Converting emissions standards, China vs. U.S.


Table taken from

The table above managed to cause me about a month’s worth of confusion. Fucking table. The purpose of this blog entry is for those who hate English units, hate conversion factors of vague origins, or just hate a lot of things in general.  Hate is the theme of this post.  That and pollution.  I hate pollution.  Anyway, I hope the following post will save you the confusion it caused me. Acknowledgments to Jeremy Schreifels, who sent me lots of good resources for deciphering this mess.

China’s new air pollution standards went into effect on January 1, 2012.  These new standards, much more strict than the previous ones established in 2003, are finally on par with the rest of the world (see above table). I’m in the business of sulfur dioxide standards, so I started staring at the table and comparing the U.S. standards to China’s.  China’s standards are in mg/m3, i.e. milligrams of sulfur dioxide per cubic meter of flue gas.  The U.S.’s standards are in lb/millionBtu(mmBtu), or pounds of sulfur dioxide per million Btu of coal. But if you look at the table, someone already did the dirty work and converted the U.S. units of lb/mmBtu into mg/m3.  But for those of us who are analytical and shit, this was actually a disservice.  I want to know where the numbers come from, dammit!

The conversion is not just your simple English-to-metric wahoo.  The pounds-to-milligrams and cubic-feet-to-cubic-meter stuff is trivial.  We have to do one key conversion (Eq.1):FfactorconversionThe first factor on the right is what U.S. EPA standards are defined in. How do we find the second factor? Turns out its reciprocal is something called the F-factor, which is a ratio of flue gas produced per heat generated by a fuel.  F-factors are determined by using stoichiometric calculations, explained further on this EPA page.

This conversion assumes that we are using bituminous coal, which has an F-factor of 9780 dscf/mmBtu or 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu. (Here dscf stands for “dry standard cubic feet” and scf stands for “standard cubic feet,” and scf CO2/mmBtu means standard cubic feet of COemitted per mmBtu of coal.)

So, for an example:  the US standard for SO2 new coal power plants is 0.15 lb/mmBtu. We divide by the bituminous coal F-factor, 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu to get (lb of SO2/cubic feet of CO2). Then we divide that by 12% because we assume that takes COup 12% of the volume of gas.  Then we convert lb to mg (1:4.54E5) and cubic feet to cubic meters (3.28^3:1), and we get about 160 mg/m3, and we’re done.

To summarize, the assumptions made in this conversion:

1) The coal plants use bituminous coal of F-factor 9780 dscf/mmBtu or 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu.
2) Flue gas is 12% CO2.


Another useful unit in emissions standards is ppm, parts per million by volume. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t try to dissect this one to pieces. The conversion looks like this (Eq. 2):


We got the term on the left of Eq. 2 by using Eq. 1.  Now we want to convert that number into ppm, so we need the factor on the right.  This term is called the K value and it comes from the ideal gas law.  To do this we have to convert mass to volume, so we have to assume all sorts of things about pressure and temperature.  I’m not going to go into detail on this one because, well, I haven’t had to deal with ppm yet. The K-value for SO2 is 1.66E-7 (pounds of SO2/cubic feet of flue gas/ppm).


Table of F-factors

Where I got the table (ChinaFAQs)

Derivation of conversion factors




Yabaolu, the Russian district in eastern Beijing. Photo credit unknown.

This winter, when I was in Beijing, I went on several dates with Ksenia, a girl I met off OKCupid.  When she messaged me, I clicked on her profile and noted that she had filled out absolutely nothing and had posted zero photos of herself.   I had wondered if she was a cyberbot.  But at the time my evening activity, if any, consisted of pumping myself full of terrible Chinese beer.  A date, even with a cyberbot, seemed like a possible ticket out of my terrified expat noob rut.

