Mighty Middle Kingdom

Mighty Middle Kingdom

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

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Ode to the Fragrant Harbour

Ode to the Fragrant Harbour
hk harbourjpg

When we swapped our humidifiers (bone dry Beijing) for dehumidifiers (perpetually soggy Hong Kong) I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Hong Kong was the antithesis of Beijing in every way.¬†

Beijing was dusty and barren, Hong Kong lush and dense and evergreen. Beijing sprawling and confusing, Hong Kong neat and contained and manageable. Beijing perplexing, Hong Kong recognisable and familiar. Beijing had spit-infested pavements, in Hong Kong spitters can be fined. In Beijing I was starved of English (or any) media, Hong Kong has book stores galore.

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Energy guzzlers

Energy guzzlers

It’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien

Airpocalypse

Airpocalypse

A decade ago, footloose and fancy free, I followed my husband on a posting to Beijing. I figured that as a well-travelled anthropologist, adjusting would be a doddle. Turns out I was woefully underprepared and suffered a severe case of culture shock. I was a terrible China basher and couldn’t understand the love Sinophiles had for the country. To me, it was dusty, barren, ugly, unforgiving, brutal and incomprehensible.

Beijing is one of the world’s megacities and boy do you feel it — the heaving mass of people, the congested highways, the asphalt, the skyline crammed with cranes, the retail mania. And worst of all, the pollution. We arrived in this insane city in the run-up to the Olympics. Construction was in overdrive, choking the already filthy air with dust particles, making it difficult to breathe.

When we lived there I seldom bothered to check the pollution index –  just by looking out the window I’d know it was through the roof. Breathing the air was so toxic, many of the international schools had sealed outdoor domes where kids could play sport. And those face masks that people wear? Apparently useless at keeping out the really nasty particles.

Pollution - mini rant
A daily ritual in Beijing. Pull back the curtains and suss out the air quality. This is a bad, though far too common day.

Pollution - mini rant
A good day.

Pollution - mini rant
A (very rare) pristine day.

It all felt very post-apocalyptic. I’ve never felt the disconnect between man and nature as much as when I lived in Beijing. Everything felt artificial, even the rain – which, sometimes, it was. After particularly dry spells, the government would shoot chemicals into the sky to make it rain – it’s called cloud seeding and it’s a thing.

During international conferences (when foreigners would stream in) factories would be shut down and the change in the environment would be almost immediate – you’d see the bluest skies, and actual clouds. The international delegates would leave, the factories would power up, and you’d be enveloped in a soupy smog within a day. It was super depressing – and very disconcerting how governments play God with the weather.

Living under perpetually leaden skies was by far the toughest part of our China stint. Tougher than the culture shock and the language barrier. I was in a slightly more forgiving space by the time we left, having made many wonderful friends and learnt so much. Bereft of any natural beauty, I was forced to seek it out elsewhere – to scratch below the surface and uncover some of the idiosyncracies of life in the Middle Kingdom. And, although I didn’t need much convincing, Beijing reminded me of the rare beauty of home. In Cape Town we’re blessed with the most exquisite blue skies almost daily. You do notice a yellow band of pollution when the Cape Doctor stops blowing and air gets trapped by the mountains. But everything being relative, I still like to gulp it in.