Sick and Smoggy in Shanghai: Part 1

Chinese Pharmacy Sign
Chinese Pharmacy Sign

By day 5 of my second cold since moving here in August, I knew — just knew — that in a couple days I would be back to my normal self. I’d run out of cold medicine a few days before, my supplies being largely depleted during the first bout with the virus, so I thought I’d maybe make a go at venturing out to the pharmacy to see what they had on offer. When I mentioned this to some coworkers, their advice was thus:

“Don’t waste your time.”
“They’re really weird about giving medicine to foreigners.”
“They usually don’t even have what you’re looking for — expectorant? Won’t have it.”

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So, I did what I usually do when I’m given advice by people with more experience than me…and there’s a huge language barrier staring me in the face: I listened. Yep. Sorry. No zinger. They told me I’d be better off drinking orange juice, hot tea, and eating soup, so that’s what I did. But Shanghai isn’t really the best place in the world to get or stay healthy. You remember how in all the westerns (or at least in Tombstone), they’d talk about people going west for the climate? Well, any doctors that would send someone to Shanghai to recuperate might, by my reasoning, be as culpable for their demise as the disease itself.

To wit:

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Chairman Mao Smoking
Chairman Mao sets an example

A good percentage of the residents — mostly men from age 20 to near dead — chain-smoke constantly. You’re getting out of a cab, and there’s a cloud of smoke to greet you. You step out of your apartment door and onto the sidewalk, and there’s a cloud of smoke to greet you. You’re volunteering in a hospital as a part of your school’s outreach program, and yes, you guessed it, there’s a cloud of smoke there to greet you too. At least in the last case — which happened to a coworker just a week ago — the men were rebuked and made to put out their cigarettes.

Even on campus — with non-smoking signs clearly posted — it’s hard to escape it. I mean, I get that high school kids are going to break some rules and push the boundaries a bit — that’s not what really surprised me. What surprised me was finding out that the butts and ashes found in the toilets didn’t belong to the kids but to the faculty and staff. Not the laowais, of course; the ones who do smoke make it pretty clear what they’re doing when they cross the street. Even when the rules are nothing but show, it’s hard for some to stop following them.

Campus Sign
“Unless you want to”

And, credit where it’s due, Shanghai is an improvement on the norm for China. In most other places, there’s no real distinction between what constitutes a smoking area and a non-smoking one — there aren’t always even signs (one of the lowest symbols of authority) to mark any distinction. If it’s got oxygen to feed the flame and room enough to strike it, then by all means go right ahead: subways, movie theaters, hell, I even heard from a few first-hand accounts that out in the sticks the teachers light up in the classrooms. Shanghai, by comparison, seems positively progressive. Signs and videos telling people to put out their smokes are on display in the metros, and, to date, I’ve not seen anyone lighting up inside. In most restaurants and indoor public spaces, you can breathe easy. Hell, we’ve even got a bar (that’s right: one) that doesn’t allow smoking inside.

Clear Morning
An uncharacteristically clear morning leading to a characteristically “Unhealthy” day

But maybe that’s because inside is about the only place to expect anything resembling breathable air here. There’s a reason why this website is one of the eight that pops up when I open a new tab in Chrome — I check it every morning the same way I’d check the weather back home. It lets me know, on a scale of “Good” to “Hazardous” what the air I’ll be breathing in during the day is like. To put that in perspective, a “Good” day would be what myself and most Americans are used to seeing on a regular basis: blue skies, visible clouds, a distinctive lack of yellow haze. “Hazardous” means you can’t see the other side of the street (let alone the financial district). In the last month or so of checking daily, there have been more “Hazardous” days than “Good” ones and more “Unhealthy” days than anything else. Some schools actually keep the kids home on bad pollution days while others just keep their kids indoors (with the windows open, of course…). Ours seems to operate with a mindset similar to the USPS: rain, shine, snow, or smog — a mindset that has a lot of the students and teachers looking like surgeons on a regular basis.

I’ve not yet begun wearing the masks but after throwing away snotty tissues that ranged in hue from gray to black during this last cold, I’m sure I’ll be joining their ranks sooner rather than later.

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James Wilson is a writer and educator from Little Rock, Arkansas. He is currently working as a literature teacher in an international high school in Shanghai. His previous international travel has taken him across Europe and parts of Asia, including Korea where he cut his teeth teaching English as a Second Language. He sometimes tweets from @TatumSmash.