Luckily, she was made of flesh and had feelings.  She had light brown curly hair and very striking blue eyes, and she was manufactured and developed in St. Petersburg, which immediately piqued my interest.  I am a casual Russophile, which means I know the Russian alphabet, a few words of random useless vocabulary, and I have read too many Constance Garnett translations of 19th century Russian novels.  From reading history books, I have been intrigued about the strange mix of east and west that is Russia—Peter the Great made everyone in his court shave their beards to be more like Western Europe; the Japanese defeated the Russians over a port that now belongs to China; China’s Communist Party has often looked to the Soviet Union as a model for policy and culture.  But I’ve never been to Russia; I’ve never even touched War and Peace.  I really know quite little about the country, except that I think they make a bomb potato salad and share my love of pickled cucumbers.

We went to my favorite beer bar in Beijing, The Vine Leaf.  They brew their own beer.  To drink it is a sensual explosion, instead of a tasteless, desperate plea for emotional connection that it is to drink Snow or Tsingtao.  When I’m in Beijing, I usually go to The Vine Leaf with Joseph.  The bartender, Mumu, had thought for a while that we were dating.  Joseph told me that Mumu confronted him about it when he showed up there with other women.  I appreciated that.  It is one of the many reasons why I am a loyal customer.

Ksenia had been teaching English in Beijing for three years.  Her English was flawless, save for a slight Russian accent and some unique word choices that I assumed were Russglish.  I found out she also spoke German and Mandarin and was learning Arabic.  She even knew some Finnish—Finland is only a short ferry ride away from St. Petersburg, she informed me.  She used to work as an interpreter in a German beer factory in St. Petersburg (awesome).  She read a lot of books (good), but didn’t like food (uh oh).  Her father is from St. Petersburg, but her mother is from Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East only 30 kilometers away from the Chinese border.

It struck me suddenly and quite stupidly that Russia is very large.  Did you know that Russia is large?

“Are there a lot of Russians in Beijing?” I asked Ksenia.

“Yes,” she said. “But they’re mostly from eastern Russia, and they are traders.  Most of them live near Yabaolu.”

She explained to me that many eastern Russians come to China to buy cheap clothes and other goods to re-sell for profit in Russia.

“I went to Yabaolu a few times with my ex-girlfriend several years ago,” she said.  “She was from—how do you say Belarus in English?”

“Belarus,” I said.

“Yes, she was from Belarus.  She didn’t fit into Chinese clothes, so we went shopping there.  She was—” She gestured.  Ahhh. Girl was busty.

“Really,” I said.

“Really,” Ksenia said. “Two hands were not enough.”

I quite enjoyed how she quantified breasts in terms of number of hands.  It reminded me of physics class.

We decided that she would take me to Yabaolu.  We went on a Friday.  Yabaolu is a street in eastern Beijing, by Ritan, the Temple of the Sun, near many foreign embassies.  Ksenia works in that area.

Lined with skyscrapers and shopping centers and glittering restaurants, it resembled every other business district of Beijing, except all the street signs and business signs were in both Russian and Chinese.  With my minimal Russian alphabet skills, I managed to decipher “Ябао”—“Yabao.” Despite all the lights and the tall buildings, the streets were almost empty, save for some strolling couples and a few Chinese rickshaw drivers shouting mangled Russian (according to Ksenia) at us.  I read later that the business in Yabaolu was in decline due to the global economic crisis and stricter Russian import policies.

Ksenia was leading me to a resto-club called Mango.  She didn’t have a very good sense of direction.  We stopped so that she could ask a Russian couple where to go.  The woman was dressed in elaborate furs.

“Ugh,” Ksenia said, after we continued on our way.

“What?” I said.

“Eastern Russians,” she said.  “Their accent.  Terrible.”

“Come on,” I said.  “You’re a language snob?”

“There’s…a way…to speak Russian…correctly,” she said.  She looked pained.  “I’m sorry.  I know I shouldn’t, but I studied language in school, so of course I’m a language snob.”

“What do they think of the way you talk?”

