Unlivable cities
August 30, 2012 7:14 AM   Subscribe

China's megalopolises are "awful places to live" claims an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish.

Fish writes: For all their economic success, China's cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.
posted by airing nerdy laundry (70 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have claimed the same thing for years now. I'm pretty sure living in Beijing for two years took five off the end of my life.
posted by zjacreman at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2012


Also, according to data recently released by the US State Department, they like to smell their own butts.
posted by DU at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2012


It's not so bad as long as you remember to chew the air properly before you breathe it.
posted by Abiezer at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2012 [26 favorites]


See Manchester in 1844, Chicago in 1906, pretty much all of Russia during the 1930s. industrialization kind of sucks to live through
posted by theodolite at 7:26 AM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think MetaFilter needs to have a positive FPP on China soon, or China will think that we have a grudge or something.

On the other hand, Chinese cities sound like not the greatest time ever.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:28 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've visited 21 of China's 22 provinces and all five of its questionably named "autonomous" regions. In a traffic jam in the central metropolis of Wuhan, a barrage of car horns honking at once nearly made me deaf; smog the color of gargled milk hung over Nanjing the week I spent there, obscuring the city's old rivers and bridges; at one of the nicest hotels in Tangshan, a city of 3 million famous for its steel industry, its 1976 earthquake, and its cabbage, I opened my window and found myself surrounded by smokestacks.

My mom has this photo of the house she grew up in in Pittsburgh in the 1940s. One one side is the massive U.S. steel plant and on the other the Homestead Works. The photo was taken at night because the light from the blast furnaces easily provided enough light (which reflected nicely from the smoke pouring out of the stacks.) I have a hard time seeing my mother in this Dystopian environment, but she always says that there were good jobs, good pay, and a better standard of living than anyone in the family had ever seen.

I am not so certain an outsider's view of China is gonna be shared by the Chinese living in these cities who might, like my mother, see those smokestacks as progress.
posted by three blind mice at 7:28 AM on August 30, 2012 [37 favorites]


I have a wild weasel that visits the outhouse in my yard, which wouldn't happen in any city I can think of back home. Not sure Soviet planning put it there, mind.
posted by Abiezer at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


smog the color of gargled milk

That is a GREAT description. A little nausea-inducing, but great.
posted by troika at 7:33 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Stone Fish makes some good points, but loses them in a sea of whining and misinformation -- a whole paragraph to complain that Harbin is cold? He misspells Xi'an, accuses China's interesting architecture of being "copycat", and doesn't understand that you need to bring toilet paper with you in China. It makes his good points -- benzene spills, air pollution, etc. -- much less credible.
posted by jiawen at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a wild weasel that visits the outhouse in my yard, which wouldn't happen in any city I can think of back home.

Exactly! Homes in American cities often don't even have outhouses. The builders expect you to poop where you live!
posted by Nomyte at 7:36 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't even get to poop in the yard, Nomyte. I go the public bogs with the neighbours like everyone else. Character- and community building!
posted by Abiezer at 7:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a wild weasel that visits the outhouse in my yard, which wouldn't happen in any city I can think of back home.

Is that "outhouse" as in "toilet?" Because, in the USA, there is non of this damn communist sharing of resources! Weasels who can't afford toilet facilities of their own can just shit in the woods like those shiftless bears, at least until we shoot them all or pave them over to build an Arby's or something. Job creators only, folks!
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Oh, no, it's more a metre-square shed full of assorted tat. And now thanks to you I'll have to scour it for weasel shit. Grr.
posted by Abiezer at 7:39 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


see those smokestacks as progress.

And our children's children's children's will be haunted by the aftermath of that progress. I'm as guilty as anyone...

posted by RolandOfEld at 7:51 AM on August 30, 2012


He misspells Xi'an, accuses China's interesting architecture of being "copycat", and doesn't understand that you need to bring toilet paper with you in China.

Eh, "Xian" is a more Chinese way to spell it, honestly.

