Thursday, December 26, 2013

Episode Ten: Pollution and Christmas in China

Air Pollution Index: 850 (2.5 parts per million)
Campus Pollution haze
When one walks around in an Air Pollution Index of 850 (on a scale of 0-500), it is like walking around in a soup of grey mush. You strain to see and your breathing becomes shallow. After two weeks, I was beginning to wonder if the pollution would ever lift. Z had a rattle-y cough and diarrhea. Z reported that no one was allowed to go out for recess. I was limiting my running to five miles a day and wheezing after the run, feeling nauseous. Today the pollution finally lifted or blew away or whatever it does on its way to burning the ozone and melting the ice caps.

Yesterday morning at 7 a.m. the pollution index was 850; today at 7 a.m. it was 250. 250 is still “unhealthy,” but it isn’t off the charts hazardous. Today I can see details for the first time in two weeks. It is not unlike a geezer putting on her reading classes and seeing actual letters instead of a grey blur.

Two blocks of visibility
The pollution soup that permeated our lives was so bad that even inside the grocery store there was a haze. Deborah and I found some new-fangled face masks in the Muslim Quarter. They included little ear covers on them, so your ears can be warm while you are walking about in the cold pollution-filled world of Xi’an.

As a comparison, I looked at the pollution levels in the United States. The American Lung Association has a good web site. Missouri and Nebraska had virtually no pollution (under 60 on the API scale). The worst pollution I could find was Reno, Nevada: 127 API. That was the worst. Multiply that times 6 or 7 and that is what it has been like in Xi’an for the past two weeks. Even today, which seems like a crystal clear day compared to what we have been experiencing, it is still twice what is considered the worst pollution in the United States.

I kept asking people (students and Chinese friends) what the government was doing about the hazardously high air pollution. The answer: telling people to wear masks and saying that children and old people should stay inside. “No,” I said. “I mean, what is the government DOING about the pollution?” A student said, “They are running only 50% of the buses.”

How does that even make sense, limiting public transportation instead of decreasing private transportation and factory pollution? Why not tell people they can’t drive their cars and need to take public transportation? How about limiting the production of the worst polluting factories? How about telling people to work from home if they can to avoid using their cars?
Mask with ear warmers
The next time you use your cell phone or computer or buy a cheap pair of jeans or sunglasses or walk into Walmart where virtually everything is made in China, think about how you are contributing to the pollution here in Xi’an. American companies outsource to China because the goods can be made so much cheaper here (Apple is a big perpetrator of this, but most American companies do the same). The reason they can be made cheaper is because the factories are using old technologies that pollute the air and water and labor is cheap, cheap, cheap (workers live on the compounds of these manufacturing companies and parents of small children rarely see them because they are being raised by grandparents in rural areas). Because these American corporations look the other way in how the goods are produced, the pollution and labor exploitation are rampant.

What would happen if Apple and Walmart said, “Sorry. We aren’t going to contract with you to build our phones/computers/clothing/goods until you can prove to us you are doing it in a Green way and that you are paying your workers a livable wage with humane work conditions.”

Sidebar on Apple and labor conditions in China: A couple years ago there was a blip in the international news about how there had been several suicides at an Apple production plant in China. The work conditions were so bad that workers were pitching themselves off the top of the buildings and dying. Workers are not allowed to chat with their co-workers; they work elbow-to-elbow for 12-14 hours a day with no breaks. They have to live on the compound (eat, sleep, work) with a regimented work schedule and no socializing.
Christmas Day Pollution Index: 850

Apple sent a representative over to inspect the factory and talk with the workers. You can guess how that went: everything was just fine; everyone was happy; no problems. The way the Chinese managers dealt with the suicides was to build huge awnings around the tall buildings to break the fall of workers who jumped. While the Apple rep was visiting, another suicide happened. Oops.

Production continues as usual.

I asked Tiantian when she thought the government would do something about the high pollution. She said, “Probably when enough people die.” I am skeptical that the Chinese government will do anything even when people are dying (they are dying now; a student running on Xi’an university track keeled over last week: dead). It will take international pressure and loss of lucrative contracts before anything will be done.
How many things do you buy that are “made in China”?

Dumpling Day

Traditionally, the Winter Solstice (the longest night/shortest day of the year) is a day when Chinese people make and eat dumplings. If you don’t eat some dumplings on this day, your ears will get cold and fall off. Fond of my aural functioning (what is music if you can’t hear it?), however failing it is, we made sure to eat some vegetarian dumplings. In fact, several of Deborah’s students took over my kitchen and dining room to make dozens of dumplings for everyone on Dumpling Day.

The students slaved away chopping and cooking and rolling out dough from 10 a.m. until about 3 p.m. Juan came over, took one look at the table full of dough and dumplings, and said, “How many

have you made?” The students proudly responded, “At least 200!” She scoffed. “Keep going until you hit 800. Then you have made dumplings.”

A note on lucky numbers in China: Eight is a lucky number. If you make or do anything, you better do it times 8. Four is a very unlucky number. You will die if you have 4 in your phone number or on your license plate. There are no buses that run with a “4” in their number. Buildings often do not have a “fourth” floor (like some buildings in America where the 13th floor is missing).

We did not eat 8 dumplings, but we made sure we did not eat 4, either.