“They probably don’t care,” she said.  “To them, I’m just some young lost girl from St. Petersburg.”

“They can tell you’re from St. Petersburg?”

“They can tell I’m from the west for sure,” she said.

She tried to justify her language snobbery to me.  Language snobbery, to the extent that I understood what she was saying, is different in Russia than in the US—there’s much more pride in speaking and knowing proper Russian, whatever that is.  For example, Russian spelling is exceedingly difficult, even more so than English.  Many words are spelled differently from how they sound.  This is because pronunciation has evolved, and also because many letters have been eliminated from the Russian alphabet over the centuries, which has led to complications in spelling.  Laypeople misspell words all the time.  Ksenia was quite proud of her spelling ability, as university language students spent several years studying it.

But she otherwise had very little nationalistic streak in her.  She told me she had no desire to return to Russia.  The homophobia is rampant—she later told me that she once punched a skinhead in the face for harassing her.  Her own mother didn’t speak to her for two years after she came out.

We found Mango.  It had the air of a moderately fancy restaurant, except it was playing loud dance music.  We went to the second floor, which was quieter, but also overlooked the dance floor on the level below through a piece of glass.  I ogled everyone around me.  The waiters were Chinese, but the clientele were almost completely Russian.  I tried to eavesdrop.  I know how to say pancake and airplane in Russian.  No one was talking about pancakes or airplanes.  I peered beyond the glass at several women—Russian, I assumed—pole dancing on the floor below.

The food that we ordered was delicious.  Ksenia doesn’t get worked up about food, but she enjoyed the opportunity to eat familiar flavors.  I particularly liked solyanka, a beef-based soup rich with spices and balanced with the aromatic tartness of lemon and the mildness of dill.  It was topped with a dollop of sour cream.  I ate it too quickly.

“I might be talking out of my ass, but this is the best soup I’ve ever eaten,” I said to Ksenia.

“You’re just hungry,” she said.

We talked about children’s books.  I told her my favorite was The Twits by Roald Dahl.  She hadn’t heard of it, so I described Mr. Twit’s sardine-encrusted beard to her with gusto.  We started people watching.

“Do you think those people are from the Far East?” I asked her, without really knowing what I was asking.  I subtly gestured to the table next to us.

“Probably,” she said.  “It sounds like it.”

In Shanxi, the local Chinese rarely—if ever—see foreigners.  Amelea and V told me that at Shanxi Agricultural University, where they teach, random students knock on their door and ask if they can tour their house just to see what foreigners own.  In my dorm in Taiyuan, where the foreign students live, a Chinese student walked in and knocked on all of the foreigners’ doors asking to be friends.  They installed new doors with key-card locks on the entrance to every floor after that to keep Chinese students out.

The kid had knocked on my door.  He looked surprised when he saw me.

“I was looking for a foreigner,” he said in Chinese.

I had been recovering from a bout of mild food poisoning.  My hair was disheveled, and I was wearing yellow boxers with hot air balloons on them.  Still not foreign enough.

“I am a foreigner,” I replied.  “I’m from America.”

“But—you know—a foreigner,” he said.

“I’m sick,” I said.  I shut the door before he could say anything else.

He pissed me off, but I don’t blame him anymore.  Maybe he watches NBA; maybe he’s seen American Pie, and maybe he sneaks a peek of the foreigner’s dorm.  That’s the only window he has.

In Mango, I wondered what window I was peering through.  No creepy stories about Rasputin, no Raskolnikov in his overcoat, no existential effusions, no dying serfs, no dancing bears.  No fur peddlers or even skinheads, thank God.  I was sitting in a plush seat across from a Russian expat with very little national pride in a dying neighborhood in Beijing.

I drank my Baltika.  It was a Russian beer, but it tasted like Sierra Nevada.


