“…tear gas, or as it’s known in China, ‘the sky'”

It’s that special time of year again:

The Colbert Report clip embedded below about a lot of severely inconvenienced Beijing pigeons and Some Event Which Must Not Be Named has reminded me that it’s time to order new filters for our DIY air purifiers. Because winter is coming to China. And that means the annual airpocalypse.

And we’ve got everything you need to know right here:

China Essentials: DIY home air purifiers

Because “…tear gas, or as it’s known in China, ‘the sky’.”

(You’ll need to set your VPN on a U.S. server to see the video.)
(We’ve gotta to do something about the pronunciation of Chinese names in mainstream English media.)

Hate flagging down taxis in China? Problem SOLVED [Updated!]

I don’t know about taxis in North America; I can’t remember ever being in one. In China they’re relatively cheap and common, faster than the bus, and you probably don’t own your own car. We take the bus as much as we can, but that still means at least one taxi per week.

Taxis save a ton of time if you don’t get stuck not being able to get one. Flagging down a taxi in China can sometimes be a major pain. They’re all full. Or there aren’t any. Or someone “steals” “yours”. Or — most annoyingly — they’re empty but they inexplicably wave you off. Turns out there are reasons why empty taxis pass right buy you. Sometimes they’re about to change shifts. Sometimes they fear the hassle/awkwardness of a foreigner who might not speak Chinese. But more likely, they’re using one or both of these two free smart phone apps: 快的打车 and 嘀嘀打车. And now that we are, too, our arm-flapping on the side of the road days are mostly a thing of the past.

We’ve been using both these apps for weeks now, and they’re genius. It basically means you never end up wasting time waving your arms at the traffic while trying to out-position all the other roadside arm flappers. You enter where and when you want to be picked up and your destination, it notifies every driver instantly, and they choose whether or not to accept. So far it’s only taken seconds for us to get a reply. You can talk to the drivers directly. And they’re motivated to follow through: this app means they have much less empty car time, but if they fail to show up you can ding them and they risk getting temporarily banned from the software.

UPDATE: Turns out these apps are having an app war, and Zhīfùbǎo is involved, too. That means some great promotions for drivers and riders. You can set them up to use your bank card or 支付宝 (sort of like Paypal). Right now if you use both apps you get 10元 off your fare five times per day (two times with 快的打车 and three times with 嘀嘀打车). Plus you earn points that you can redeem for phone charging or hotel discounts, etc. The drivers get 10 or 15元 for every five people they get to pay with 支付宝,depending on which app they use, which is why they’re all suddenly asking us if we want to use Zhīfùbǎo. – 2014-01-26

This going on our China essentials short-list, along with Pleco (Chinese language learning app), the China Air Quality Index app, and DIY air purifiers.

Foreign baby in China essentials: DIY AIR PURIFIERS

(It’s been a while since I cried on the blog about China’s air pollution. But this time we have a solution! Your salvation is at hand…)

Out our windows in Tianjin.

Our first child spent her first month outside the womb in neonatal intensive care. We brought her to China as a 4-month-old. As soon as we’d landed in Beijing the passengers sitting around us started muttering about “…污染…!” because the smog made it hard to see the terminal from the plane. Part of me wanted to take our little preemie right back to Canada.

Air purifiers were on our original list of Foreign Baby in China Essentials (along with imported formula, VPNs and friendly stranger finger shields). But I never wrote the air purifiers post because we quickly discovered that air purifiers are insultingly expensive.

Instead we moved to a less polluted city. But triple-digit air pollution is still not uncommon in Qingdao (you can see and smell anything over 100), and we do get the occasional 400 or 500+ days. Here’s what 172 looks like on a cloudless day in our neighbourhood (that mountain on the left should be crystal clear):

It’s always bothered me that we weren’t doing anything about the air aside from an outrageous amount of air-friendly house plants, especially for our kids. But thanks to PhD student Thomas Talhelm, now we can. Why I did not think of this myself I’ll never know. That’s the Fulbright scholar difference, I guess.

(Click for a larger view.)