A story about the TP thing. I was in Lanzhou visiting family in 2000 when all of sudden I really needed to use the bathroom while out shopping. Somehow none of my relatives had TP with them, so I asked for some from a store clerk. As I later found out, I'm pretty sure she meant for me to just take a few squares, but having been raised in the land of capitalist pig-dog barbarians, I just grabbed the whole roll and ran. My cousin had to fill me in later that that was not done.
posted by kmz at 7:59 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


and the portions are so small.
posted by boo_radley at 8:02 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eh, "Xian" is a more Chinese way to spell it, honestly.

"Xian" is a different Chinese syllable. "Xi'an" is two syllables. You need the apostrophe to show that you mean the two syllable pronunciation. It's not really optional.
posted by zjacreman at 8:04 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least, not optional when typing with a system that doesn't support tone marks.
posted by zjacreman at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2012


But mostly, people drink. Chinese alcoholism statistics are hard to come by, but Harbin hits the bottle hard. One Chinese website in 2008 ranked Harbiners as China's No. 1 beer drinkers, claiming that they drink more than 85 liters of beer a year, on par with Lithuania and nearly twice as much as China's second-ranked city, also in Manchuria.

85 liters is a lot? That's less than 8 oz a day!

Am I doing it wrong?
posted by invitapriore at 8:09 AM on August 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm reluctant to draw any general conclusions about China from a single input (or even several) - the place is just too big and too complex. (I visited briefly a few months ago and posted a few photos and thoughts.)

Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs. Every few blocks, a McDonald's, Taco Bell, Staples, Shell gas station, and repeating again and again for miles. Well, yes... but that would hardly be the whole picture.
posted by mark7570 at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


My mom has this photo of the house she grew up in in Pittsburgh in the 1940s.

My father told me that in Pittsburgh at that time, it was common for businessmen to bring a second white shirt to work and change at lunchtime, because the first one would be getting grungy from the smoke in the air.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:14 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


85 liters is a lot? That's less than 8 oz a day!

I think we'd have to know how that average was computed. Is that a strict per-capita thing, including children and non-drinkers? If so, it could be like 3-4 8oz beers a day for those that partake, which could be highish especially for an average.
posted by DU at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs. Every few blocks, a McDonald's, Taco Bell, Staples, Shell gas station, and repeating again and again for miles. Well, yes... but that would hardly be the whole picture.

That was the first thing I thought of.
posted by scratch at 8:17 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Xian" is a different Chinese syllable. "Xi'an" is two syllables.

Crap, you're right. I forgot about that. I'd thought the apostrophe was just for Westerners. I guess if there was a city named just Xian I'd expect it to be first/fresh/salty/faint/thready.
posted by kmz at 8:18 AM on August 30, 2012


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbscities of all sizes.

Having just done a big driving loop covering ~8 states, I can definitively state that any town of size X looks very much like every other town of size X. There may be a few particular exceptions, such as New York, London, Beijing, etc, but in general it's true.

posted by DU at 8:23 AM on August 30, 2012


I spent three weeks traveling around China with my mom about eight years ago or so (the Three Gorges Dam was under construction, but we were able to pass it on the river cruise we took). I remember standing above Chongqing at some artist collective designed to get tourists to spend their money and looking down into the city. The air looked like you could chop blocks out of it and stack them up. I remember feeling the pollution in my lungs when I was there, but the view really drove it home.

On the other hand, I really liked Chongqing. Admittedly, I only spent two days there, but it felt like one of the few cities we visited where I got to see the massive industrialization that China was undertaking. I got to visit the Stilwell museum (perhaps the American most hated by the John Birch society, which is massive points in my book) and remember finding the place incredibly interesting, although my memory of why is fading.

I imagine it looks like Pittsburgh did during the Steel days or Cleveland around the time the Cuyahoga caught fire (either the 50s or 60s), amplified by having a population of over five million inside city limits and close to thirty million in the metro area. I think something that people forget is just how heavily populated the cities of China are. New York would be the 5th largest city in China and LA the 17th. (Looking at within city limits, not metro areas.) When you have populations of 2-28 million in the middle of a massive change in living and industrialization, things will get horrible. Think about the pollution LA deals with every summer and then start magnifying that.
posted by Hactar at 8:25 AM on August 30, 2012