The first thing any socially skilled Chinese person does upon entering a room is to appraise all the people in it.   You have to dish out respect in a certain order, and power, wealth, and age are the determining factors.  Usually the greasy-haired man with the giant belly chain-smoking in the middle of the room is the laoban, or boss.  He gets his ego stroked first.  But a decrepit old lady can sometimes trump the laoban, depending on how sassy or how decrepit she is.  On the other hand, everyone under thirty is an urchin, unless they are married and have children.

I went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a work unit this winter.  One of the urchins was preparing tea for the rest of us throughout the meal.  He had to boil water every fifteen minutes.  I felt bad for him, so I took over for him for a little bit.  I too am an urchin, after all.

I knew that under normal circumstances, I should pour the laoban’s tea before everyone else’s.  But what the hell, I decided to serve the urchin first.  He deserved it; he’d been pouring tea all night.

“Don’t pour mine first!” he hissed at me.

Too late.  I filled his cup before anyone else’s.  But my gesture of gratitude was lost on him, and he was embarrassed that he’d gotten his share before the bigshots did.  Luckily, no one at that dinner was a dick, and the dude in charge didn’t really care who got tea first.

But when I went to lunch at a Taiyuan mine with my adviser and labmates, people did care.  The higher-ups at the mine insisted on buying a handle of fenjiu, a famous and disgusting Shanxi liquor, and getting us all drunk.  This is also an important part of showing respect.  You get a bottle of vile liquor and toast each other until the liquor is gone and you can’t find your own bellybutton.  Never mind that it was noon and that we’d driven there.  “We’ll get you a driver,” the laoban assured us.

Everyone started toasting each other and taking shots. The shot glasses are smaller than in the US—maybe a half of a US shot glass.  Might as well have fun with this, I thought.  So I went around the table and toasted every single person. First I toasted the laoban, who had been boasting about his son, who is rich or something.  “Thank you for inviting me to your mine,” I said.  “To your son!” One shot.

I turned to the guy next to him, whose name I never learned and was not sure why he was there.  But he was important because he was sitting next to the laoban.  “So wonderful to meet you!” Second shot.

I didn’t really know whom to toast next, so the order broke down.  I decided to toast some lady who may have been a secretary.  She poured me water earlier, when we were all sitting in the laoban’s office.  “Thank you for your warm welcome!”  Third shot.

“She’s foreign, but she knows how to do it,” someone said appreciatively.

That was my ticket to more shots.  Even though fenjiu is terrible, it is an excuse to stuff yourself with food.  Pork belly makes an excellent chaser.

The table was surrounded with people I’d never seen before.

“Nice to meet you!” Shot!

“To a prosperous year!” Shot!

“Your health!” Shot!

My liver! Shot!

Time to toast my labmates, Deng and Leili.  They had also been taking shots concurrently.  Everyone was taking shots to everyone else.  It was like a combinatorics problem.

“You don’t have to drink to us,” Leili said to me.

I took the shots anyway.  The mine was terribly polluted and I was a little depressed because of it.  They did get us a driver, and I fell asleep on the car ride home.

How is the Air Quality Index (AQI) calculated?

2013-01-13 16.07.30

A photo I took on January 13, 2013, in Beijing, during record smog. That lil fella pokin’ through the smog is the Sun.

I recently hosted two friends from college here in Shanxi.  While we enjoyed cultural shenanigans and massive feasts galore, they were particularly appalled by the high levels of pollution in northern China, and we wore face masks everywhere.  This post is dedicated to them, my main mangs, Chloë Dalby and Savannah Sullivan.

I check the air quality index (AQI) regularly these days.  AQI–a unitless number that describes the safety/hazard level of the air pollution–is becoming a staple of Beijing culture, especially after the record-breaking smog earlier this winter.  Beijingers pay attention to AQI in conjunction with the weather, to see whether they should don their face masks and limit their outdoor activity.  Quite regretfully, it has not yet become as mainstream in Taiyuan, where the air quality is often on par with Beijing.

