When I was in high school, I was lucky to be able visit my sister while she was teaching English in Poitiers, France. Since this vist, the crêpes and galettes we had on that trip have lived in my dreams as some of the most delicious of simple snacks. The simplicity of the ingredients belies the art of crêpe-making; on top of a perfect batter, they require an excellent understanding of temperature and time. Needless to say, my attempts at home were never quite up to snuff.
Living in a terribly insulated Beijing hutong apartment, warm breakfast snacks are a wonderful thing to wake up to. I rediscovered my love for crêpes in Beijing–the jianbing (煎饼). The most exquisite incarnation of this Northern Chinese snack was made every morning in the bed of a tricycle from just after sunrise to about 10:30am, just a few minutes walk out my apartment door on Fangzhuanchang Hutong (方砖厂). Beijing residents: GO! I made the following video in honor of my favorite jianbing-maker.
In addition to teaching me the basics of water quality monitoring and treatment, my short stint at the Western Water Group water treatment plant in Yiliang, Yunnan introduced me to the lifestyle of rural Chinese officials and businessmen. I reflected on the experience recently.
“Did you make that bong yourself?” I joked to the vice-secretary of Shizong, Yunnan, pointing at the 3 feet tall bamboo water pipe resting on the floor between his legs, an exhausted cigarette limply sticking out at a curious angle toward the bottom.
“This?!” he said, a jovial smile creeping across his face. “No, it was a gift,” he said in the rough Yunnan dialect while exhaling a plume of smoke, which merged with the clouds trapped at the ceiling and stung our eyes red, adding to the brown stains that ran the width of the walls.
I was seated at the chair closest to the door, the position of lowest hierarchy, in a room of Shizong officials and my various superiors at the water treatment plant at which I was working. The CEO of the water treatment company was visiting to discuss with the local officials in an attempt to urge the officials to adhere to the contract–to pay their overdue bills sooner than later, so as to avoid the late fees from the plant. Nevertheless, after discussing the “payment topic,” as my superiors would phrase it in order to minimize perceived discord, the vice-secretary of Shizong took us to a lavish meal outside of the city and toasted every one of us several times, drinking more baijiu, or sorghum alcohol, than the rest of the table combined. After he was done eating and drinking, he convivially and succinctly stated that we were all friends and that he would look into the problem. This experience, masquerading with local officials and how it contrasted with my understanding of stuffy governmental and business meetings in the United States, impressed upon me how business and governmental affairs are conducted in rural China, and perhaps in many other rural areas of the world.
These photos, from the Beijing EPA, of air quality in an urban area of the Chaoyang district of Beijing demonstrate that while infrequent precipitation may temporarily wash away air pollution, the rate of emission is so high, that after a few days, visibility is again reduced to nil, and harmful particulate matter is back up rapidly.
December has arrived in Beijing, bringing with it the harsh Northern Chinese winter weather and the seasonal increase in particulate matter that results from coal combustion for higher heating needs. Users of Weibo, the Chinese twitter, have complained the presumable dishonesty in the Chinese government’s air pollution monitoring body, which has repeatedly reported acceptable/moderate air quality when eye-witnesses accounts disagree. Moreover, official agencies continue to refer to the pollution as fog or haze (雾). Anecdotally, I have seen many more locals wearing pollution masks, suggesting that awareness of the resulting respiratory problems has risen.
The Beijing air quality situation has long been complicated by the US Embassy’s monitoring of Beijing air quality and subsequent posting of the results on the twitter account, @beijingair. The chart below demonstrates the discrepancy between the US Embassy and the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Notice a pattern?
Though blocked in China, many Chinese have means of accessing this data. In response, the Beijing EPA has lashed out at the US, requesting the Embassy refrain from publicly releasing this data, and suggesting to compare monitoring instrumentation (Chinese). The US Embassy measures particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (1 μm=.000000 m) in size, PM2.5, and only from one point in the city. Assumably as a result of political concerns, the Beijing EPA does not currently release measurements of PM2.5, only the larger PM10, but Beijing EPA records measurements around the city (sometime very far from the polluted center of the city). Though recent announcements have committed to realeasing measurements of PM2.5, as well as other new environmental standards (most prominently, ozone), nationally by 2016, and earlier in key regions, the government has been unclear on the specifics. Both Beijing and Shanghai EPA have full capacity to measure and release this data, they only lack official permission.
