep melting until the world is consumed by a great flood. Little did I know that while I was reading it I should have been predicting Beijing's own flood to come later that week.

The air in Beijing is really bad. My first week in Beijing I got a headache every time I went outside. Sometimes you can barely see down the block, and on really bad days buildings across the street even look hazy. In New Haven I was happy to see the blue sky, but here I'm pretty content with just seeing an actual cloud. Any cloud will do. One of my classmates says that at her old school an English student once asked her, "What color is the sky in your country?" I've heard rumors of an American track and field athlete who came to Beijing, kept running outside everyday, and after just one year got black lung. After being in Beijing for a couple of weeks, that doesn't seem like such a crazy story.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection tracks the pollution in the air over Beijing, but for a number of reasons I've been avoiding their readings and looking mostly at the feed from the monitoring station above the U.S. Embassy. I check it all the time I'm at my computer. It's my new home page. And for most of the time I've been here those reading have vacillated between "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups," "Unhealthy," and "Very Unhealthy." The worst day so far was this past Wednesday, when particulate matter readings went up to a "Hazardous" 459. That's on an index that only goes up to 500. The Chinese index, by the way, rated that Wednesday as only "Slightly Polluted." Their reading always seem range from "Excellent" to "Good" to "Slightly Polluted." Though to give the Chinese monitoring agency some credit, it seems as though they are indeed trying to update their pollution measurement index.

As if to punish the city for its emission sins, the day after that "Hazardous" reading a huge evening downpour fell upon Beijing the likes of which, apparently, it had never seen before. My campus was flooded, streets outside campus were flooded, and water even managed to flood some subway lines. Those who didn't take hours upon hours to go back home from work or school ended up swimming back. The upside though, is that the rain seemed to wash all the gunk out of the sky, and we were blessed with a beautiful blue sky weekend perfect for picnics in the park and my very fist morning run around campus. But since that weekend, the air pollution readings have expectedly been creeping back up.

The saddest part about this whole story is that none of the Chinese here actually seem to mind the air quality all that much. Any foreigner around would gladly moan about the air at the drop of a hat, but Chinese people seem much more inclined to complain about traffic or crowds or real estate prices before mentioning air, if at all. I met an American PhD student working at a lab in Tsinghua who said none of her student labmates seemed to notice that there was anything wrong with the air, or think that it affected them. Tsinghua is supposed to be the top science and engineering school in the country, by the way. "Haziness" generally seems to be accepted as if it were a natural phenomenon, beyond the control of mere humans. The New York Times reports, with tongue in cheek, of locals trying to deal with the pollution by eating more vegetables, putting on more makeup, or fanning themselves with paper. Meanwhile, about three quarters of China's population live in areas that don't meet WHO air quality standards, air pollution causes at least 300,000 premature deaths annually, and cancer--most commonly lung cancer--is now the leading cause of death in China.

My best guess is that the good majority of people that check the U.S. Embassy's air quality twitter feed are expats living in the city. Twitter is banned in China and you have to sneak around the internet censors to see it. The Embassy might be all the more effective if it posted the air quality stats on Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter that every Chinese and their mother seems to be on. Weibo isn't banned. And once more people start to realize that the haze isn't just that thing that blocks the sun's rays and means you can keep your parasol at home, then maybe Beijingers will no longer have to be drowning in a flood of air.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Death and Life of Great Chinese Apartment Complexes

I moved into my summer apartment last week, and it's a doozy. From the air directly above, I suppose the residential complex looks like any standard subdivision in the U.S. Many cookie-cutter buildings dot the insides of a square subdivision lot, almost exactly like the neighboring complex right to the north. But swooping down from the bird's-eye view you can see that those cookie-cutter buildings are in fact high-rises of some 10-15 stories. And going down even further you find that there are an unbelievable number of shops and businesses on the first floor of each high rise.

In my complex there are quite a few parks, many with exercise equipment for the old folks, a cafe, a sundries story where you can buy jugs of water, and a combination fruit seller/laundromat (?). But that doesn't hold a candle to the bigger and comparatively less shoddy complex to the north. There you'll find a Korean grocer, a bookstore, a musical instrument store, a few cafes, a decent-sized gym with a pool, some real estate brokers, and oh so many massage parlors. I counted seven (seven!) massage parlors on the way home today, the first not that far from the last one, and all within the complex premises. I'm confident that if you stand in the right spot, you can have all seven of them in eyesight. I know Chinese like massages, and they certainly and luckily are cheap, but seven!

Sure, that complex isn't blocked off from outsiders, so non-residents--like me--can easily come and go. But it is a residential complex none the less, and you won't just wander in here from off the main drag. It's baffling to think that just the residents in one complex can support seven (!) nearly identical massage businesses. They and all the other shops seem to be doing well enough. I've only seen one closed business in the complexes so far.