After weeks of seeing inconsistent numbers among different sources, I realized that I had no idea what the AQI actually was measuring.  I knew that raw data for emissions consisted of pollution concentrations, masses, and volumes–so what exactly is this unitless number, AQI? How does it relate to actual pollution measurements? Can you convert AQI to volumes or concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter), PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter), NOx (nitrogen oxides), SO2, or other pollutants in the air? I also realized that this is basic knowledge for someone studying air pollution in China, and I lacked legitimacy and street cred because of my ignorance.  Thus, I decided to understand AQI in the method of my physics forefathers–from first principles.  (Okay, it’s not really first principles.  But a physicist can pretend.)  This blog post is for those of you who wish to understand where the AQI comes from.  I will not explain the color code, the public health implications of the different pollutants, or suggested activity level for the different levels of AQI (you can find that info here).  Instead, think of this blog post as a derivation–a very simple derivation. This derivation is a summary of the AQI calculation method by the U.S. EPA.  If you don’t like the technical mumbo-jumbo (although I tried to explain everything at a high-school math level), you can skip to the pretty graphs I made and the main conclusions I drew from this process.

Definitions and Givens:

1. Pollutant concentration measurements:
-different instruments are set up to collect air samples and physically measure SO2, NOx, PM10, PM2.5, etc.
-these instruments measure concentration, i.e. unitless proportions (e.g. parts per million) or mass per volume (e.g. micrograms per cubic meter)

2. The U.S. EPA definitions of AQI (see page 13 of this document):
-The U.S. EPA has an AQI scale from 0 to 500.  The goal is to convert the pollution concentration in #1 into a number between 0 and 500.  The AQIs of 0, 50, 100, 150,…500 are referred to as “breakpoints.”  Each AQI breakpoint corresponds to a defined pollution concentration.  The pollution concentration between the breakpoints is linearly interpolated using this equation:

I=  [(Ihi-Ilow)/(BPhi-BPlow)] (Cp-BPlow)+Ilow,

where Iis the index of the pollutant; Cp is the rounded concentration of pollutant p; BPhi is the breakpoint greater or equal to CpBPlow is the breakpoint less than or equal to Cp; Ihi is the AQI corresponding to BPhiIlow is the AQI corresponding to BPlow.  For better formatting, context, and the actual concentration definitions of the AQI, see page 13 of this document.  This equation is very simple, despite all the confusing-looking subscripts and terrible WordPress formatting! The index Ip has a linear relationship with the concentration Cp, with [(Ihi-Ilow)/(BPhi-BPlow)] as the slope.  SAT math.

3. The AQI is determined by the pollutant with the highest index.  For example, if the PM2.5 AQI is 125, the PM10 AQI is 50, SO2 is 30, NOx is 50, and all other pollutants are less than 125, then the AQI is 125–determined ONLY by the concentration of PM2.5 .

With these three givens, we can interpolate and figure out to what pollution concentration the AQI corresponds. The graph below shows how each US EPA-defined AQI corresponds to single pollutant concentrations.  If you like looking at tables instead, check out this site. And if you want to calculate AQIs from concentration, check out this site.

NOTE: Because the US embassies in China only measure PM2.5, the AQIs it reports in China are based purely on PM2.5 concentrations and do not include other pollutants.  Consequently, during events such as sandstorms where pollutants other than PM2.5 are the dominating factor, the US embassy AQI reading may be artificially low.


Graph 1:This graph shows how each US EPA-defined AQI corresponds to single pollutant concentrations. Each dot represents a breakpoint. For PM10 and PM2.5 (solid lines), read the left axis. For NOx and SO2 (the dotted lines), read the right axis.  The reported AQI corresponds to the concentration level of the pollutant with the highest index.  For example, if the PM2.5 AQI is 125, the PM10 AQI is 50, SO2 is 30, NOx is 50, and all other pollutants are less than 125, then the AQI is 125–determined ONLY by the concentration of PM2.5. In addition, the US EPA does not have a short-term NOx National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), so a NOx index can only be over 200.  Note: this graph does not include all the sources of air pollution considered in AQI calculation.  Other sources include ozone and CO. Source: US EPA.

