“…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.)