While my two apartment complexes have been around for years, the rest of Beijing is abuzz with brand new, luxury residential development. You can usually tell an apartment's luxurious by the number of times its ads show up in in-flight magazines, and by the word "International" squeezed into its name. I gather "international" must be code-word for dead, because none of them seem to have any of the ground-level stores that ensure that people are out and about, bringing life to the lot. Then again, since complaining about crowds and traffic seems to be the local pastime here, maybe it's worth it to those who can afford it to escape from the throngs, even if it means sacrificing convenience and community along with it. 

In the meantime, though, I'll happily keep exploring my older, more traditional residential areas. Given the Chinese penchant for everything eight, I'm sure there's got to be another massage parlor hidden around here somewhere.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

No Photography

On my first full day in Beijing, I came face to face with "Essence of Kangaroo." It was a smallish silver box, much like a Rogaine box, and with a dapper Western man with a full set of luxurious hair smiling on the front, again much like a Rogaine box. The major difference was the kangaroo standing just to the man's left, behind the sign that said "Essence of Kangaroo." I had never seen anything this absurd, so naturally my first inclination was to take a picture of it.

But just as I was about to snap the photo, a store clerk came over and put her hand in front of the box, saying I couldn't take a picture of it. It wasn't until a second store clerk came over to tell me the same thing that I realized she was serious. And it wasn't until I was walking out of the grocery store, dejected and photo-less, that I realized there might actually be bits and pieces of kangaroo inside that box.

At first I chalked up their insistence against photos to the kangaroo bits, since we Westerners eat chickens and fish and their babies and cows and turkeys and ducks and deer and lobsters and crabs and lamb, but we don't eat kangaroo testes, so naturally have the right to judge those who do. Maybe kangaroo testes is a touchy subject across cultures. But then I kept seeing "No Photography" signs in stores selling things as innocuous as Adidas shoes. Instead, then, maybe stores selling legitimate goods are just trying to prevent people from taking photos of them, and using those photos to make their own knock-offs?

At any rate, in a fit of instant karma as strong and full of vitality as the kangaroo, my camera was stolen from my pocket while aboard a crowded Beijing subway, just two days after the incident in the grocery store. That was the first time I'd been pick-pocketed in my life, which was no fun. But lo and behold, all the Adidas stores and grocery clerks in the world can't stop me from finding the exact image I want on Google. Why take your own pictures, when you can just take somebody else's from the internet? Who needs a camera anyway? P.S. did you know that the research has found that male Kangaroo produces twice as much semen as a bull? Thanks, Google!

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Cuba for the first time in my life. It was the first time for most of my family too, except for my mother, who was born in Havana but hadn't been back in 52 years. We were greeted at the airport not only by our cousins, but also by billboards that proudly touted Cuba as the land where "the past and the present coexist." The ad's proclamation is painfully clear after just a few minutes in Havana. Except for a few blocks of the old town spruced up for tourists, it seems like the entire country has collectively forgotten how to both build and maintain buildings. It's like walking into a fifty-year old photograph, except that buildings themselves, instead of the photograph paper, are tattered and creased and worn. Cuba is where the present and past coexist because you can't find the future there.  

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Beijing. If Cuba lost its future, then China must have found it. I arrived in an airport as shiny and pristine as the myriad new cars and residential compounds advertised in the in-flight magazine. It has that new airport smell. And the new airport only opens up to roads lined with new high-rise residential buildings leading to a Central Business District with new office skyscrapers.

One of my relatives in Cuba was trained as an economist and now works in the Ministry of Construction, which is sort of a joke because nothing ever gets constructed in Cuba and he's bored out of his mind at the job. Meanwhile in Beijing construction is so widespread it even has its own bank, the China Construction Bank. Everywhere you turn there seems to be something new being built. The air is thick with construction. It tastes like dirt and metal.

The government is the ultimate owner of all urban land in both Cuba and China. In Cuba, the law is biased towards returning empty property to the government. Private land transactions are in realistic terms next to impossible, and in order to inherit a home one must live in it for ten years after the passing of its previous owner. Any unoccupied property is condemned by the government almost instantaneously. Houses and apartment buildings stay put for decades. But in China municipal governments have realized that property can be multiplied if the real is made liquid, and seem all to eager to raze the hutongs of old to make way for luxury high rises and their promise of copious square footage per acre. Outsiders are left to marvel at both the timelessness of Cuba's stagnancy and the rapidness of China's transfiguration. The issue of old and new doesn't have to be an either/or question, of course, and the past and future can certainly coexist. But coming from an America that likes both historical districts and flashy new football stadiums, I'm struck at just how much each of these countries seems at first glance to be choosing sides.