If you can handle between $200 to $2000+ per room for commercial air purifiers, yay for you. But that’s tough to swallow for middle class peasants people like us, despite the real worry of raising young children in truly dystopic air quality. Thankfully, it’s cheap and easy to build your own air purifiers that apparently work at least as well.

Buy a pre-assembled kit from Mssr. Talhelm for .. wait for it … 33 bucks (200元). Or get the filters and fans yourself on taobao (if you have taobao kungfu like Jessica) for 50元 less per unit. We’ve made four.

Buying the kit is obviously the most convenient way to go. But either way, a monkey could assemble these things. All you have to do is stick a HEPA filter onto the front of a fan. See how to build one here and here. You need: a fan, pliers/scissors, HEPA filter, and a strap.

“But but but… with DIY purifiers you don’t get the monitoring electronics or the aesthetics or the ionizer or all the other things we’re selling that you didn’t know you needed!” Ok, but do they work? The proles People like us are willing to sacrifice peripherals to save hundreds of dollars.

According to the results of Talhelm’s tests, which are easily reproducible for anyone who doesn’t trust people who sell things (if anyone does do their own tests please let me know!), our $25 air purifiers perform as good and possibly even better than commercial units where it counts.

(Click for the full test results.)

Despite what the high prices suggest, air purifiers aren’t magic. They blow the air in your room through a filter. It’s not like doing rocket science or trying to figure out how to make your 4-year-old not get up to pee 500 times a night.

Here’s one of ours, which cost $25:

‘If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’

About China’s apocalyptic air quality:

About having a Foreign Baby/Kid in China:

(Click to get the free China Air Pollution app.)

How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition

Brace yourself; we’re going down the cross-cultural rabbit hole.

China’s Good Samaritan Exception

As you may have heard, Mainland Chinese are (in)famous for not being Good Samaritans; they really don’t want to get entangled in some other family’s problems. Domestic abuse, public medical emergencies, blatant pickpocketing — if it’s not their family, it’s not their problem, and it’s too risky to get involved anyway. But I’ve found an exception to this rule: our kids.

What happened yesterday is a prime example. Jessica took the girls to play outside while I was teaching. It was pushing 34’C and neighbour kids were playing in some water on the sidewalk and invited ours to play. Scandal ensued.

Pop Quiz: Spot the Scandal

Now, Chinese culture pop quiz: Why is this stranger grabbing our kid?

There are clues in the photo. But there’s nothing special about the water (the pipe delivering potable water to the building sprung a leak, so free clean water!) or the ground; it’s just kids playing in water on the sidewalk. But if China had a Child Protective Services and Chinese people cared to use it, they’d consider calling it on account of our horrible parenting on display in this picture.

The parents and grandparents (not all the kids & caregivers are pictured) were visibly disturbed and provoked to intervene more than once when Jessica didn’t stop K, our youngest, from sitting down on the wet sidewalk. They’d try to stand her up, and she’d just give them a look and sit back down (notice the stools in the picture). And of course they hassled Jessica about it. According to our language tutor, if a Chinese person let her kid play this way, neighbours would gossip that she can’t be the biological mother (妈妈), that she must be a stepmother (后妈后娘) because only an uncaring non-relative would let a kid do that. “She just doesn’t look after her!” (不怎么) is what they actually said in front of Jessica.

Oh, I… see.

Of course, Jessica asked questions to get them to explain. She knows a good educational entertainment opportunity when she sees it.

Jessica: “What’s the matter with her sitting down?”

Neighbours (looking like Jessica has three heads): “Dampness! Moistness!” ( / 湿)

Jessica: “So? What will happen?”

Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)

Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”

Neighbours: “No!”

Jessica: “Then what sickness?”

Neighbours: “Her bones will get sore.” Then they quickly discuss what the proper term is, and say: “Rheumatism!” (风湿症)

As with a great many of the stark, mutually-appalling Chinese v. North American parenting differences, this one is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By TCM I mean the health theory (学术理论中医学)), not Chinese herbs (中药) like ginseng or specific applications (具体应用) like acupuncture (针灸), guasha (刮痧), or fire cupping (拔罐).

