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.)

Conspicuously Curvacious Tianjin, China

(Wrote this when we lived in Tianjin, saved it for a rainy day.)

Believe it or not, there actually is a cultural angle to this; it’s not just about ogling scandalous public depictions of women.

Earthquake Memorial
Behold! Tianjin’s public celebration of curvacious (foreign?) women in windswept, soaking wet, clingy dresses who like to pose as if they’re on the cover of trashy women’s fashion magazines– er, I mean– memorial to the Chinese mothers who suffered in the devastating Tangshan earthquake in 1976 that killed over 200,000 people:

I pass this earthquake memorial on Nanjing Rd. every day on my way to work. It’s one of three statues; the other two are what you’d expect: a baby-rescuing soldier and a worker. The exaggerated woman is conspicuously… not so historically accurate.

Ever since I first noticed this memorial I’ve been taking a second look at the public statues I come across. There are statues of women all over town, and except for a larger-than-life soft porn series of Rodin knock-off statues along the HÇŽihé near Liberation Bridge, exceptionally (read: unnaturally) proportioned nudes in the Italian concession area, and a random nude holding a hoolahoop in the middle of a roundabout (no idea what that’s about), most of them aren’t supposed to be sexual, or at least you wouldn’t expect them to be sexual. But– well, you be the judge.

Nankai University
What is the first thing this statue makes you think of?

And be honest; don’t say Moses and the 10 Commandments.

This not-Moses-and-the-10-Commandments statue is at Nankai University.

Tianjin University
This next statue is inside the main entrance of Tianjin University:

It commemorates the school’s centennial anniversary and I assume it’s supposed to be celebrating women’s education, but she’s not only exceptionally — oh what’s the Chinese word… 丰满, it’s also — how can I put this delicately… unnecessarily detailed?

This is the opposite of the Communist statue depictions of women, like at the memorial near Tianjin’s Liberation Bridge (right). Gender equality is part of the message, but equality in the traditional Communist images essentially means desexualization/masculinization, with short hair and form-obscuring army uniforms. Of course, masculinizing women in the name of gender equality certainly isn’t unique to China, and conflicting public images of women are found in Mao-era China, too. (For more about Mao-era depictions of women see: Iron Women and Foxy Ladies.)

Neighbourhood elementary school
Even across the street from our apartment complex, this elementary school teacher (right) has apparently just been swimming in the Haihe, in her clothes.

Sex in China
China sends extreme, conflicting signals about sexuality. I realize that the statues in these photos aren’t necessarily extreme (especially compared to the previously mentioned soft porn statues). But they are examples of sexualization/objectification where you don’t expect it: of earthquake victims, monuments to women’s education/advancement, primary school teachers. What I’m trying to highlight is Tianjin’s seemingly split-personality when it comes to sexuality. Many social norms are still far more conservative than what you’d see or hear in the average the U.S. or Canadian public space, yet at the same time in other areas public sexuality and sexual behaviour seem more liberal and tolerant. Depending on where you look, China can have less or more public sexuality than the post-Sexual Revolution, pornified West.

Our old apartment building had a “massage parlour” on one side and a kindergarten on the other, which was right next to a KTV bar and bathhouse — both with prostitutes — which was down the street from a sex toy shop. And we lived in a pretty nice part of town. It seems like every three or four block radius in residential areas will have at least one sex toy shop and no shortage of places hiding prostitution in plain sight. If I went to the top floor with a sling shot I could probably hit a trashy massage parlour.

But parents and teachers and young couples can’t talk about it. When sex is in the textbooks, teachers often tell the students to read it at home, and it’s never discussed in class. Even in Bright Future classes (the foreigner-led, explicit sex ed initiative at Tianjin University), we’ve seen students often switch to English for uncomfortable words when speaking or writing. (For more about Bright Future see: Sex, drugs, and Tianjin University students.) One of a few big reasons Chinese premarital pregnancy and abortion rates are so high that Chinese non-resident and new immigrant populations skew their host countries’ abortion rates is because old taboos against explicitly acknowledging sexuality and sexual behaviour hinder attempts to directly address or educate regarding those behaviours. In other words: people are kept dangerously ignorant about sexual basics, they aren’t called out on their flagrant, irresponsible behaviour, and (girls especially) lack options, skills and vocabulary for resisting when pressured for sex they don’t want to have.

It makes sense to me that these extremes of flagrant behaviour and non-acknowledgement — of sexualizing earthquake memorials and elementary school teachers but avoiding sex ed in the home and classroom — counter-intuitively exist side-by-side, but it’s still sometimes surprising to see them in close contrast.

More about sexuality in China:

Sunday morning overflow at the Shanxi Lu Three-Self church in Tianjin, China

According to one of the greeter/usher/crowd-control guys (who just became my best friend for finding me a place — out of range of all the ā​yís and their unsolicited advice — where I could change a mid-Sunday school poopie diaper), the Shanxi Lu Three-Self church can hold almost 1600 in the pews. These pictures are from this morning, half-way through the early (8:30) service, outside the overflow room where people who couldn’t get seats inside the main split-level auditorium or who can’t climb stairs watch the proceedings on a video screen.

