1) The stray dogs at night in Cambodia
2) The building of endless hostels in Hong Kong
3) The air quality in China
If you knew me before China, you know that I was kind of a health nut. My diet staples were eggs, coconut oil, cinnamon and sunflower seed butter. I wouldn't eat peanut butter because peanuts are a legume that have a negative effect on your gut. I wouldn’t eat quinoa for the same reason. Guys, I was too healthy for quinoa. QUINOA! The godsend grain to health fads and teenage girls everywhere. The fact is quinoa can also contribute to a leaky gut as well as other negative effects, which I felt. I used to weigh my food to ensure the proper amount of macros was reached and then log it into an app. I used to run for 40 minutes everyday, lift weights, and get at least 10,000 steps a day. Then, China. If you know me in the slightest bit, you know that I LOVE food. Love it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to love food as much as I do as well as be a health nut? Enter the loopholes I created like the Paleo Hunter Gatherer Galette, or the Tiger Butt Cookies(Recipe coming soon). Have my paleo cake and eat it too! Then I came to Shanghai, a land full of novelty foods that I can’t get in Canada, endless french bakeries that serve my one true love—chocolate croissants, and heavy, fatty, salty, sweet, delicious Shanghainese food.
YOLO am I right? Figured I should take advantage of the availability of these things while I could. Fat can be burned off. I have been super busy with work and going out and exploring this city so I was reluctant to get a gym membership. Especially since the hours weren’t very good. I figured I could just go running whenever I wanted and get creative with the rest of it. But alas, I was too busy enjoying the city and spending time with friends that exercise also took a back seat. Way back. Okay it missed the bus. I went running a few times in September when I first got here. I remember coming home from my first run in China and feeling my lungs burning and coughing for a few hours afterwards. Awesome. That didn’t stop me, I still went running.
I was getting tired, but a different kind of tired you normally get from running. My entire body felt like all of its energy was just completely drained. "Mind over matter" I thought. I tried to push myself to go faster and nothing happened. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was seeing spots and my body felt weaker and weaker. "Keep going you can rest soon enough on the train." Soon enough, I noticed I was gasping for air. Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink. More like Air air everywhere but not any oxygen to breath. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way does it?
What the fuck is going on with my body?! I kept going. I spotted the sign for departures that pointed upwards another escalator. I ran up the escalator, I pushed people to the side a little bit and people cursed at me in Chinese. I finally got to the second floor where the departures were. Stopped and gasping for air, I scanned left and right for the next direction to go. I saw the security check and the long line that sprouted from the metal detector. "Oh shit, a line! Oh wait-- this is China!" I ran up to the front of the line and frantically showed the people at the front my ticket and said with all my breath and sheer panic in my voice and on my face “I’m sorry I’m going to miss my train I have to go” An understanding nod and “OK” followed by a step back by a very kind Chinese lady. “Than-XieXie!” I threw my bags on the belt to be scanned and stepped into place and threw up my arms to be checked. I grabbed my bags and slung them onto my body. I looked down at my ticket, hands shaking and looked around the station for my platform. I spotted 13 and ran towards it weaving through the many people wandering through the station. I looked down at my phone:10:58a.m. I ran towards the gate and felt my body begging me to stop even more. "I'm so close though! I didn't just run a whole bunch to stop at this point!"
I handed my ticket to the girl in the uniform sitting at the gate. She said something to me in Chinese and I replied “I don't know! I'm sorry I don't understand!” and shook my head and gave her a worried look. “B! This A!” She pointed to the platform I was at and then across the station. “B!” I looked at my ticket and the sign above the gate. Shit! I’m on the wrong side! She pointed across the station and directed me with her hands and panic now in her face for me. “XieXie!” Are you KIDDING me?!
I’m so close I can make it. I pushed myself as hard as I could reacting to the people getting in the way of my path. As i was approaching the gate, myself and another man running with a suitcase were converging towards the 13B sign. I was considering jumping the gate, but figured it would end worse than badly with the bags that I had on.
I hit the gate running, literally, and stuck my ticket into the gate. The gate didn't open and my ticket was spit back out at me. "What! No!" The guy who was running next to me just had the same thing happen.
“No Please! I can make it! It’s right there I SEE it! I can make it please! I just barely got those words out as I keeled over the gate holding my ticket up to the lady in uniform behind the gate, trying to force oxygen into my lungs. It felt like my esophogus was closing. She stood with perfect posture, hands behind her back and slowly shook her head no with her eyes closed. "Well where do i?" I asked her while pointing to my ticket. "Change". She pointed me to the ticket counter. As I turned away and let my arms fall to my side I had never felt so defeated.
I picked myself up and took a couple deep breaths interrupted by coughing. I turned around and scanned the train station. I need water. Now. Nothing but stores selling random shit like camping gear and a place to get a suit made. Perfect. No water but I could get a custom suit if I wanted.