TCM is a fundamental given for the Chinese, part of their basic fabric of reality. And it’s so deeply culturally determined that it’s virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. (Fun game: If you want to get yourself patronized like a silly little child, go explain to a Chinese friend how TCM is make-believe and inferior to Western medical science.) But I won’t let a little thing like that stop me from trying to explain! :)

The problem is, according to the popular TCM understanding of our neighbours and of our sharp and foreigner-accustomed language tutor (I could write several posts on the reasons she gives for her real or imagined ailments), if our daughter sits in the water on a bricked sidewalk, she’ll get Damp (). (Well, shoot dang! No kidding. She might get wet, too. Maybe even soaked!) But they don’t mean damp like what you’re thinking; it’s more like damp+. Being affected by Damp Air (潮气) is a particular TCM health condition; Damp involves but is not entirely reducible to the purely physical/material/scientifically investigate-able and explainable phenomenon we think of. Ditto for related TCM concepts like Cold () and Moist (湿) and Wind (), all of which can get into your body in some nonspecific unobservable way and give you future health problems. Maybe like cooties? With Chinese characteristics?

The fear is that because of the water and the material that bricks are made of, Cold Air (寒气) could get into our daughter’s body or bones (身体/骨骼). She would therefore “get/receive/be subjected to Cold” (受寒). This would cause her to get sick (得病), not in the sense of “catch a cold” (curious we say it that way, eh?), but in the specific sense that Cold entering her bones when she was almost 1-and-a-half-years-old will cause her to have rheumatism when she’s old.

Anyway, this little episode is interesting to me for a couple reasons: the TCM stuff, but also because it’s a situation in which normal Chinese people actually intervene on a regular basis. I wonder if us being foreigners makes them more or less willing to intervene like this.

More about being a bad parent in China:

About getting involved in other people’s business:

And about TCM:

Living in China? What do you do about food safety/pollution?

Just now I opened my latest ZGBriefs China news digest and found: “Rat meat and Chinese food safety” and “20 million taps (and not a drop to drink)”. Right as I sat to down to write this post I also checked my Weixin (微信 – a Chinese social media thing). At the top of my feed was a post about someone encountering “gutter oil” 地沟油 at lunch. Gutter oil comes from the kitchen slop that restaurants dump down the nearest manhole. Some enterprising (desperate?) soul scoops it out and skims off the oil, which he sells to restaurants and street vendors. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Or they drive around at night collecting it in barrels from the restaurants directly (I’ve seen that, too). And these aren’t the worst Chinese food safety examples I can think of; they’re just the ones that happen to be immediately on hand as I write this. This is truly just the muculent tip of a putrescent iceberg.

Why am I bringing this up? I don’t want a blog full of expat whining. But I got this e-mail a few days ago from a couple who’s been in China for three months:

Hello Joel!
[…] I’m living with my husband in a town in the middle of nowhere called Neixiang (Hunan Province) we’d had tons of shocking experiences here… and now we’re mainly concern about what food is safe to eat.

I’m not talking about eating cat or dog, but eating safe and clean. After reading news about food scandals in China we became more and more afraid of buying food on the streets and even at super markets.

If you have time, could you please tell us your experience with Chinese food brands and give us some advice about what brands has more quality standards than others?

How would you answer? If you live or lived in China, what specific things do you do to make your food safer?

Here’s what I replied with (plus some links)…

Other than spending tons of money and eating only imported products, I don’t know if it’s possible to eat safe and clean in China (and outside China, safe and clean is really just an illusion anyway, but that’s another topic). We’re less stringent than a lot of other expats, and I don’t think what we’re doing makes it safe and clean, but at least it’s something.

Fruit & veggies: We wash all our fruit and vegetables really well.

Milk/dairy: Our girls drink/drank imported milk and formula for their first two years. We drink the major domestic brands, but not because we think they’re necessarily safe.

Meat: Some meat vendors in vegetable markets are “certified” (so they claim, usually by displaying posters and/or certificates on the walls). We get our chicken at Metro 麦德龙 (a bulk import store, cheaper than regular import stores), but the beef and pork there is still too expensive. So we’re eating “certified” vegetable market pork and beef while still looking for better options. We also eat less meat than we did in North America.