re: alcoholism - Beijing was one of the only cities aside from San An in Ibiza where I saw restaurant patrons in a perfectly normal restaurant become so unbelievably drunk that they vomited inside the restaurant. And yes, the air pollution is insane. I much preferred Kunming and Chengdu.
posted by elizardbits at 8:26 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs. Every few blocks, a McDonald's, Taco Bell, Staples, Shell gas station, and repeating again and again for miles. Well, yes... but that would hardly be the whole picture.
Even though I consider myself a snob, I'd take Scottsdale or North Las Vegas to any one of the Four Furnaces. I take the point that industrialization has made many Chinese cities more or less the same as many American cities in the early-20th and late-19th centuries. Given the choice, however, between a city with relatively little economic opportunity but clean air, clean water, public transportation, recreational activities and relatively uncorrupt government and the exact opposite, it's surely a no-brainer that the choices would fall down ideological and cultural lines.

Americans are getting tired of the endless struggle for self-improvement, and as a consequence see no merit to the rough and tumble of Chinese life at the beginning of the 21st century. The Chinese, on the other hand (and if you allow me one generalization) are seeing the glimmers of possibility that hang behind the almost unmitigated economic rape of their countryside after centuries of repression and top-down Confucian paternalism. If you're Chinese or American (and I suppose this also applies to Europeans), you are not going to be able to make an informed decision in the matter. At the same time, I have a hard time believing that one option is no better than the other.

Isn't there some way to strike a compromise? I imagine that the answer to this question will have no small effect in determining the future of the human condition.
posted by anewnadir at 8:29 AM on August 30, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's not so much the livability or beauty of a city, as the impact of the environment on the people's psyches. Architecture structures our lives, and in turn, how we think and feel.
posted by polymodus at 8:34 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Crap, you're right. I forgot about that. I'd thought the apostrophe was just for Westerners.

Writing Chinese using a transliteration into Latin characters is just for Westerners.
posted by atrazine at 8:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a wild weasel that visits the outhouse in my yard

Have you tried turning off the radar?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:41 AM on August 30, 2012 [20 favorites]


Actually (a pedant writes), one of the stated purposes of hanyu pinyin was helping Chinese kids with their literacy. And the apostrophes were essential to that bold mission.
posted by Abiezer at 8:42 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Atrazine: Writing Chinese using a transliteration into Latin characters is just for Westerners.
Isn't pinyin becoming the more popular method of writing Chinese with the proliferation of smartphones? After 3 years of learning stroke order and various calligraphic rules, I know I thought I was an idiot after I realized I could just type out the syllables in Wenlin or Microsoft Word. But hey, I'm just a Westerner, so for all I know your statement still holds true.
posted by anewnadir at 8:43 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


1M+ population Cities in China infographic ("Greater China" really ( and controversially) since it includes Taiwanese cities and Hong Kong) - 2010 chart based on 2007 Chinese population data

Most of these cities have little culture and are boring-to-grim places to live though
posted by Bwithh at 8:44 AM on August 30, 2012


I recall that the dormitory tower where I stayed in Nanjing had some of its bathroom-tile exterior already falling off by the time I moved in. Someone mentioned that this was embarrassing, and I said, "Eh not really, I mean this place is obviously 15 or 20 years old, you expect some wear and tear." After an awkward silence, I learned that the building construction finished 2.5 years before I lived there. One to grow on.

The pollution in Beijing was already horrifying when I lived there 14 years ago. From the pictures I've seen more recently, the place looks like Mordor.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:44 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs.

I would love to read something like that.

I'd also like to know what the story is behind the green/blue glass he mentions and those gross aluminum(?) decorations that seem to go at the top of new construction in China and, increasingly, in the US. You can see some of them here (Dandong, China), here and here (Chongqing, China), here (Bethesda, USA) and sort of here (Brooklyn, USA).
posted by postcommunism at 8:45 AM on August 30, 2012


I'd also like to know what the story is behind the green/blue glass he mentions and those gross aluminum(?) decorations that seem to go at the top of new construction in China and, increasingly, in the US

Those things are also incredibly common in Vancouver (less so in other parts of Canada, though they're not unheard of). I wonder if that is the Chinese influence or if they're just part of a new architectural fad that is more common in places where hundreds of new condo towers are popping up on a near daily basis (i.e., China and Vancouver).
posted by asnider at 8:49 AM on August 30, 2012