Looks like they ran out of stools.

People were even camped out around the corner listening through the side doors and windows of the overflow room:

I would have had better pictures, but these were all I was able to squeeze out of my dead camera batteries if I let them rest in between shots.

Shanxi Lu is the biggest of the four Three-Self churches in Tianjin. “Three-Self church” means a legal, registered Chinese church that is officially under the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”, which is one of two Party organizations controlling all legal Protestant church activity in China (there are other organizations that control the Catholics). The term “three-self” is a missiological term from the 19th century referring to missionaries’ desires to have local churches be “self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.”

ABC News’ “True Believers” feature has recent reportage on the legal, illegal-but-tolerated, and illegal-and-not-tolerated churches in China.

Tianjin street market dash (video)

I biked with one hand on the camera, video running, through our neighbourhood street market. It’s not as scary as the first time I tried videoing while biking in Tianjin, but it’s definitely more colourful. So without further ado, here’s a 6pm summertime glimpse of our neighbourhood in China! (These video clips are on YouTube, so if you’re in China you won’t be able to see them without help.)

Then I decided to go back through the other way for a different view:

More about Chinese markets and traffic:

Behaving yourself… with Tianjin characteristics

The word “propaganda” (宣传 xuān​chuán​) doesn’t carry the same sinister connotations in Chinese. A range of promotional material and activity that we wouldn’t automatically consider insidious in North America would be called “propaganda” in Chinese. (So maybe it’d be most accurate to use the word “propaganda” more broadly like the Chinese do but retain the negative connotations?) Anyway, this April contained a lot of propaganda. Before the gov. started spinning its role in the earthquake relief efforts, an unrelated propaganda campaign was already underway in Tianjin.

I mentioned in before how our teacher warned me about this April’s campaign in Tianjin to enforce previously unenforced laws; she was afraid I’d get a ticket for the way I bike. Our neighbourhood got some colourful new posters detailing the rules in pictures, though the photo at right of our neighbourhood notice board shows how much people seemed to care. Our Chinese teacher’s explanation of how people feel about these little campaigns (“行动“) fits right in with what we’ve seen in our area. After all, they’ve been through this drill before.

According to her, there’s an understanding between the front line guys who have to make a show of implementing these kinds of campaigns and the people who are supposed to alter their behaviour/business activities: play the game, let us put on a show for our bosses so they can report to their bosses, and we’ll continue looking the other way just like we’ve always done once this little xíngdòng blows over.

I won’t bother translating all the text from the posters, but here’s the main parts (left to right, top to bottom). I followed the Chinese grammar as close as I could for fellow language students’ sake. Not the most exciting material, I know, but this is our neighbourhood; all the behaviours mentioned are ubiquitous around here, though some more than others. Besides, you know you’ve always wanted to know how to say “propaganda poster” in Chinese!

“Tianjin City City Administration Regulations” Propaganda Poster 1
tiānjīnshì chéngshì guǎnlǐ guīdìng xuānchuán guàtú

City residents ought to abide by City Administration laws and regulations and behaviour norms, cherish public facilities, protect the public environment, and maintain public order.
shìmín yīngdāng zūnshǒu chéngshì guǎnlǐ fǎlǜ guīdìng hé xíngwéi zhǔzé, àihù gōnggòng shèshī, bǎohù gōnggòng huánjìng, wéihù gōnggòng zhìxù

In public places it is strictly forbidden everywhere to spit phlegm, spit chewing gum, strictly forbidden everywhere to pee or relieve yourself, strictly forbidden to carelessly throw cigarette butts, paper scraps, fruit peels and pits as well as all kinds of other waste material. [Sign: Prohibited everywhere to poo or pee] (Fine: 50å…ƒ/$7.45)
ài gōnggòng chǎngsuǒ yánjìn suídì tǔtán, tǔ kǒuxiāngtáng, yánjìn suíchù biànnì huòzhě luàn dàofèibiàn, yánjìn luànrēng yāndì, zhǐxiè, guāguǒ pí hé yǐjí qítā gèlèi fèiqìwù. [jìnzhǐ suídì dàxiǎobiàn]

It is strictly forbidden from buildings or vehicles to toss out any kind of material.
yánjìn yóu jiànzhùwù huòzhě chēliàng xiàngwài zhì gèlèi wùpǐn

It is strictly forbidden on buildings, construction and other installations or trees, residential passageways and other places to exhibit, post, hang, carve, scribble, any kind of urban eyesore slogans, propaganda articles and other materials.
yánjìn zài jiànzhùwù, gòuzhùwù hé qítā shèshī huòzhě shùmù, jūmín lóudào děngchù bǎifàng, zhāngtiē, kèhuá, túxiě gèzhǒng yǒuàishìróng shì mào de biāoyǔ, xuānchuánpǐn hé qítā wùpǐn