Packaged/bottled products: We don’t usually buy packaged products like bottles of vinegar or soy milk from the tiny window shops (小卖部) or traditional vegetable markets (菜市场), because things are more likely to be fake. In our first year our teacher pointed out some details of things we’d bought: labels glued on crooked and printed in slightly lower quality, caps were just plugs instead of factory sealed screw caps, etc. Packaged stuff has better chances at a supermarket.

Street food: We don’t eat tons of street food (about once a week for me).

Water: Our drinking water at home comes in big blue bottles, like an office water cooler. At least there’s a chance that it’s better than the tap water (and it tastes way better). During our first week in Qingdao I asked a convenience store owner if we could buy the blue bottles from them. She said we didn’t need them, that we could just drink the tap water. When I balked, she said, well, children shouldn’t drink the tap water, they have to drink bottled water, but for adults it’s fine. We went across the parking lot to the other little convenience store and got the blue bottles.

Air: We didn’t buy an air purifier; they’re prohibitively expensive. We use the China Air Quality Index app to keep track of the pollution levels (though you hardly need it; it’s obvious when the API is over 150), and on really bad days we try to keep our daughters inside. I also googled for pictures of house plants that are supposedly good for the air, and got dozens of a kind in the plant market that looked similar (not scientific, I know, but I like the green anyway, plus they’re cheap). Most importantly as far as air quality is concerned, we left Tianjin (next to Beijing) for Qingdao. Short of building pollution domes over your life like some international schools, you can’t fight the bad air. Your options: wear uncomfortable and expensive high-tech masks, live and work under a (literal) bubble, embrace an early death, or leave. We left. Sort of.

Being in China means choosing to ingest and absorb all kinds garbage. There’s no avoiding it, there’s just lessening it. There’s a joke floating around online that when a Chinese person dies if you flatten their body you’ll get the entire Periodic Table of Elements. Our first year in Tianjin, back before the Olympics when restaurant place settings didn’t come shrink wrapped with your meal, our Chinese teachers would obsessively wipe out every cup, bowl and plate before eating with them. What did they know that we didn’t? So don’t forget to ask (delicately!) your Chinese coworkers, waiban, students, etc. what they do about food safety and pollution. They aren’t unaware.

P.S. - Not exactly the kind of food safety issue we’ve been talking about, but still, this dumpling chef doesn’t mess around:

How to do cross-cultural transitions right: Build a “RAFT”

Moving cross-culturally is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is easy. You leave behind siblings, nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents, and friends, plus places and things infused with memories and meaning, like the house where you grew up and park where you proposed.

We did that once, the first time we moved to Asia. After three years we returned to Canada to have our first child, and then we did it again. After another two years in China we returned to Canada a second time for the birth of our second child. And now we’re back in China for the third time.

The return trips to China after each birth were harder than the first time we left. Taking your children away from their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, Sunday school friends (never mind all the grass and trees and oceans and lakes and air) hurts.

You realize more what you’re doing when you’re also doing it to your kid.

There’re others you leave behind, too: coworkers, people you don’t like, people you have a grudge against. And there’s the nasty bonus surprise: returning to your culture of origin (like our friend Rob) after a long time away is often harder than leaving your original home ever was in the first place. Not only are you leaving behind so many friends and places and memories, but “home” has changed since you left, and so have you, and it won’t feel the same. Much of the familiarity you’re expectantly anticipating never materializes. But this post isn’t about entry or re-entry; it’s about leaving.

Regardless of which direction you’re going, the experience of leaving so much behind is huge whether you take the time to acknowledge it or not. And how you leave it can have a big impact on you personal development, on the kind of people you and your lover and your kids are becoming. This experience impacts all of you, and some ways of intentionally navigating the experience are healthier than others.

We received some great advice about how to do cross-cultural transitions before our most recent move back to China, advice we tried out a little bit in the months before we left, and we think it’s worth sharing. I wish we’d put more of it into practice than we did. It’s called “building a R.A.F.T.” and comes from chapter 13 of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (pages 200-204 in our 2001 edition). Below is my summary/paraphrase/riff of what they wrote.