Most Chinese are dirt poor farmers (or migrant factory workers), which is no cake walk, so the idea of a comfortable or "livable" city might seem like the precious idea of an out of touch elite. But as the middle class grows there will probably arise enclaves of postage stamp lawns ie. suburbs.
posted by stbalbach at 8:50 AM on August 30, 2012


How do other people feel about comparisons between Chinese and Korean cities? From the pictures, they seem pretty similar, though I would guess that Chinese cities are bigger and more polluted? But I mean... the rows and rows of the same grey apartment buildings, the people doing nothing but eating fried chicken, getting drunk, and going to karaoke rooms are the same complaints that bitter, homesick people have about Korea.
posted by meows at 9:04 AM on August 30, 2012


I am not so certain an outsider's view of China is gonna be shared by the Chinese living in these cities who might, like my mother, see those smokestacks as progress.

I lived in Nanjing for 3 years ending in 2010, and traveled extensively through the country. All of my Chinese friends there were angry about the pollution in the cities and had no problem talking about it. A recent Gallup poll found that 57% of Chinese people favor environmental protection even at the cost of curbing economic growth.

And not every city or province is content to go the way of Beijing. Yunnan Province established the first (I think) environmental protection bureau in the country, realizing that blue skies and clear water ways are important to their major tourism industry; the Gobi Desert has huge solar energy arrays (some of the biggest in the world); there's been a plastic bag ban in place for 4 years (there are still bags everywhere, but they claim to have saved 4.8 million tons of oil with the ban); and there are massive greening projects throughout the country aimed to stem the growth of deserts. According to wikipedia, in 2007, 17% of China's energy consumption came from renewable sources.

It's not great, for sure. I got a headache just from being in Chongqing on a smoggy day; water is undrinkable and unswimmable in most places; Shanxi, one of the major coal producing provinces, is particularly nasty; it's hard to find greenspace in some cities; etc. But people in China aren't content with it. There's an increase in environmental activism in the country; industrial projects have been stopped by protest; there are periodic volunteer days in most cities where people get together and clean up parks.
posted by msbrauer at 9:07 AM on August 30, 2012 [14 favorites]


Writing Chinese using a transliteration into Latin characters is just for Westerners.

Pinyin is a fundamental part of learning Chinese in Mainland China. Not to mention computer input, using dictionaries, etc.
posted by kmz at 9:08 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Chinese architectural fads: in the suburbs and small towns outside Shanghai you can see hundreds of houses with an Eiffel Tower on their roof - about two meters tall. I think it's supposed to signify a certain level of wealth, and style. On a couple-hour train ride I saw them for miles.

At dinner the next night with a noted architect (who offers an excellent alternative to breakneck development and architectural sameness), I learned that some houses in the area opt not for an Eiffel Tower but a model of a Scud missile - on the roof.

The topic of blue glass came up, too - if I remember right it was another signifier of wealth, not for any particular functional reason.
posted by mark7570 at 9:13 AM on August 30, 2012


My father told me that in Pittsburgh at that time, it was common for businessmen to bring a second white shirt to work and change at lunchtime, because the first one would be getting grungy from the smoke in the air.

When my greatgrandmother visited my grandmother in Pittsburgh in the 60s, she complained about the state of her linens. She reportedly went home much happier having bleached them all appropriately white. They all disintegrated in the next wash, since "appropriately white" could only be achieved with far too much bleach to be good for the fabric.
posted by OmieWise at 9:18 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


> As I later found out, I'm pretty sure she meant for me to just take a few squares, but having been raised in the land of capitalist pig-dog barbarians, I just grabbed the whole roll and ran.

Since moving to the US from the former USSR as a child, I have lamentably lost my TP ninja skills.

And not to respond to anyone in particular, but I have a bit of a hard time making the leap from open-mindedness about Chinese civic culture to concluding that the average city-dweller in China feels good about the tradeoff between livelihood and extreme pollution.

Again, the city where I was born is a center of mining (coal) and metallurgy (steel manufacturing), the two dirtiest things imaginable. We had lots of colorful smoke, line-drying laundry gave it an odd smell, and slag heaps were visible from most points in the city.