Commercial Shoot

One day last week we were walking home from Zephaniah’s violin lesson and a young man stopped us. “Do you want to be in a commercial?” He asked Zephaniah. Shrug. “Sure. OK. Why not?”

After several text messages back and forth, on Saturday we got in a taxi and drove across town to a swanky furniture store where the commercial was to be filmed. Zephaniah played the grandchild of Chinese grandparents (in the commercial, Z’s mother was Chinese and his father was French). The grandparents were being gifted a fabulous water purification system by their daughter and son-in-law to increase their health and longevity. I inquired as to why they wanted foreigners in the commercial. The French man said because we are seen as having more authority, so of course the “smart European father” gifting the water system to aging Chinese grandparents would be seen as having more ethos than a Chinese father doing the same.

The director wanted Zephaniah to play a girl. Zephaniah was tolerant of having his hair curled, but

put his foot down when they asked him to done a skirt. This is a child who spent every day from the age of 3-7 in a dress: Truly Scrumptious, Mary Poppins, The Wicked Witch of the West, Carmen Sandiego, Cruella DeVille, so I was surprised when he said no to the skirt. But to a nine-year-old, being seven is ancient history. Besides, the dresses had always been his idea and his mandate. Not someone else’s. So, the little girl in the commercial wore yoga pants and a striped sweater instead of a skirt.

The French Father couldn't get it right
The commercial shoot was a comedy of polyglot farce. I was speaking Arabic to Zephaniah, French to the French man. The French man was speaking English to Zephaniah, Chinese to the Chinese and French to me. The Chinese were only speaking Chinese. Although, there was one man trying out all his English phrases on me. His favorite was “Golden Flower Hotel” (fond memories, I assume?). The other was, “Long live Chairman Mao.” Whenever he said that, I would enthusiastically reply, “Mao is dead!” No, really. Mao is dead. I saw him in Beijing. Really dead. I don’t think the man ever understood what I was saying. I couldn’t figure out whether he was a daft patriot or a sarcastic, wanton revolutionary.

There were many shots of Zephaniah smiling and drinking water, smiling and handing water to the grandmother, smiling and handing the water purification system to the grandparents, smiling and dancing, smiling and sitting. Smiling. A lot of smiling. People in the commercial appeared very, very happy or almost happy in a strained and constipated way.

One particular shot involved about 30 or so takes because the French man couldn’t get a sequence down. He was supposed to take a step forward , lean in, and say (in Chinese), “For you father and mother” while handing them the purification system. He kept getting it wrong. First of all, he would step forward with his left foot instead of his right (this would NOT do; you should never lead with your left, apparently). Then he would step with his right, but forget to bring his left foot forward (also extremely problematic). Finally, he got the correct foot choreography, but then he said, “mother and father” instead of “father and mother” (in China, you always say “ba-ba” before “ma-ma”; shame, shame, shame if you don’t). He seemed like a bright enough guy, but his brain jammed up tight on these small details that would offend many Chinese watching the commercial and so . . . 30 takes. Still, everyone was smiling, but secretly they were grinding their molars in frustrated gnash.

Zephaniah received 500 yuan for his afternoon of pretending to be a girl (about $90). He was thrilled with the money, but said his face hurt from all the cheesy grins. Still, a lucrative coup for him. He is pacing himself with the money, but on the way home, we had to stop at the Muslim Quarter so he could blow the first 100 yuan on a wooden sword , a pirate gun, and an artist’s stamp for his collection (this one features a panda carved at the top).

Xmas in China

Because the Chinese do not celebrate Christmas (or “Festivas” as Deborah says), our celebrations were low key. I had to teach on Xmas day and Z had to go to school (which he protested about loudly). But after school we gathered around Deborah’s little tree and unwrapped some gifts that I had procured at the Muslim Quarter one day while Zephaniah was in school: warm gloves, some pencils, a leather bound blank book, a paint brush calligraphy set, a little pocket watch, a wooden pipe and magnifying glass (a la Sherlock Holmes).
Judy Gibson and Barbara Dibernard had mailed a care package which arrived right on Christmas Day (great timing), so we were thrilled to have that package to open. I was particularly delighted in having a box to open that didn’t include things that I had purchased: a real surprise. The contents did not disappoint: fair trade, organic chocolate and malted milk balls, a chocolate cake mix, and a Cat Lover’s Against the Bomb 2014 calendar (featuring Barbara and Judy’s cat Cady as the “cover cat”). That was the best Christmas surprise ever. I’m rationing the chocolate. And not sharing. Z is content with Chinese candy. No point in wasting the good stuff on his unrefined taste buds.

Care Package with Real Chocolate!
After the constitutive opening of gifts, we all went out to eat Indian food with Aks. Zephaniah got to ride on Aks electric scooter to the mall where the restaurant was (Deborah and I took the bus). Christmas was the API 850 day, so Z had to wear his mask, but he didn’t care. Aks said Z called out a jaunty, “Ni hoa!” to every single person they passed, so ecstatic was he to be tooling around in the scooter/bike lane.

All around, not a bad way to celebrate the holiday. I greatly preferred it to being caught up in the nonsense and over-consumption of American Christmases that begin sometime the week before Halloween. 

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