I messaged a friend to send me a message in Chinese that I could show to the ticket counter to exchange it for the next available train. I got my ticket changed and looked around the station for water again. Nothing. I looked up and spotted a Starbucks and a Burger King on the second floor. With my eyes I followed the railing that lined the seating until I spotted the escalator to get up there. I made my over there pretty slowly and as I let the escalator bring me to to the second floor, I turned to my right and watched as I was brought higher and higher above the crowd in the train station. And as I got higher, it became clearer (or hazier) just how bad the air quality in the station was.
I felt awful. I had an hour to kill so after I grabbed a bottle of water from the store, I went over to the Starbucks to find a place to sit away from the chaos of the waiting area downstairs. I threw my bags to the ground, crawled into the corner of the booth, strapped on my pollution mask, and collapsed in on myself. "Holy shit what is going on." After a few minutes I sat up and looked across the station. A haze filled the giant space and I found myself on the brink of tears. "How could we let it get this bad? We know it’s a problem, we know its affecting us, why hasn't there been some sort of drastic change?"
To be honest with you, the air quality was something I brushed off until the last month when I actually noticed it affecting me. Today the air quality index number in Shanghai was 350. To put it into context, 100 isn't good. 350 really isn't good.
So as I rode my bike with my mask on in the streets of Shanghai today and tried to go faster, I couldn’t. The same feeling as sprinting in the train station. When I used to start to feel challenged while exercising, I could think to my legs, “push harder, go faster”, and I would. But now, no matter how much mental power I put into it, I can’t push harder, I can’t go faster. My limits have been lowered and reached in China. Exercise is no longer something I can just go out and do, and the only thing I will have to overcome is laziness. I literally can not do what I used to be able to and it’s heart breaking. I used to be able to take a week or so off from running and be back to my normal capacity after one or two runs. I have taken so many steps backwards now and I am going to have to take it slow just to reach a relatively low quality of health for me.
Realizing all of this is scary. It was scary to think about at the beginning of this journey, and it was scary when I got a bit of a cough now and then. But now, it’s serious. Now I have chest pains, now I have limits. I used to think I was invincible, like many people do, and I just got a huge slap in the face.
TWO MONTHS LATER
It is now two months since I originally wrote this post. I can now run a steady 45 mins, and I don’t have to check the air quality index to decide if I need to wear a pollution mask or not.
The other night, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar award and a particular part of his acceptance speech was focused on climate change. “The most urgent threat facing our entire species”. In part, true. “Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow” hmm OK not NOT true. But not due to climate change. Where they were filming the movie, a chinook had occurred. To put it simply, a chinook is a warm wind that can come up in the dead of winter and produce spring, almost summer like conditions. It’s natural, it happens. However, looking at the bigger picture here, climate change IS real. Chinook or not, in his mind, Leo was experiencing something that almost all the western world has heard about, but there has been no great collective stride forward in dealing with it. Does the entire human population each need to have their own significant experience in order to have a call to action? Do people need to die in order for people to get a grip? In an article I read recently related to well stewardship and water governance in Ontario, the authors pointed out that most well owners have a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Basically, wait for a problem to inevitably happen instead of taking preventative measures. And that’s exactly what happened. People died. THEN water source protection acts were put into place. Lives taken, families heartbroken, because “it wasn’t broke”.
"How bad was the air there?"
"Did you notice it?"
"Do they actually wear pollution masks there?"
"How do they live like that?"
A question I got asked a lot, but could had trouble answering was "What do you do?"
I worked for a company called GIGA. This is a company that focuses on producing healthy buildings and healthy indoor air quality. Indoor air quality???
I know. We have been so obsessed with outdoor air quality that we forget indoor air quality can be just as bad if not worse. There's nothing stopping the outdoor pollution from entering most buildings, but on top of that you have chemical off gassing from paints and other materials as well as the gradual breaking down of materials. I did a bunch of different stuff at my job but here's the video I worked on for one of the apps GIGA developed and it explains it all a lot better than I do.
There was a day there where air quality got so bad in Shanghai that some cafes and put notices in their window stating that they would not be operating for the day as a concern for the well being of their staff. That day I had gone out to run some errands. I strapped on my mask and headed out. I realized that when the air quality is that bad, what do you do to escape it? I couldn't go back to my apartment because it was just as bad in there. I couldn't go outside to the park for fresh air. And that's the scary part. No escape.
There's a line from the song Best Room by Modest Mouse that goes "All these Western Concerns are all I've ever really learned to be concerned with".
Let's start learning to be concerned about the planet as a whole shall we?
After all is said and done, we are all in the same boat. We all know how to paddle, now let's get somewhere.