From Frommer’s 2006 Tourbook to China, on Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province:
“A 1999 report found this sooty industrial city to be the most polluted [in China], and city officials, shamed into action, began to take strides toward cleanup. Still, you may want to limit your stay in this environmentally challenged city to a day or two at most.”
My great-uncle, in Beijing: “They eat a lot of noodles there. Can you handle that?”
Me: “I like noodles.”
My great-uncle: “They eat a lot of vinegar there. Can you handle that?”
Me: “I like vinegar.”
My great-uncle: “They drink a lot of baijiu there.”
My great-uncle: “Tell them you don’t drink.”
I told people back in the US that Shanxi was the Ohio of China. Coal, mid-sized cities, analogous geographic location. I will now admit that that I had no idea what I was talking about, and that it was a gimmicky answer that I used to shut people up. Few things remind of me of Ohio here, except maybe the stack of photos I brought from home and whenever the Punch Brothers comes on my iPod. Also, by some mysterious twist of fate, the lady who lives two doors down from me is an Obie, and she used to live in Asia House women’s hall, in Zoë and Sam’s old suite. I had tea with her. It was lemon ginger tea and came in a teabag, and she offered me honey. That reminded me of Ohio. People here drink hot water and loose leaf tea, straight.
Taiyuan has 4 million people. It is a second-tier city in China with relatively few foreigners. First-tier cities are like Beijing and Shanghai that have more than 20 million people and lots of Westerners. The streets are wide in Taiyuan, often ten to twelve lanes across, and the traffic during rush hour is unbelievable. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and human beings cease to move in parallel lines. Cars weave in and out of crannies. I have stopped fearing for my life because if I did, I would remain on the same street corner forever, which is bad for business.
I live and work at Taiyuan University of Technology (TYUT), an engineering and applied science school in the middle of Taiyuan. The New York Times reported that Foxconn, one of the major suppliers to Apple, closed one of its plants in Taiyuan due to worker riots. No one talked about the plant closing or the riots at TYUT. I asked about it once and got an offhand two-sentence response. Some students asked me about Lady Gaga, and I learned the Chinese translation for “Spice Girls”, which is “辣妹,” lamei, which literally means “Spicy Younger Sisters,” or more colloquially, “Spicy Young Women.” One of my labmates joked that they should be called “辣妈”, lama, now, or “Spicy Mothers” or “Spicy Matrons” because they’re old now. TYUT campus is a bubble, like Oberlin was.
In the four days I have been in Taiyuan, it has rained once and been sunny for three days. The sunny days have been only vaguely smoggy, and I can see the mountains in the distance. When it rained, I couldn’t see doodley-squat. It was like having advanced cataracts, white canvas over my eyes. Taiyuan smells vaguely like cigarettes and mystery chemicals, but its pollution levels aren’t ostensibly ridiculous–right now it seems comparable to Beijing. I live on a university campus with a lot of trees and fountains and artificially planted greenery, so the air is pretty good. My adviser told me it gets worse in the winter, when the surrounding power plants start burning more coal. My room sometimes smells like vehicle exhaust. My room in Oberlin had few smells.
Within campus, a truck drives around daily and sprays the sidewalks and the roads with water, to get rid of the dust or the dirt or something. The five-second rule does not apply here. Once you drop food on the ground, it’s in no-man’s land. In Ohio, I would eat a cookie that had been on the ground for five minutes. I know a guy who ate pizza off the ground at a high school football game for money. You could pay me no amount of money to eat pizza off the Taiyuan sidewalk. That is another difference between Shanxi and Ohio.
I will probably eat noodles for lunch today. I have been eating noodles every day.