Breathing, Speaking, Eating

g mask

They are adventurous, agile, adaptable. They will manage.

Today is another bad air day. This morning in Shanghai, for the half-mile walk to my grandson’s pre-school, we’re masking up. The four-month-old has not left the apartment in two weeks. In each room in the apartment, Blue Air purifiers do their job making the space safe for occupation.

Shortly after arriving here, I learned about Plume from my daughter.  Plume is an app that reports levels of particulate matter (PM), providing “full coverage from Alabama to Zanzibar.”

Plume labs rely on air quality data collected from cities and countries around the world–for example, Federation ATMO in France, DEFRA in the UK, EPA in the US.  Air quality data in China is reported by US embassies and consulates.  In China, Plume reports air quality, why I do not know, in PAQI numbers, short for Pakistan Air Quality Index. We look at the Plume report every morning, cross-checking it with data on the US State Department website.

The numbers this morning are alarming. Air quality in Shanghai is “extreme.”  Extremely bad, that is.

I’ve seen bad.  I won’t say I’ve seen worse. Before Plume, how would I have known?

I grew up eight miles down river from Dow Chemical Company.  In the 50’s and 60’s, a couple days a week, the wind carried a distinctive acrid smell from the Dow stacks, just north of town. If you drove through Midland on a clear summer day, the air was a hazy yellow-green.  The Tittabawassee River, on whose dioxin flood plain we played year around, never froze in the winter.  In sub-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit), the water steamed.  At least we can say, unlike the Cuyahoga, the river never caught fire.

In matters pertaining to air quality, my wife and I have always been a little competitive: my pollution was worse than yours. After immigrating to the US, she lived a mile from the Rouge Plant in southeastern Michigan.  The soot fallout from the Rouge was constant and heavy.  She remembers that on summer afternoons she and her cousin Phil could write their names in the sooty perspiration on their forearms. Every summer her mother and aunt washed the walls in their homes.  When the job was completed, the water in the buckets was black.

Those long summer days, mothers in my hometown, and in my wife’s too, I’m sure, would tell their kids, “Go outside and play.  Get some fresh air.” Pollution was a fact of life.  If anyone thought about it much, they kept it to themselves until some enlightened legislation was written and signed into law.

This morning, for the fun of it, thanks to Plume I can compare air quality in Shanghai to air quality the town where I grew up, to air in Detroit and in New York City.  The US is doing pretty well in this regard.





Let’s hear it for government regulation.

We drop the boy off at school.  Inside, before he goes upstairs to the classroom, he unmasks and they take his temperature, look at his throat and hands.  They do this every day.

And up he goes.

And off we go, planning a stop on the way home from school at City Super, Shanghai’s answer to Whole Foods. These days we’re struggling with breathing and speaking and eating.

Hong, we’ve discovered, may be somewhat limited in her cooking.  We’ve given her carte blanche the first week.  Show us what you do.

She made vegetable-stuffed wontons that were excellent.  She made a carrot and celery dish with microscopic bits of ground pork, a carrot and celery dish with microscopic bits of shrimp, a carrot and celery dish that went solo (or duet).  Also a cabbage dish with bits of egg, a cabbage dish with with microscopic bits of ground pork, and a cabbage dish with thin-sliced tofu strips.  Also some vegetable dishes, broccoli, greens, asparagus. The food isn’t bad. It’s very green, which is much to our liking.  But now our impression is that, well, if we want Chinese food, we’ll go out to a restaurant. Also, at home our diet is considerably more carnivorous.

Supposedly the “cook” part of the nanny-housekeeper-cook job is not just to cook but to learn to cook what the host family cooks and likes. Hong is in luck.  My daughter is a trained chef, and my wife and I cook for ourselves every day. Here’s how we do it, Hong.

I’m not sure how this apprenticeship will work or how long it will take.

We communicate with Hong, if the message is longer than “more” or “baby cry” or “cold” or “thank you,” with the WeChat app.  It’s a texting app into which you can compose messages in English.  “Please go with my dad to the cleaners with my husband’s shirts and pants so you will know where to take them next time.” The recipient, if Chinese, can click on the received message for a translation.  This app, in turn, is how Hong communicates longer messages with us. She composes in Chinese; we click on the message for the translation.

I don’t know about Hong, but on our end, the results have been mixed.  Late one afternoon she helped me and the three-year old with a disagreeable bike lock down in the garage (the air was good enough for us to go outside that afternoon). Later that evening I wrote her a WeChat message thanking her, to which she responded, “Hi, Dad! I’m supposed to move my bike.”

The other day we were out for coffee when my daughter’s phone pinged.  Hong had sent her this message: “Hello madam! The baby has gone to bed. Why don’t you play outside for a while?”

Okay, we got it.  No need to rush home from whatever it is you are doing.

Then came this message, a day or two later, which we received after the school dropoff. We were having breakfast at a local French place: “Hello madam! I’m packing my husband’s pants. You’re welcome.”

At first my daughter thought Hong was taking pants or clothes to the cleaners. But she had just brought home all the laundry the day before. If she was going to the cleaners, what about the baby?  Or “packing” meant was she just folding clothes and putting them away?  We decided it was a non-urgent (if incomprehensible) message that did not require action on our part.

At City Supper we load up on meat. That night we cook a chunk of beef tenderloin in the oven. (Grill? I haven’t seen one since we got here. That’s all Shanghai needs is 5 million grills further degrading air quality and their Plume index.) Next morning, I’m up early. I put on a pot of ragu with a few clumps of the ground pork Hong keeps in the freezer. It’s an emergency comfort food we’ll eat with tagliatelle the night before my wife and I depart for the US (tomorrow). My daughter loads the ingredients she needs into a stock pot, puts some heat under it, and lets it cook for 12 hours.  The olfactory profile of the apartment undergoes a distinct shift. For the time being it smells like home.

Hong will have to learn. The family will have to be patient.  They are adventurous, agile, adaptable. They will manage.

Manage. Two years. More like two and a half years.

They’ve been here now a month. Everywhere you turn there are huge challenges, from basic creatural needs like good air and water, to matters of comfort the arise from the foods you eat, to the ease with which you can communicate (or not) the most basic ideas and needs.

And tomorrow night we fly home. Fourteen hours.

I’m leaving with the understanding that a posting abroad, for all of its allure, for all the adventures and advantages, entails a great deal of sacrifice and work  and frustration every day, to say nothing of perils that are difficult to assess.  I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I would want to do it. I’ve enjoyed prowling the blocks around this apartment complex, watching and listening to locals, getting a feel for the culture on a granular level.  I will enjoy coming back. But in the end, I’ve been a tourist.

The kids are becoming residents. It is a hard becoming.



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