These phenomena were not invisible to the city's inhabitants. It was a constant topic of conversation. People sighed and complained. They went to doctors for treatment. There was an enormous catalog of extremely dubious home remedies. TV and airwaves were full of folk healers, people who would hypnotize you out of asthma and cure lung cancer with nose drops, and so on. Everyone was aware of the looming spectre of death.

I mean, sure, everyone also appreciated stable factory jobs that lifted their parents and grandparents out of peasant poverty in the countryside. The factories and mines were the backbone of the city. But that didn't make the negative effects of health, well-being, and quality of life less visible or conspicuous.

So it strikes me as a non sequitur to conclude that Chinese city-dwellers have made their peace with industrial pollution. Just because they've made their choice doesn't necessarily mean that they like it. People remember the price they're paying.
posted by Nomyte at 9:22 AM on August 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


hundreds of houses with an Eiffel Tower on their roof

Neat! Do you have pictures? I can't find anything on GIS (aside from this and this, although the flickr one makes it sound like that was a 2005 thing).
posted by postcommunism at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2012


Actually (a pedant writes), one of the stated purposes of hanyu pinyin was helping Chinese kids with their literacy. And the apostrophes were essential to that bold mission.

Oops, my mistake.
posted by atrazine at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2012


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs. Every few blocks, a McDonald's, Taco Bell, Staples, Shell gas station, and repeating again and again for miles. Well, yes... but that would hardly be the whole picture.

True. You left out Starbucks.
posted by weston at 9:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dissident artist Ai Wei Wei's article last public statement ("Beijing is a nightmare") is quoted in the article but worth reading in full.

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government...

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:41 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs.

And why not, it is depressing. As for the comparisons of modern Chinese cities to previous American ones, do you think if no one complained and agitated that Pittsburgh and Cleveland would have cleaned up magically on their own?
posted by adamdschneider at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


do you think if no one complained and agitated that Pittsburgh and Cleveland would have cleaned up magically on their own?

Do you think that Pittsburgh and Cleveland would have cleaned up if the dirty stuff that used to be made there wasn't instead made in China now?
posted by Skeptic at 9:47 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Comparisons to Pittsburgh and Manchester ignore the fact that we now have modern pollution control systems. When those cities underwent their dark years in smog, those technologies didn't exist.
posted by humanfont at 10:01 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


He should go try living in rural china for a while and see how things go.

There are lots of people who probably think living in Manhattan on a middle class budget would be miserable too.
Do you think that Pittsburgh and Cleveland would have cleaned up if the dirty stuff that used to be made there wasn't instead made in China now?
Manufacturing doesn't cause much pollution, it's resource extraction and power generation that cause the biggest problems, both of which we do plenty of in the U.S. Both of which can be done much more cleanly with proper regulation.

Also, the U.S. still does more manufacturing, in terms of dollar value, then any other country in the world.

The difference is that we also consume a lot of that stuff here in the U.S, rather then exporting it. U.S manufacturing is also highly automated compared to china, so it doesn't employ as many people.
posted by delmoi at 10:18 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't pinyin becoming the more popular method of writing Chinese with the proliferation of smartphones? After 3 years of learning stroke order and various calligraphic rules, I know I thought I was an idiot after I realized I could just type out the syllables in Wenlin or Microsoft Word. But hey, I'm just a Westerner, so for all I know your statement still holds true.
Pinyin is how people in china use computers. It's been that way for quite a while, as far as I know. There are a couple other methods, like Changji but that's mainly used in Taiwan (and hongkong, apparently). There's also this method called Wubi used in mainland china, I don't know how popular it is but looking at the article it's harder to use but possibly faster.
posted by delmoi at 10:24 AM on August 30, 2012


kmz: "Eh, 'Xian' is a more Chinese way to spell it, honestly."

I'm curious: how often do Mainlanders forget the apostrophe? That seems like the kind of easy mistake that might happen with people who aren't that retentive about spelling rules. Lots of Mainlanders seem to think InTerCaps and Spa Ces Be Tween Syll A Bles are correct in Pinyin (though neither is), so I wonder how often little things like apostrophes get forgotten.
posted by jiawen at 10:48 AM on August 30, 2012


My point exactly, guys, thanks, was that calling attention to the pollution is a step on the path to proper regulation, which we have and they do not.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:47 AM on August 30, 2012


Wyoming's smog exceeds Los Angeles'

You don't have to go all the way to China to find bad smog.
posted by j03 at 12:16 PM on August 30, 2012


I will never live in Beijing again. It's an exciting city, to be sure, but the air quality is crazy bad.

