Sick and Smoggy in Shanghai: Part 2

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In Shanghai, the ground is your litter bin
In Shanghai, the ground is your litter bin

Smoke and smog aren’t the only facets of life here that make healing difficult. I’ve recently begun thinking that the surgical-type masks aren’t just for smog but might also be a general deterrent (effective or not) against germs. Part of being a teacher isn’t just educating the kids about Twain or Dickens or Frost but also about simple things that are expected in the U.S. (where most of them are planning on going to school). Things like: washing their hands after using the bathroom, throwing their trash away instead of simply on the floor, and (I shit you not) covering their mouths when coughing/sneezing instead of just letting the funk fly.

Maybe there’s some sort of cultural identity built on the back of swapping sickness that I’m not attuned to — I don’t know. I do know that it would be really nice to go through a single solitary day without having to dodge snot rockets and loogies on the sidewalk or chastise my teenage students for coughing and sneezing in my general direction. I know Ebola has moved out of the public consciousness for the moment (as happens when the news cycle changes — thanks Santa!), but China should be throwing bodies and money to keep anything that contagious far from home while simultaneously schooling its populace in the simple things I’m attempting to. I can honestly say, without a hint of sarcasm, that I would drop everything and fly away the minute I found out that someone here was diagnosed. I can’t begin to imagine how quickly something that contagious would rip through a country as densely populated and unused to simple hygiene as this one.

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But, in the meantime, I soldier on.

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One of the filtration machines on campus
One of the filtration machines on campus

I do wonder though, in those moments after I’ve yelled at a kid for running away from the bathrooms without washing up, if the water here is even fit for anything aside from flushing. I was forewarned not to drink off the tap as is sometimes common when traveling. I wasn’t sure if it was just a precaution or if there was really something to it until I got on the ground here. And while I do take issue with how the locals deal with certain things (as should be fairly obvious by now), I trust that they’ve been here for a bit longer than I have and therefore know more concerning the water quality. What do they do? Well, in our school we’ve got huge filtration machines that work to clean the water and dispense it — cold or hot. Some businesses and locals get their water delivered while others (like me) choose to buy large gallon jugs of it a few times a week. It’s a hassle, and it creates a ton of garbage, but it’s preferable to drinking from the faucet.

I’ve done some research on the topic to make sure it wasn’t just a local superstition or something, and it looks like a legitimate problem in this jewel of Chinese modernity. Aside from your everyday, run-of-the-mill factory pollution invading the rivers that serve Shanghai, you’ve also got sewage runoff and even dead pig carcasses. A popular joke from early last year when the pigs were discovered in the Huangpu River speaks to the resigned nature of residents having to deal with such problems:

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People in Beijing can get free smokes just by standing outside. People in Shanghai can get free pork soup just by turning on the tap.

Huangpu River, Shanghai. Photo by Bruno Corpet
Huangpu River, Shanghai. Photo by Bruno Corpet

But their ideas toward hot water are slightly different. Once boiled, water becomes not only clean but also curative. Restaurants may or may not serve up some water for you when you come in, but most will have some, piping hot, on hand if you ask for it. My students suggested hot water when they found out I was under the weather. My Chinese colleagues did the same. I joked with the students that hot water seemed to be the suggestion for fixing just about anything that ailed them, and they agreed after a moment and laughed at the idea, offering that perhaps one of the guys in class could fix his broken foot by drinking some.

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I don’t buy it, obviously, but I do think it can be good for keeping the sinuses cleared and the throat soothed, so I drink it when I must. During the colds (both of which ended up lasting two solid weeks), I drank hot water until I thought I’d start pissing steam. Whatever good it did me has to be measured against the fact that I was still sick a week longer than I should’ve been in either case. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough nutrients for my body to recover in the normal course of time. Maybe I was working too much and sleeping too little. Maybe two gallons of hot water a day wasn’t enough. Or maybe this place just isn’t good for ya, physically speaking.

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Maybe I’ll get a hazmat suit next time around.

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