Beijing rain, sunset and morning

Three photos from our recent overnight embassy trip to Beijing. First, driving north from the Beijing South Station:
Two photos from the 15th floor of our hotel in the embassy district:

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” (雾) 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 (200å…ƒ). Or get the filters and fans yourself on taobao (if you have taobao kungfu like Jessica) for 50å…ƒ 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.)

New Photo Gallery: Ditan Park Temple Fair

My folks came to see us during Spring Festival and we spent a couple days in Beijing. Ditan Park has Beijing’s biggest Spring Festival Temple Fair and it barely contains an unbelievable amount of people, noise and colour. We had a blast, though I wouldn’t recommend it for those who easily suffer from sensory overload! Click the link or the photos below to go to the photo gallery.

Beijing’s Ditan Park Temple Fair 地坛庙会 – 2010 Feb. 20

Silent film of China in the 1920s

Very cool old footage of Tianjin, Beijing, Shenyang, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai from the 1920s. The higher quality version is on YouTube here, but if you’re living in a certain place where They don’t let you watch YouTube sometimes, then you can see another version here.

Tianjin rated #1 Most Livable City in China; Beijing & Shanghai exposed as overrated

“Big rural village” indeed. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Tianjin: China’s #1 most livable city! I can’t believe it. Our very own Tianjin, which is so beautiful that you can look at the sun and it doesn’t hurt your eyes, took top honours among Mainland cities this month in a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

First place in China makes Tianjin 72nd in the world according to the Economist’s Liveability ranking, which

quantifies the challenges that might be presented to an individual’s lifestyle in 140 cities worldwide. Each city is assigned a score for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.

So our Canadian home is the most livable city in the world, and our Chinese home is the most livable city in China. If anyone has more info, please pass it along. I’d love to know how Tianjin scored this.

Below is the intro I never used for the “Tianjin-friendly New Year’s Resolutions for Laowais” magazine article last December, followed by links to some of our best Tianjin stuff.

Yeah yeah, in Tianjin we know how in Beijing you look down us for being old school and undistinguished, and how in Shanghai you think you’re better than, well, everybody, but the intro below from an upcoming local expat magazine article explains why Tianjin kicks all your butts!

Tianjin Rocks!

If you disregard your first impressions and look at it from the proper angle, it’s not hard to see that Tianjin is a romantic city with some exciting nightlife. Stop sniggering; I’m serious: romantic, with exciting nightlife. I’ll also add – traffic and public transit aside – warmhearted. I’m glad it’s not Shanghai or Beijing, and I’ve got good reasons.

Tianjin is a big city with a small town feel. Beijingers might say it’s unsophisticated and really just a big rural village (大农村), but they don’t know what they’re missing. Tianjin’s the kind of city where your neighbourhood bike repairman and his buddies will call you over to sit on those little stools, share some báijiǔ (白酒;white lightning) and play Chinese chess, even though you can barely ask for the bathroom in Chinese. It’s the kind of city where, when you’re reading your Chinese homework on a bench in the park, someone will eventually come sit next to you and make polite conversation. It’s the kind of place where you open your door to find the new neighbours you haven’t met yet standing there with a plate full of steaming dumplings for you and your wife. Or it’s a place where a stranger might join your picnic lunch, where people sing out loud biking down the road, where your taxi driver will talk your ear off if you let him, where couples tango in public, and where the parks are bustling with happy activity from after dinner until late.

Language barriers and vast cultural distances won’t stop the local lǎobǎixìng (老百姓;regular folks) from giving a warm welcome to the foreigners in their midst. Foreigners are still a little special here, but we’re not so unusual that people can’t relate to us normally-enough. Sometimes the biggest problem is the foreigners themselves; we miss out on many of the best aspects of Tianjin because we inadvertently make ourselves unavailable by living lifestyles that are incompatible with the main streams of local Tianjin life.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that pretty much none of Tianjin’s foreigners want to completely abandon all of their foreigner ways and living habits. Thankfully, that’s not necessary. Even just partially adjusting to the rhythms of local life can yield some meaningful relationships and experiences. Making ourselves available to the more meaningful aspects of local Tianjin life will greatly increase our enjoyment of this city and its people, and New Year’s resolutions are as good an excuse as any to get after it.

Selected Tianjin fun:
(You can browse the Tianjin or Regular Zhou categories for more.)

Tianjin is a fine place to be a China-loving lÇŽowài. (Never mind that Business Week rated it the 13th hardest “hardship post” (2nd worst in China) for foreign workers on account of the pollution, disease & sanitation, medical facilities, physical remoteness, and culture & recreation. Sissies!)

Friendly, funny, revealing, and infuriating current signage in Tianjin & Beijing

All these photos are from within the last couple weeks, some from yesterday. The translations are definitely suspect.

“Donkey meat take-out”
Trying to read signs pays off. I recently ‘discovered’ that there’s a donkey meat restaurant on my way to the gym. Donkey meat is good!

“Donkey meat take-out” / 外卖 驴肉 / wài mài lǘ ròu

“No making a ruckus”
From a nearby vegetable market:

“Civilly do business, compete fairly, it’s forbidden in the market to make a noisy ruckus”
文明经商,公平竟争, 市场禁止喧哗吵闹
wénmíng jīngshāng, gōngpíng jìng zhēng, shìchǎng jìnzhǐ xuānhuá chǎonào

Civilized bus riding
From a bus stop in Beijing:

“Please line up and wait for the bus, civilly swipe your card, orderly get off the bus”
qǐng páiduì hòu chē, wénmíng shuā kǎ, shùnxù xià chē

“Orderly get on the bus, politely take your seat, respect the old and cherish the young, civilly ride the bus”
yǒu xù shàng chē, lǐmào shàng zuò, zūn lǎo ài yòu, wénmíng chéng chē

Nothing that special; I was just happy that I could actually read something! We were in Beijing seeing friends that we hadn’t visited for over a year. Last time we had to speak mostly in English and couldn’t read signs like this. This time we used 99.9% Chinese and could get around no problem.

“Harmonious Tianjin”
Post-Olympics Tianjin banners on the left (not the best translation):

“With this well-loved place, establish a happy homeland /
Harmonious Tianjin, Joyful New Year’s Day”
同在一方热土,共建美好家园 / 和谐天津,欢度元旦
tóngzài yī fāng rè tǔ, gòng jiàn měihǎo jiāyuán / héxié tiānjīn, huān dù yuándàn

On the right, one of the many surfaces on Tianjin University campus completely covered in ads for daily/hourly rental bedrooms. There’s a booming market in daily/hourly use rooms and “love hotels” near college campuses in China.

Curse you, Beijing signage!
They told us we’d need to learn characters in China, but they never mentioned night vision! Us and a bunch of other people looking for the Beijing South Train Station wandered around last night in sub-zero temperatures in the wind following conflicting signage and conflicting directions from random passerbyers until we backtracked and took a closer look at this particular sign, or more specifically, the home-made one beside it, which says the train station is the other way:

Nice that they scribbled out the arrow for us! (Construction has made the area a little chaotic, and the bus routes and stuff apparently haven’t been changed yet.)