One of my friends asked me a ton of questions about daily life in Beijing, and I thought the answers might be interesting to a wider audience. Here are his questions:

China is a black box to me. A couple questions/observations…

– You mention the air is particularly bad in the Winter. Is it typical for natives to us…e air purifiers, or is that more rare? Humidifiers?
– How much equipment did you lose in customs? Is it just tied up, or completely disappeared? or?
– Is it typical to dry clothes outside? Are dryers an uncommon thing?
– If you don’t mind me asking, how much does the apartment cost each month?
– Your laundry room looks like a death trap – grungy exposed power strips with the possibility of random water 🙁
– You mention that paper towels, cleaning products, etc are weaker. That’s surprising to me for some reason.
– Is most public signage multi-lingual, or is it just the particular building because it has tourists?

Great questions, Jaime! Here are my answers:

  1. The air is really bad all the time, especially in the winter. Everyone has humidifiers, some people have air purifiers as well, although these are very expensive because there is a luxury tax, and good ones (e.g. German or American) have a high import duty as well. I brought mine from the US in my checked luggage, and I’ll probably buy another one on my next trip. It’s kind of a hassle that I have to run it on a voltage converter, but I would not have found the same type here and would have had to pay more than double for one that isn’t as good.
  2. Electric clothes dryers are incredibly uncommon – no apartments are wired for them and they’re nearly impossible to find. You only find them used commercially here (or in the homes of expats). Chinese people believe that the sun kills bacteria in your laundry and it isn’t healthy to dry your clothes other ways. Also, they don’t see why they should pay for an electric clothes dryer when you can hang up your laundry for free. Some things you can just chalk up to cultural differences and this is one of them.
  3. My apartment costs about $1,500 per month including utilities. Yes, it is a death trap and I don’t have fire insurance yet. However, keep in mind the neighborhood – I am two blocks from the Confucius temple, within walking distance of the Lama Temple (Yonghegong) and also within walking distance of Nanlouguxiang. You know those maps of cities that show the entire metropolitan area and you live somewhere in there and then there’s the central city on the other side with all the cool stuff and nobody can afford to live there? Well, I’m on THAT side of the map. I’m not really paying for the apartment as much as I’m paying for the location.
  4. Ever been to a dollar store where everything is made in China, and marveled at all the stuff you can buy for $1 that will fall apart as soon as you get it home? That is the typical quality level of everything in general in China, except for imported luxury goods which are top end everything (you can get your Gucci handbag and Prada clothes to wear while you drive your Audi A6) and cost double or more what they do in the US. There really isn’t anything in between. So, you can buy imported paper towels for $4 per roll (good quality ones from the US) or you can buy the local stuff at the prices you’d expect, except they are terrible quality and fall apart and don’t work well. Same with other paper products, cleaning supplies etc. That’s why I shipped all this stuff from the US.
  5. Customs didn’t seize any of my personal goods. However, there are still some difficulties in clearing certain items and this is an ongoing negotiation. I understand these things can take time, although it’s been about 4 months of negotiation so far. Hopefully the problem will be solved soon.
  6. Street signs and subway signs are mostly bilingual. Some other signs are as well – keep in mind, Beijing went to great lengths to make the city navigable for the 2008 Olympics. In restaurants, there are sometimes English menus (but if there are, check the prices against the Chinese version of the menu because English menu prices are often higher). When you get outside of Beijing and Shanghai, English signage becomes less and less common. Interestingly enough, in Xinjiang there is Chinese and Arabic (rather than Chinese and English) signage.

Great questions everyone – keep them rolling in! The details of daily life in other parts of the world are always interesting to me, and I’m happy to share my Beijing experience with anyone who is interested.

After a welcome reprieve from high temperatures, it’s really hot again here in Beijing. One of the most popular ways to beat the heat is ice cream, and I picked up a quart of Dreyer’s Grand Cookies ‘n Cream. It was on sale for about $6 at the BHG Supermarket, and was right next to my $7 pack of frozen waffles. Pure decadence.

The only way to live in Beijing without spending a fortune is to go local, eating Chinese food and taking buses and subways instead of taxis. I’m better at saving on transportation than food; when you can’t read the menus and the dishes are weird and alien, it’s just easier to eat Western. Having spent nearly $40 on a single bag of groceries, I wasn’t in any mood to spend more. I’ve been feeling more adventurous lately and decided to try riding the bus home, as I successfully did from the airport yesterday (saving about $4 in the process).