Building a R.A.F.T.

You’ll see quickly that this process takes some forethought and planning ahead; put it off ’til the last two weeks and you’ll likely not have enough opportunities. You’ll also notice that it’s something for every family member to do, not just the adults.

Closure matters. Festering bitterness matters. Making peace matters. Emotional baggage matters. Guilt and regrets matter. Forgiving and being forgiven matter, and that’s what reconciliation is all about. Reconciliation means growing up. It means attempting to communicate hurts and forgiveness, and initiate apologies.

A cross-cultural move presents a tempting cop-out: to run away and ignore strained or broken relationships. But refusing to resolve interpersonal conflicts sabotages healthy closure, and this lack of reconciliation sabotages the rest of your “RAFT” — the rest of your transition and entry/re-entry experience. You can’t really move away from these kinds of difficulties anyway; you’ll carry the emotional baggage of unresolved problems with you. Bitterness is unhealthy, unresolved relational issues can interfere with new relationships, and if/when you eventually move back, those problems will still be there, and they’ll be even harder to resolve.

A cross-cultural move also provides a great excuse, if you need one, for attempting to make peace: “Hey, I’m leaving for China for who knows how long, and I don’t want to leave a mess between us…” or however you need to do it.

You can’t always achieve reconciliation, of course, because it takes two willing parties. But you can always attempt it, and at least own up to the part of the relationship you’re responsible for. In our recent personal experience we found that the attempt is worth it whether the other side engages or not.

Think through your list of friends, coworkers, supervisors, neighbours, classmates. Do more than just say goodbye. Affirm people; let them know you respect and appreciate them, acknowledge that they matter. This is good for them and for you: it strengthens your relationships into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from living in the place you’re leaving. Pollock and Van Reken illustrate with some examples:

  • Make time to tell coworkers that you enjoyed working with them.
  • Tell friends how their friendship has been important, and maybe leave them some sort of memento.
  • Send a note and small gift to neighbours, mentioning positive things about your interactions with them.
  • Reassure those close to you of your love for them and that you don’t leave them lightly. Order flowers for the day after you leave.

Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.

Making farewells to people, places, and possessions helps avoid deep regrets later. Schedule ahead so that you won’t end up missing anyone or anywhere or any thing that was in any way significant, and make a real ‘official’ farewell to each. It’s a time to acknowledge all the positive things and feelings, and acknowledge that it’s sad to leave each person and thing behind.

People - this is crucial, even more so for children, who will need guidance. You want to say and do something, make some sort of gesture like baking cookies or writing a note, that acknowledges the importance of that person to you, expresses thanks, and lets them know they will be missed.

Some sort of “rite of passage” ritual often accompanies major life transitions like graduation or retirement parties. Taking the time to do something similar in spirit creates a significant memory acknowledging the importance of a person or place, and helps face and process the fact that you’re leaving them.

Places - Visit emotionally significant sites to reminisce and say goodbye. Everything from the tree you loved climbing to the park where you got engaged. Some people plant a tree, or hide some little treasure that they could dig up later if they ever return. The point is to openly acknowledge the time as a true goodbye, admitting that the stage of life these places represent will soon be in the past.

Possessions - You have to leave a lot of stuff behind in international moves. Certainly, adults and kids have to learn about letting go, and we all have too much stuff anyway, but everyone should talk over what to take and what to leave behind. It’s also important to deliberately choose and take what become “sacred objects”, a slowly growing collection of physical objects that connect the different places and stages of your life. When important objects must be left behind, try giving them as gifts to a friend and taking photographs. Jessica and I have a Christmas tree ornament (or something we use as one) from most of the significant places in our life together. Every year we can remember.

In addition to all her teachers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, we had our three-year-old say good-bye to her classrooms, playground, the lake where she swam all summer, places we visited regularly, her bedrooms, toys she was leaving behind, parks we often walked in, and a bunch of other stuff. And we took pictures of it all. This gave us plenty of opportunity to verbalize what was happening then and later after we’d returned to China. It helped all of us put words to the experience and mourn all that we were losing in a healthy way.