Chengdu would be cool. Wish it had the climate of Kunming, though.
posted by flippant at 1:25 PM on August 30, 2012


Apparently some climate scientists fear that China might clean up their air. Apparently the particulate matter and other pollutants are at sufficiently high concentrations that it helps to block some of the sun's solar radiation from reaching the surface--think nuclear winter or the global cooling that follows a major volcanic eruption. By this line of reasoning China is doing us a favor by making global warming a little less severe than it could be.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 1:26 PM on August 30, 2012


Imagine a Chinese intellectual writing about the depressing sameness of American suburbs. Every few blocks, a McDonald's, Taco Bell, Staples, Shell gas station, and repeating again and again for miles. Well, yes... but that would hardly be the whole picture.

Yeah, but it would be a totally valid criticism, one that I have often made on my own. Besides, I'll take sameness over industrial pollution any day of the week, and it sounds like they are suffering from both, to an extent.
posted by Edgewise at 1:47 PM on August 30, 2012


I lived in Wuhan for a year from the fall of 1999. The Yangtze (or Changjiang) River goes through the middle of the city, and there were only a couple bridges (one massive Soviet style thing from the fifties, and another more modern one pretty far from where I tended to be). On some days, if you were crossing the old bridge, you couldn't see the new one, even though it was only a couple miles away. Those days, the sky would be the same color brown as the river, and you wouldn't be able to tell where one ended and the other began.

I've never lived anywhere else where, when I blew my nose, the snot came out black on a regular basis. Pollution-wise, in and around that year, I went to Hong Kong about four times from '98 to '03. Each and every time, the pollution was markedly worse than it had been before. I can't even imagine how bad Wuhan is now, as one of the car manufacturing centers of China, and a place tourists don't usually go.

The thing is, I loved Wuhan, and I loved living there. I have never had a year as enjoyable as the one I spent in that city. The people, the culture, and the character of Wuhan (which is pretty notorious in China) werea main part in one of the best years in my life. In every askme about living in China for a year, I recommend the book Coming Home Crazy by the late Bill Holm. It's a (by now, probably dated) book about living in China for foreigners. The central theme of the book is that in China, it is possible to have an absolutely hellish day, one the breaks the barriers of all possible acceptability, and one mindset will decide 'screw this, I hate it here' and the other mindset, the crazy mindset, is the one that just accepts it, knowing that it is a part of living in one of the most amazing places in the world, and realizes that even if tomorrow is more of the same, it won't always be so awful, and at any moment you're liable to be confronted with something new or different that makes all the discomfort just seem so silly.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:55 PM on August 30, 2012


A friend of mine lived in China for about a year, I forget exactly where. He went there because the job he could get there was triple, quadruple any previous job—he was raking in the cash. After a year, though, when he was offered a contract renewal, he turned it down, for the express reason that the air quality was so bad, he had no doubt that if he stayed for any longer he’d get sick. He went back to the U.S., at a lot lower pay, but said he didn’t regret the decision.
posted by zardoz at 5:02 PM on August 30, 2012


Apparently some climate scientists fear that China might clean up their air. Apparently the particulate matter and other pollutants are at sufficiently high concentrations that it helps to block some of the sun's solar radiation from reaching the surface--think nuclear winter or the global cooling that follows a major volcanic eruption. By this line of reasoning China is doing us a favor by making global warming a little less severe than it could be.

Global dimming.
posted by jessssse at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2012


Pittsburgh is now, 30 years after most of the mills closed has green hills and air that's pretty clean. As a legacy of the wealthy-but-dirty era it has some remarkable institutions and buildings. Hopefully Chinese cities will tread a similar path.
posted by akgerber at 8:52 AM on August 31, 2012


in the suburbs and small towns outside Shanghai you can see hundreds of houses with an Eiffel Tower on their roof - about two meters tall. I think it's supposed to signify a certain level of wealth, and style.

The stainless steel spires and spheres on Chinese houses are lightning rods. The blue-tinted windows are to keep the sunlight from heating up the space -- just like window tint on a car.
posted by twisted mister at 9:54 AM on August 31, 2012


I was really amazed at how dirty my glasses got when I visited Beijing. I don't normally remember to clean my glades, they have to be very spotty before I notice. Yet in Beijing I was cleaning my glasses two or three times a day.
posted by humanfont at 4:27 PM on August 31, 2012


Writing Chinese using a transliteration into Latin characters is just for Westerners.

Oh god this is why we can't have nice things. As mentioned upstream, Pinyin is emphatically NOT for Westerners. It was developed as part of a move towards comprehensive script reform, and was designed to be usable as a replacement for characters in vernacular texts. It is in fact completely sufficient to the task when properly used -- this means proper apostrophe placement in words like "Xi'an" -- but not as widely used today by Chinese and non-Chinese alike. For most Chinese people, Pinyin is "for foreigners" -- never mind that it is the system they use for sending text messages, typing on computers, and looking up words in dictionaries, or that it is the system that they use in order to acquire literacy in Chinese. In response to jiawen's question, Pinyin-based input method editors will require an apostrophe to disambiguate 西安 Xī'ān from e.g. 先 xiān -- some error-correcting IMEs might let this slide, but I've never seen this in practice -- but the usage won't be top-of-mind for most native speakers.

Back on topic: I liked the article (full disclosure: I know the author and have lived in the cities of Harbin and Beijing). Most cities, especially ones that have a long pre-1949 history, still retain some shreds of niceness, but there really is a soul-corroding sameness about second-tier Chinese cities, many of whose planners apparently took their cues from Sim City. ("Fill this square-mile area with Housing! The next square-kilometer block will be Store, bordered by a hectare of Bar next to Central Business District!") The fact that there are days when you can look out the window and taste the air with your eyes doesn't really help matters any.
That said, Chinese people are neither drones nor downtrodden victims. I remember walking through a fairly crappy snarl of back-streets migrant laborer housing in Shenzhen back in 2002 -- block after block of identical, undecorated concrete walls and pavement, surfaces adorned only with bundles of jerry-rigged wiring -- and emerging into a small area at the intersection of five alleys with an open-air pool table in the middle of it. Spaces can and do emerge -- usually no thanks to central planners -- where some kind of community life can arise, and maybe even flourish for a while.

Except maybe in Jiaxing. Christ, what a shithole.
posted by bokane at 12:54 AM on September 2, 2012


"In response to jiawen's question, Pinyin-based input method editors will require an apostrophe to disambiguate 西安 Xī'ān from e.g. 先 xiān -- some error-correcting IMEs might let this slide, but I've never seen this in practice -- but the usage won't be top-of-mind for most native speakers."

That doesn't really seem to answer my question; perhaps I phrased it poorly. I know how IMEs work, and how they reinforce correct spelling. What I meant was, if I were to give a Pinyin spelling test to a group of PRC folks, how well would they do on the edge cases? How often does 西安 get spelled as "Xian" in spite of IME reinforcement? How many people forget the umlauts when they're called for? How often do they separate syllables in words or use intercaps? In Taiwan, romanization is pretty much a shambles, but I get the impression that in the PRC it's considerably better, and that few PRC citizens would mistakenly spell 西安 as Xian, Xi An or XiAn, but that the number is still far from zero.
posted by jiawen at 1:36 PM on September 4, 2012


Sorry, poor phrasing on my part. What I meant to say was that native speakers are aware of the need to indicate a syllable boundary there in Pinyin, albeit not necessarily consciously. Based on the Pinyin I see in actual usage here (which is to say, off the top of my head) I suspect you'd see a split between all four, but with most speakers going for Xi An or Xi'an.

It'll be interesting to see whether/how smartphone and computer IMEs affect people's ability to use Pinyin properly.
posted by bokane at 6:40 PM on September 4, 2012


Yeah, that's what I suspect, too. All stuff I'd research if I had a spare lifetime for a PhD in Chinese linguistics...
posted by jiawen at 9:06 PM on September 4, 2012




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