Bus stops list the route of every bus, and buses stop only at fixed locations. Only one problem: it’s all in Chinese. Still, I thought I recognized the characters for Dongzhimen, which is near my apartment, so I hopped on the bus. Buses aren’t air conditioned, and the bus slowly made its way in the right direction in the blistering heat, passengers fanning themselves with anything available as the temperatures climbed into the upper 90s. And then the bus reached the end of its route: Dongsishitao, one subway stop south of Dongzhimen. The characters look sort of the same to my untrained eye, but it was definitely the wrong location. Still, though, no problem. I hopped on the subway and took it one stop north, only needing to wait about 10 minutes for a train, subways running less frequently on Sundays than weekdays. From Dongzhimen, the familiar walk back through a high speed bus lane combined with a hazardous construction zone, dodging buses, open manholes and cement trucks on the potholed road with no sidewalks. Just part of the charm of Beijing.

And then, almost an hour in upper 90s temperatures later, I was at home. My ice cream had somehow worked its way to the bottom of my pack, the lid came off, and it melted all over everything. $6 worth of ice cream ruined, and a huge mess made of my pack, all in the name of saving a $1.50 cab ride home. I ended up taking a shower with my bag, Cookies and Cream swirling down the drain.

Nearly everyone knows the success story of China’s economy, growing at a double-digit annual rate for the past several years. There is a dark side to this picture, however. China has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted countries on the planet. Ordinarily, this topic is addressed in technocratic seminar topics at environmental forums and the occasional press article, all of which are more or less the same. China is usually presented as a wanton polluter, unwilling to sacrifice economic growth for a clean environment.

The reality is somewhat different, and like in all things, China is a land of contrasts. Often-unfiltered (and always controversial) incinerators and steel plants using dirty coal operate side by side with electric bicycles, cruising the bike lanes present in every city. There are more operating electric vehicles in China than any country in the world, Chinese batteries from the China Aviation Lithium Battery Company being a favorite of do-it-yourself electric car enthusiasts. You’re as likely to see windmills as coal plants in China, sometimes operating next door to dubiously licensed electronics recyclers dumping heaven knows what into adjacent waterways.

China is not a first world country, and it’s not a third world country either. It’s both at once, and is rapidly industrializing. In a similar stage of American development, an Ohio river caught fire. Despite that and the Love Canal disaster, we still haven’t learned. Still, pollution is a real problem here. No matter how you measure it (official monitoring here is less rigorous than that performed in the US and Europe), the air quality is bad and getting worse. Beijing has some of the dirtiest air in the world. The Asia Society has an excellent Web page outlining the challenges, and the visuals are stunning. Watch the video and check the “Room With A View” tab for a day-by-day view. The US State Department also runs an EPA-certified air monitoring station at their embassy in Beijing. This device samples air quality data hourly and posts it to their Twitter feed. In all fairness, this is only representative of the air quality in the immediate vicinity of the US Embassy which is located in a busy commercial area. Still, I use this as a personal resource to decide whether it’s safe to go outside.

Despite it all, China is making significant and rapid progress. They’ve jumped on recycling in a very big way since my first visit here six years ago. Thousands of cars are staying at home due to fast, clean and cheap subways. The government just started a program to lure highly educated diaspora in specific, targeted industries (mostly related to green technologies) back to China with offers of startup capital and generous tax incentives. A recycling and environmental theme park is even opening at the former site of the 2008 Olympics. The pace of change here is head-spinning to those accustomed to the paralyzed, partisan ways of Washington DC. Just this week, several significant and far-reaching policy changes were announced, any of which would have required months or years of deliberation in the US.

President Obama says “China is not a friend, and they are not an enemy. They are a competitor.” I agree, and I tend to favor upstarts when it comes to wagering. No country in the world needs green energy technology more than China; the economy simply cannot continue to grow by double-digit percentages built on last century’s energy infrastructure. At some point, it just becomes unsustainable. If China wins the race, the US is in big trouble. But if China loses the race, the world is in big trouble. For America to win, China doesn’t necessarily have to lose–but I think we’ll all need to agree on a different set of rules soon. The planet can’t afford the status quo any longer.