The smaller particulate matter is more capable of penetrating through the lungs and damaging other internal organs such as the heart. While the Chinese government didn’t experience much difficulty reducing the larger PM10 by prohibiting primitive coal stoves in urban Beijing. PM2.5, on the other hand, arises from automobile emissions and other more advanced industrial practices, and has thus, proven to be more of a pickle.
I won’t comment further on the story as it has, admittedly, been over-reported in the foreign press, but I refer interested readers to Steven Andrews’s comprehensive report at China Dialogue, which gives a realistic appraisal of how Chinese air quality evaluation compares internationally.
As a result of the reality of living with constant environmental harm, references to the current environmental situation weave through conversations in Beijing unlike elsewhere. “It’s snowing” I said to my neighbor as I ran out for a bite of breakfast on the first day of snow, adopting the polite Chinese conversational technique of stating the remarkably obvious.
“Jinghua kongqi” she replied, “it will purify the air.”
Later, as I returned with a breakfast snack, “so cold” I complained.
“You know, we have a phrase in Chinese,” she said, before laying down an old rhyming adage, similar to the English (American?) “apple a day.”
多吃萝卜｜[if you] eat more radish
多吃姜｜eat more ginger
不用大夫｜no need for the doctor
开处方｜to fill out a prescription [for you]
Perhaps, that’s all we Beijing residents need to struggle through the winter, just a bit more radish and ginger, and just a bit more friendly neighbors.
UPDATE (8 Jan 2012): Beijing will release PM2.5 air quality evaluation by Spring Festival.
A former professor recently contacted me to advise a current student of his on their interest in interning at an NGO in China, which lead me to relate some of the experience I’ve gleaned in the past year. This experience brought to mind the usefulness of a chart I created in my research of NGOs working here in China.
I have posted the list below. By no means do I consider it comprehensive; I invite additions and criticism. I have listed only those organizations with offices in China, which excludes several important organizations doing environmental projects in China such as China Green of the Asia Society, the Pacific Environment Institute in San Francisco, and the Washington D.C.-based China Environment Forum of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I have seen a couple of other lists elsewhere, but they seemed out of date.
If the name is only in Chinese, the organization has few, if any, English resources, and thus would not be helpful for someone without Chinese skills.
List of Organizations Doing Environmental Protection Work in China
- The Mountain Institute, Beijing with field offices in Shangri-La and Chengdu
- World Resources Institute
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- World Wide Fund For Nature with ~10 field offices and Beijing
- The Nature Conservancy office in Lijiang and Kunming
- China Sustainable Energy Program (BJ, SF) under the Energy Foundation
- Clean Air Initiative (UN mandate)
- Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation (iCET)
- Environmental Defense Fund (office in Beijing)
- China Greentech Initiative (run primarily by foreigners, though based in China)
- International Fund for China’s Environment Based in DC, branch offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan as well as the Yunnan Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation Council.
- Clean Air Initiative
- Institution for Transportation and Development Policy office in Guangzhou. GZ BRT project, projects in Harbin, Lanzhou, Wuhan. Several international offices.
- Conservation International
- Save China’s Tigers (Hong Kong)
- United Nations Environment Programme
- Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Shanghai; youth-based activism.
- International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
- US-China Environmental Fund (Panda Mountain)
- Institute for Sustainable Communities China division based in SH, offices in BJ and GZ as well
- 公众环境研究中心 (Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs IPE)
- 自然景象环境保护协会 (CNature Conservation Association)
- 新疆自然保育基金 (Xinjiang Conservation Fund)
- 北京富平学校 (Fuping Development Institute)
- 道和环境与发展研究所 (Institute for Environment and Development)
- 全球环境研究所 (Global Environment Institute: GEI) Initial partnership with a US NGO, but US partner dissolved in 2011. Sustainable development, capacity-building.
