Lately here in Shanghai we have had quite a few days where the air quality has been labeled “red.” We look at the AQI, the Air Quality Index, to see if the air is too dangerous to breathe. Red means it is “unhealthy” and the recommendation is to keep kids and the elderly inside. If you have “sensitivities” or heart or lung disease then you should plan to stay inside too. This means that on red air days I get an email from Henry’s school informing me that there will be no outside recess. The same usually goes for the older kids even though their school is closer to the ocean and allegedly has “better air.” You hear that here constantly. Pudong has “fresher” air than Puxi because of the trees. When the Chinese go on vacation they comment on the quality of the air and the “freshness” of the breezes. This seemed strange to me at first, but now I can see why. When you live with pollution constantly, clear skies can be shocking. You gape at fluffy clouds and stars at night. You forget what they look like after you live without them for a while.
When we first arrived, I had no idea that the air quality was a big deal. I thought of the AQI the same way I think of that terror threat scale in the United States. It is good to know that it is around, but I never pay any attention to it. It stayed at red for so long that red ceased to mean anything at all. For me the air quality idea was the same. Does it ever get to purple? Or to that brownish color that indicates we should all stay inside and remain perfectly still? Once when one of Lucas’ friends didn’t come over on his bike as planned, we were all surprised to learn that his mother had refused to let him out of the house due to the air quality. What? It had been a lovely day—one of the few with blue skies and mild temperatures—and I had let my kids run around outside all afternoon. Parenting fail, apparently. I knew Shanghai had pollution, but I had been expecting something like those cartoon factories with black smoke billowing for everyone to see. I hadn’t realized that a beautiful day could still be a heavily polluted one.
The past few days, however, you can really see the pollution. My brain still tricks me into thinking it is just fog, or that it might rain, but really it is just pollution. Pollution so thick that you can’t see through it sometimes. Inexplicably, my Chinese teacher prefers the pollution to rain. He would rather have the gray hazy pollution than drizzle. I counter that at least the rain washes the place clean, but he disagrees. Then the pollution is just in the water and the soil, he says, but that is the price for Chinese development. Just wait, he says, the factories are slowly moving. They are going to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Soon tourists will stop talking about their beautiful blue skies and their fresh, clean air. Then they will pay the price for developing and China can clean up a little bit. But for now, the haze continues and China’s progress marches on.
Last night I asked Mark how it could be possible that we have only been back in Shanghai one week. One week?! It feels like a million years. He agreed so I felt a little less dramatic. I managed to resist using my hands in very theatrical ways so he couldn’t accuse me of making the situation worse. Yes, our collective excitement has already worn off and we have so many more weeks to go before we leave China again. I have the added pressure of defending my dissertation in early March, so I can’t do what I would like to do and wallow in my unhappiness while moaning about how hard it is to live in China. The ayi would never allow it anyway. She would be unable to resist asking me all sorts of personal questions to get to the bottom of things. Am I sick? Does my head hurt? Have I eaten anything today? Was I trying to sleep? That is too bad because she needs to make the bed and I should really try to get some exercise. But I digress.
The thing that pushed us all over the edge–today is Ava’s birthday. She is nine now and while birthdays are always a celebration, China can always find a way to make me feel less than celebratory. In the US, I went all out for birthdays. As a mom–let’s be honest here—I used to kill it. We have the family tradition of the birthday boy or girl waking up to fresh cinnamon rolls and streamers festooning the dining room. I used to plan elaborate parties and bake magnificent cakes. Suffice it to say, all this is more difficult here. My oven conspires against me resulting in cinnamon rolls that were today labeled “puck-like” by Ava and her siblings. I couldn’t disagree. The proof was almost too difficult to eat. I am less plugged in to the school situation and so this morning when Ava asked if I would be making or buying treats to bring in for her class today, I was struck dumb by the realization that I had planned to do neither of those things. I had actually planned to do nothing because I had forgotten all about that! She was less than impressed. She wants a slumber party but can’t narrow down her guest list. My mother rightfully pointed out that this is a welcome change from last year when she was newly arrived and hadn’t had time to make friends in Shanghai. While this is true, I can only focus on how much harder it is going to be to host a party for a bunch of screaming 3rd graders without the benefit of Party City or Michael’s. Tough times, indeed.
And this comes on the heels of a China day where there were no taxis to be found so I walked to school (uphill both ways! in the snow!) cursing every Chinese person I passed along the way. It was unreasonable, I know, and it was even more unreasonable when I arrived home and was irritated that the ayi wanted to have a discussion about the vacuum cleaner. How dare she! And this after she showed up this morning with a huge pack of special cookies and the biggest stuffed bear you have ever seen. She was late and I think she was concerned that I would be angry with her. I actually love to have even five minutes alone in the house so I had been hoping she would be even later! She would never have guessed that plan. When she came in with her arms full of all that stuff my face must have registered some sort of wild emotion. She blurted out that it was for Ava’s birthday and then seemed to doubt that she had the correct day. She was right, of course, which only added to my guilt. How did she know it was Ava’s birthday? Luckily, she didn’t head into the kitchen and bake a cake—that would have been the last straw. I am sure hers would have been delicious and a pleasure to eat.
Happy Birthday, Ava! Your mom is officially crazy.
December 28th marked the end of our official first year in Shanghai. What a difference a year makes! Last year at this time, we were still figuring out the neighborhood and worrying about starting new schools. This year, we arrived back in China anxious to see our friends and get back to our routine. Shanghai still isn’t easy, of course. I dreaded the necessary return to my hunting and gathering ways when I stared into our empty refrigerator, but this is nothing compared to last year when I wasn’t even entirely sure where I might find groceries at all. Our epic trips to IKEA to outfit an entire house are a thing of the past as well, although I am sure I will soon be back to my once weekly trips to get just one more thing. I have made a truce with the crazy Shanghai townhouse. Maybe. It did feel like home to walk in the door this time even if I did scowl at the kitchen just a little bit.
The kids and I survived the plane ride with no unplanned diversions to Beijing. Mark met us at the airport and we took the Maglev home. We knew we were really back when a large group of Chinese construction workers surrounded us at the subway station. They admired the kids and talked loudly about us in Mandarin as they walked us out to the taxi stand. A random woman pulled Lucas’ suitcase and he was deep in conversation with her about how old he was and whether Ava was his older or younger sister. I, however, had apparently forgotten everything I have learned this past year because Chinese just washed over me as people tried to ask me questions. I could only smile and nod as they told me how lovely my children were to look at. So many blond people all in one place! And such big eyes!
Once Ava and I got in the taxi she settled back in her seat with a big smile on her face. “I’m glad to be back,” she told me. “I have missed people telling me I am beautiful.” Sorry, China. We’re here for year two and we expect you to show your appreciation!