It is strictly forbidden whatsoever for work units and individuals to privately put up disorderly buildings.
yánjìn rènhé dānwèi hé gèrén sī dā luàn gài

It is strictly forbidden on residential buildings outer eaves to add new doors and windows, open windows and alter doors or increase the original door and window dimensions. [Privately owned beauty parlour]
yánjìn zài zhùzhái lóufáng wài yánshàng zēngshè mén chuāng, chāi chuāng gǎi mén huòzhě kuòdà yuányǒu mén chuāng chǐcùn. [sījiā měifà]
(A whole strip of first floor street-facing businesses next to our complex have just filled in their illegal doors half-way and either posted signs saying “Normal business hours, go around” or provided steps for people to step over the recently laid bricks. After the first two three of the campaign, some of the businesses have already knocked most of their brickwork back down.)

It is strictly forbidden to illegally occupy the road, in public locations to display and sell, food and drink, or engage in activities like motor vehicle washing and repairing, etc. [Intersection Jianbing][Sanitary and clean]
yánjìn wéifǎ zhànyòng dàolù, gōnggòng chǎngsuǒ cóngshì bǎimài, cānyǐn, jīdòngchē qīngxǐ hé xiūlǐ děng jīngyíng huódòng. [dàokǒu jiānbing][wèishēng gānjìng]
(Around here this means that all the street cart vendors have started crowding the entrances to neighbourhoods rather than being right out on the street corners.)

It is strictly forbidden on the road and in neighbourhood unappointed places to burn funeral wreaths, paper money and other funeral articles.
yánjìn zài dàolù jí shèqū fēizhǐdìng qūyù nèi fénshāo huāquān, zhǐqián jí qítā sāngzàng yòngpǐn.

It is strictly forbidden for individuals to raise aggressive dogs, big-size dogs. (Penalty: 1000å…ƒ fine and the dog gets confiscated.)
yánjìn gèrén sìyǎng lièxìng quǎn, dàxíng quǎn.

It is strictly forbidden to make use of high-volume broadcast loudspeakers or to produce other high-level noise to interfere with the surrounding residential life; if engaging in household indoor entertainment, renovations, etc., activities, you ought to restrict the time or take effective measures to alleviate noise pollution. (Amen!!!)
yánjìn shǐyòng gāo shēng guǎngbō lǎba huòzhě fāchū qítā gao zàoshēng gānrǎo zhōuwéi jūmín shēnghuó; cóngshì jiātíng shìnèi yúlè, zhuāngxiū děng huódòng, yīngdāng xiànzhì shíjiān huòzhě cǎiqǔ yǒuxiàocuòshī jiǎnqīng zàoyīn wūrǎn.

It is strictly forbidden to illegally occupying city streets. It is strictly forbidden to change the purpose of approved road occupation or move location, expand area or extend occupation time length without approval.
yánjìn wéifǎ zhànyòng chéngshì dàolù. yánjìn wèijīng pīzhǔn gǎibiàn zhàn lù yòngtú huòzhe yídòng wèizhi, kuòdà miànjī, yáncháng shíjiān.

It is strictly forbidden in the first place to illegally damage park green spaces. It is strictly forbidden after occupying park green spaces to delay in rehabilitating.
yánjìn wéifǎ zhàn yà, pòhuài yuánlín lǜdì. yánjìn zhànyòng yuánlín lǜdì fòu chíyán huīfù.
And here’s some other recent sloganeering from near our old neighbourhood:

“Implement the Scientific Development Concept, strive to establish an economically strong district, cultured greater area and an ecologically suitable-for-dwelling city. (A Binshui Nanli Neighbourhood Committee announcement)”
luòshí kēxué fāzhǎn guān, nǔlì jìnshè jīngjì qiáng qū, wénhuà dà qū hé shēngtài yí jū chéngqū. (bīnshuǐnánlǐ jūwěihuì xuān)

“Support the motherland, love Tianjin, behave like civilized Hexi district people!”
zàn zǔguó, ài tiānjīn, zuò wénmíng héxīrén

For an interesting, unflinching window into contemporary China, I’d suggest checking out this large photo collection of translated slogans and photos — some are funny; some are very, very sad. Once you get out of the higher-profile cities on the coast, the slogans become much more… galling.

Camilla delivery

After all the whining about the pollution and fear-mongering about the bathrooms, I should mention that in some ways Tianjin is far superior to, say, Vancouver (host city 2010 Olympic Winter Games).

For example, in Tianjin, a massive city of 8 million people, you can get a live chicken delivered straight to your door for ï¿¥8/斤! Ordered online! That’s like $1.25 per pound! Behold:

The part I circled is the end of a list of special instructions you can choose from, in this case: “…slaughtered, alive, etc.” (宰过,活的等)。

(P.S. — Camilla)