Think Destination
During the goodbye process, start shifting gears mentally, reorienting your thinking to the near future: you’re arrival and adjustment in a new place. Think realistically: identify positives and negatives and differences about your destination. List problems you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external (finances, support people you can lean on) and internal (your ability and methods of dealing with the stress of change).

Thinking ahead and identifying these things helps make the transition much less rockier than it could be. Forming realistic expectations helps avoid disappointment (from too high expectations) and makes sure you don’t miss out on available resources (due to too low expectations). You aren’t mentally and emotionally leaving so much behind in order to go nowhere; every step away from what you’re leaving can be a step toward what you’re gaining.

Related stuff:

Facebooking in China: SunVPN review [Updated 2x]

[Update 2 — SunVPN sent a fix less than 48 hours after the ‘China problem’ – which affected several major VPNs in China – began. And I didn’t contact them about it to complain, they sent it out on their own. All I had to do was download an attachment and copy the files to the folder they specified. Simple. And it worked! Friends using different VPN services had to wait longer… one up to a week.]

[UPDATE 1 — Right as I went to publish this, our previously flawless VPN service stopped working. I suspect it has something to do with this: Chinese Internet Connections Unreliable in Run-Up to Party Congress and Why Using the Internet in China is So Frustrating These Days.]


As foreigners in China, we automatically have this little problem:

It doesn’t matter if your grandmother wants to see your pictures of her great-granddaughters on Facebook, and the same goes for YouTube. If you want to access those kinds of sites in China, you’ll need a little help in the form of a VPN. Thankfully, you don’t even have to know what “VPN” stands for in order to use them. We’re not all that technologically literate, but the VPN we’re currently on works fine and is simple to use.

Facebook, YouTube and many others weren’t blocked when we first arrived in China, and back then VPNs weren’t that common. But now with tighter internet restrictions, VPNs are becoming standard-issue for expats. We’re probably online less than the average foreigner, but Facebook is where we share our kids’ pictures with family and keep tabs on friends from back home, so access is important.

Over the years in China we’ve used a couple different VPNs to get over the Great Firewall, and right now we’re test-driving SunVPN.


SunVPN installed easily the first time(!) on both our laptops and phones, and works like they said it would. I was surprised how hassle-free it was because I’ve come to expect hassles with this sort of thing. There are multiple servers in multiple countries to choose from, and we only occasionally have to pick a different one when the one we’re trying to use won’t connect or quits working. Either way, there’s plenty of back-up and we’ve never been without a connection.

See the image below for the list of servers. I don’t know what any of that techie stuff means, but I don’t need to. All I do is right-click and choose one that says “fast”, and it works.

Here are their main features and links:

  • VPN service
  • buy VPN
  • China VPN
  • OpenVPN/PPTP VPN available
  • the safest OpenVPN encryption available (256 bit AES)
  • custom OpenVPN/PPTP installer for Windows
  • custom Tunnelblick installer for Mac OS
  • worldwide server network
  • other common VPN features: unblock all Internet restrictions (China, Oman, UAE etc), watch USA/UK TV from abroad, keep safe from Firesheep etc.

P.S. – I did learn, however, that there is one detail in the instructions that must be heeded: when clicking the desktop icon to open the program (after it’s been installed), you can’t double-click it like normal. You have to right-click and then choose “Run as administrator” or “Open as administrator.”

P.P.S. – I’m usually loathe to encourage people to get online more than they already are. If you aren’t on Facbeook and don’t see a specific need, I suggest you just skip it, and spend more of your life having real human contact. I only got on it several years ago to stalk my sister’s sketchy boyfriend, but once all my extended family became users and we moved overseas we’ve been stuck with it.

P.P.P.S. – Apparently even VPNS aren’t invincible. Even as I was going to hit “Publish” on this post, we started having problems connecting for the first time, and did a lot of people using various VPN services: Chinese Internet Connections Unreliable in Run-Up to Party Congress and Why Using the Internet in China is So Frustrating These Days. But SunVPN sent a fix in less than 48 hours that was easy to apply. So we’re back online, despite the ever-tightening Great FireWall of China.

Related Stuff: