Sunday, 23 March 2014

Getting The Tone Right

It is late at night, and I am spectacularly lost. I have just been out for sushi with colleagues on my own, and although usually there is someone with whom I can share a taxi home, tonight nobody is going my way. I have been given good instructions, but somehow I still have managed to get myself into a neighborhood I find totally unfamiliar.

All the buses have stopped running and taxis are thin on the ground. And even if they weren't, there would be the problem of having to explain where I want to go to the taxi driver in Chinese. I can do this pretty well now, but what I still cannot do is make myself understood; apparently, I'm still butchering the tones. The way it usually works is this: my husband and I get into a taxi after one of us, usually my husband, has worked over a laborious spiel explaining our destination, honing it and repeating it ad nauseam. We then give the instructions to the taxi driver, who gapes at us uncomprehendingly and asks us to repeat ourselves. Which we do. After half a dozen tries, he finally seems to get it and we drive off, most of the time in the right direction. It is, to say the least, very frustrating.

The last time I had to do this on my own, it  took me over ten tries before the driver understood. Tonight, I am reluctant to go through the misery and humiliation. So I retrace my steps and go back over the bridge I've just crossed. I go past the gated apartment building with the giant stone lions in front and along a path bordered by willows. When I get to the Korean restaurant I remember from ten minutes ago, I try going left instead of going straight on. And I walk for more than fifteen minutes, but I can't see anything familiar. So I try a different route, then when that one culminates in a dead end, a different one. I end up on a vast road that is utterly deserted--weird in China--and rather dark. I suck my breath in and squeeze my eyes shut. There is no alternative: I've been walking for over an hour now and my husband, home marking papers, will be starting to worry. I've got to find a taxi.

Ten minutes later, I spot one and hold up my hand, my heart pounding in my throat. For once, I have no competition and the driver obligingly screeches to a halt. I get in, clear my throat, and tell him where I want to go. He gets it the very first time.

I am, as it turns out, less than a minute away from home. This is how bad my sense of direction is: even when I'm almost home, I have no idea where I am.

I end up paying full whack for the taxi, of course. But for once, I don't care one bit.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Holding My Breath

Zhi is a nice young man with a friendly smile and a refreshingly honest way of speaking. He isn't a student of mine, but we got to know each other through a university club and instantly bonded over a shared liking of cats, travel, and the fact that we both come from cities known for their air pollution. Zhi is from an industrial center in the north of China, and I am from Riverside, in Southern California's infamous smog belt. We are comparing notes on our respective hometowns right now, and so far Zhi is winning, if you can call it that.

"We're famous for our particulate matter," Zhi tells me. "Most cities have high particulate matter in their air, but ours is the very small kind that is most dangerous. You can't see it."

"You could see ours," I tell him, embarrassed that I can't remember our town's exact air quality index. Zhi remembers the air quality index of his city and can quote it on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. This week it's 489, which is more than 20 times over the acceptable WHO maximum standard of 20. On days when people set off fireworks, it reaches a level that is right off the charts.

"What kind of particulate matter does your hometown have?" Zhi wants to know. He is a science student, and these things matter to him.

I am a rather unscientific person and this question makes me squirm. "I'm not sure. But it was very bad."

Zhi nods. "My city has small particulate matter--" He frowns and picks up a pen and starts writing a complicated equation that goes on and on (< 2.5µ is all I can remember).

"Very small," Zhi adds superfluously.

I feel irritated with myself for not being able to describe the consistency and composition of Riverside's smog, as if I'm letting our side down somehow. "I don't know if our particulate matter was that small, but because of our smog, you couldn't see much of anything," I explain, pointing to a building close by. "For instance, that building would be hard to see if we were in my hometown."

Zhi wrinkles his forehead. "That building would be impossible to see in my hometown."

"When we were kids, we couldn't run on bad days," I say. "They made us stay inside because the air was so bad. One boy even died after running half a mile on a smoggy day."

Zhi nods. "Some people die in my school too."

"You mean this happened in your school recently?" Zhi's tenses are a little shaky sometimes.

"Yes--recently, also before."

My own face mask is hanging over the arm of my chair. Zhi points to it now, a look of astonishment on his face.

"Why do you have this? Do you need it?"

"I brought it just in case," I say, feeling like an utter wimp. Today the air quality index in our city is only 65, just over three times the maximum limit.

Zhi picks my mask up and examines it. He does not look impressed.

"My mother, father have disposable respirator, N-95 and P-100, change filter every day, wear every day."  He regards mine with amusement. "This one like scarf. Not good."  

At this, I give up. Zhi's hometown has worse air pollution than Riverside ever did. We spend the rest of our time discussing effective clean air filters and alternative energy.