- 北京人与动物环保科普中心 (BHAEEC)
- Wetlands International
- Yunnan EcoNetwork
- Yunnan Environmental Development Institute (YEDI) German affiliation
- Green Watershed
- Green Kunming Run by owners of Salvador’s-American affiliation. Focus on organic food.
- Center for Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (云南省生物多样性和传统知识研究会)
- Yunnan Health and Development Research Association (云南省健康与发展研究会) description of their work here (Eng).
- Initiative Development biodigester CDM, French-affiliation
- Green Camel Bell (绿驼铃) education, desertification, water
*Main office in Beijing unless otherwise noted.
A man in clean maoist attire strolls by inquisitively. A middle-aged woman walks behind me, and looking at the camera screen displaying the video I am shooting says, keyi le, “that’ll work.” A man comes up to me and asks why foreigners like filming so much. Various people walk by bundled up with puffy eyes, clutching plastic bags of fried Muslim breakfast treats. A constant trickle of commuters on bikes and e-bikes move by.
A woman stumbles up to a fruit vendor, “what are you selling the pomellos for?”
“Three and a half kuai per jin.*” She stumbles away with a confused look on her face as he yells ok to her, “ok, three kuai! Fine!”
A tiny Pekingese obediently trots next to their owner, unconcerned with the organized chaos of the hutong in the morning.
I was recently asked to create a short video about life in China. I chose to focus on the idea of movement, as this concept can capture so much of what is going on in China today. Please view it fullscreen. I will share the unedited version with the original audio if anyone is interested. In case the embedded video above does not work, an alternate link is here.
I apologize for the incredibly sparse posting of recent, I have found myself caught up in the day-to-day.
*One kuai is equal to one Renminbi or Yuan. The word “kuai,” however, is more colloquial than the other words for money in China, similar to the word “buck” in American English, but more widespread in its use. One jin is equal to 500 grams. This word was taken from a traditional Chinese measurement that would not have corresponded with the metric system so smoothly.
A friend told me that it’s so clean there (in the US), when you get a new pair of shoes, after a week, the soles will still be clean as the day you bought them.
-A Chinese teenager, who is preparing to study in Boston for a year
I have been in Hong Kong for the past few days to resolve a visa issue. Upon arriving in Beijing, I will be returning to a more regular posting schedule. Below I have listed a few things I have been thinking about and seeing recently. A few of which, I will likely write on further in the future.
- This is not an inexpensive city. The cheapest bowl of noodles I saw costs 30 HKD (3.80 USD). This may sound cheap, but it’s remarkably more expensive than cheap noodles in China.
- There are a lot of foreign-born ethnic Chinese and emigrated Chinese here. I overheard many parents speaking to their kids in Cantonese, and the children replying in another language (usually English). I also heard many conversations moving between several languages. Hong Kongers seem to pride themselves on their international identity.
- There are a lot of very nice cameras here.
- Gentrification is rapidly marginalizing the parts of the city that I like most–the dingy ones.
- There seems to be some distrust among the residents of the HK government‘s collusion and dealings with the mainland/Communist Party.
- Learning simple Cantonese would not be as hard as I had originally thought, but it’s not a very “practical” language. After having lived in a Cantonese-speaking area, Guangxi, and having become used to how Cantonese speakers speak Mandarin, Cantonese seems much more within reach than before. That being said, advanced speakers of Cantonese are famous/notorious for speaking in a very poetic and metiphorical manner, thus reaching a high-level of the language would likely be impossible for me.
- I would like to see on a report on the amount of energy that is lost due to air-conditioning units being kept on with doors open. While walking through the streets and sidewalks of Hong Kong, and this applies to Chinese cities as well, you can feel the air-conditioned air escaping into the streets. Most stores do not close their doors, and many don’t have any doors, possibly hoping the air-conditioning will attract customers into their stores.