“…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.)

Pollution Progress?

The last few days air pollution levels have hovered around 300, and since yesterday afternoon they’ve been solidly over 300. That’s nothing special, but the response I’ve noticed this time around is different. We heard about pollution safety from three different sources (friends, work, neighbours) all in the same day. Before people would either ignore it or pretend it was “fog.”

Apparently 300 is the magic number. Today was the first time our Chinese preschool has ever cancelled outdoor activities and shut all the classroom windows because of pollution (“haze/smog” 雾霾). They usually keep the windows open even when it’s cold for health reasons, so this time they’ve judged (or someone with authority judged) that the air outside is a bigger health threat than having closed windows. I had nothing to do with it. And that’s not the only thing.

Our Chinese friends have reminded us to wear masks when we go out — for the pollution, not for the “cold” (many Chinese wear “mouth covers” 口罩, usually cloth, to keep “cold wind” 寒风 from getting into their stomachs and causing Chinese medicine-related ailments). I was biking back home Tuesday night next to a neighbor, and he was actually wearing a pollution mask. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever talked to a Chinese person who was wearing a mask for pollution.

This is all a big change from what we’re accustomed to here, where people (and weather reports!) were happy to note the “fog” () with nary a mask in sight despite the fact that outside smelled and looked like the inside of a tailpipe. It’s helped that the Americans installed their own monitoring equipment on the roof of their embassy in Beijing, broadcast the hourly readings over the internet via smartphone apps, and caused a P.R. ruckus when an exceptionally Dickensian day triggered a “Crazy Bad” reading. If the anecdotes I encountered today are any indication, it seems like the days of air pollution denial are over.

I still can’t believe they closed the windows…!

About Chinese air pollution:

About Chinese medicine:

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.)

Cross-Cultural Perspective 101: the feeling is mutual

It’s a matter of perspective, you see:

“Don’t make me play with that disgusting foreign kid, Grandma! Those barbarians poo in their pants!”

“Wait, you mean you Chinese kids poo on the ground?”

Next time you’re appalled by Chinese people (or any other culture’s people) because they’re doing something that any halfway intelligent and nominally decent person would know not to do, just remember chances are high they feel they same way about you, and not always without reason.

More about where to poo:

P.S. — And just for kicks, here’s the poop in the potty song (also here – open then scroll down to For The Kids III).
P.P.S. — For the record: I don’t think everything boils down to perspective; it’s not all relative. But a large amount of what we assume about the world — like much of what’s barbaric and what’s civilized, sit-downs or squatties — certainly is.

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:

The Great Chinese Airpocalypse of Jan. 2013

(I insist you play this song while viewing this post.)

Our super-fast train back to Qingdao slithers out of the white muck
at the Tianjin South Station on Monday around 2pm.

One of the reasons we left Tianjin for Qingdao was the air pollution. It’s not that Qingdao’s air is good — it’s just not as apocalyptic (though labeling 175 “lightly polluted” is borderline Orwellian).

But in a curious and unhealthy twist of fate, we were visiting friends in Tianjin (30min fast train ride from Beijing) on the weekend of China’s recent Airpocalypse, when the API clocked in at 755 in the Capitol. Previously the API always just maxed out at 500: “Beyond Index”.

On a bad pollution day in Qingdao (API in the 300s) the mountains in the distance are gone. On a bad day in Tianjin, the building across the street looks hazy and the ones down the road gone. API 300 is horrid by North American standards; they’d be canceling outdoor events. But it doesn’t necessarily elicit comments in China, even though you can see it out your window, smell it immediately when you open your door, and, if you spend any time outside, feel it in your throat. The worst we’ve seen so far in Qingdao is mid-400s.

Over 500, however, is just… dystopic. Here’s a shot I took from a Tianjin parking lot during the airpocalypse, around noon:

And here’s a regional API screenshot from the China Air Pollution app:

We’ve done plenty of crying on the blog about the air pollution in China, and the result is a handy collection of links, organized by topic below. My favourites in bold.

Extracting honest numbers from the Chinese government:

Photos & Visuals:

Chinese Air Pollution & Your Health:

How the U.S. embassy in Beijing stuck it to the Chinese government over air pollution

Every year Beijing’s brutal air quality (and even brutal-er public reporting on it) makes international news. But this year Beijing finds itself with a domestic P.R. problem in which its own citizens are no longer willing to accept the gov’s Orwellian “blue sky days”, “fog” and “light” pollution levels. And a large amount of the credit goes to… the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

From Beijing Air Pollution Brouhaha:
“Since flights at Beijing’s airport have been canceled on any number of occasions over the past two decades because of pollution, why all the attention now?

“Several reasons… But the real catalyst for the current contretemps is the U.S. Embassy. If Beijing citizens were once resigned to living in this alternative state of reality, then that’s no longer the case. The U.S. Embassy has changed the way the game is played. On a daily basis, the embassy tweets data reflecting the real air quality for the area in which the embassy resides. Last Sunday, for example, as NPR reported, the pollution recorded by the embassy hit a level described as “beyond index.” The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, in contrast, reported the air pollution as “light.””

We’ve got lots of our own stuff on pollution in the Beijing area, including comparison photos. See our Pollution category for everything.