Using this interpolation method, we can also figure out the method that the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) calculates AQI.  (Note:  the Chinese index is referred to as “API,” which stands for Air Pollution Index.)  China also has the same API breakpoints as the US AQI (increments of 50 from 0 to 500), but they are defined to be different concentration levels than the US. For example, a Chinese PM2.5 index of 50 does not correspond to the same PM2.5 concentration level as a US PM2.5 index of 50 (see Graph 2).  The Yale site also includes some API standards for China, and the MEP original standards document (in Chinese) is here.  I’ve converted it into graph format because I can’t resist using Igor Pro:


Graph 2: This graph shows the disparity between US AQI calculation and China API calculation for PM2.5. Note that Chinese standards are more linear than US standards. For an API between 0 and 200, China has a laxer standard for PM2.5 than the US. The PM2.5 concentration level for AQIs at and above 200 are the same for US and China. US and Chinese standards for PM10 are the same. Source: US EPA and Chinese MEP.

Main Conclusions:

1. The AQI is calculated differently in different countries because they have different qualifications for “good,” “moderate,” “hazardous,” etc., air.  Just because the U.S. embassy AQI differs from the Chinese API in the same city doesn’t mean that one of them is falsifying their data. (Can’t point any fingers just yet.)  In addition, China’s API may differ from the US embassy-measured AQI because the US only measures PM2.5, whereas China’s API is based on measurements of several pollutants. China’s PM2.5 index calculation is currently more lax than the US; for example, API 100 on the Chinese scale has a higher pollutant concentration than AQI 100 on the US scale.  The Chinese attribute this to the fact that they are a developing country.  You can compare the live AQIs measured by the US embassy and the API measured by MEP. MEP covers more Chinese cities than the US.

2. The AQI is NOT linear.  An AQI of 200 does not mean that the pollution concentration is twice as heavy compared to an AQI of 100.

3.  From a pollution scientist’s point of view, the AQI/API is not a very useful number.  If you give me an overall AQI, I can’t break that number down into component pollutant concentrations.  I can’t rigorously conclude the source of an AQI of 300.  The AQI is designed for the general public, not for scientific purposes.  The exception is the US embassy in China’s reported AQI, which is only based on one pollution source, PM2.5.

Side Note:

People may remember from my previous post, Beijing’s AQI reached over 700 on the U.S. scale in January.  Technically, this is “beyond index”–the pollution levels have exceeded the levels for which AQI is defined.  But this air analyst has confirmed my hypothesis that after the AQI exceeds 500, the U.S. embassy simply linearly extrapolates the AQI.

*EDIT: Aug. 5, 2013, CORRECTIONS: China’s index is known as API, not AQI.  Clarifications also made about US embassy only measuring PM2.5. Thanks to Adam Century for bringing these to my attention.

Scene from Beijing


It’s old news that Beijing air quality is terrible.  The air quality index (AQI) shot through the roof this January.  A “good” AQI is anywhere between 0 and 50, and anything between 0 and 100 meets US EPA standards.  I was lucky enough to be in good ol’ BJ when the AQI exceeded 700.  I took this photo on the subway on one of those unbearable days.

Joycelyn once described living in Beijing as having “Stockholm syndrome.”

I love China.



Shanxi trains are filthy.  An odor cocktail of fresh cigarettes, layered on the stagnant stench of stale cigarettes, permeates each compartment.  On a long trip, the smell gets in your hair, your clothes, and everything you own.  If you’re unlucky and board near the end of the train’s journey, you also get a whiff of public toilet in the mix.  Despite the “禁止吸烟”—“NO SMOKING”— sign over the compartment entrance, people have been smoking in them for months, years, maybe even decades.  I have no idea how old these trains are.  The exterior is usually a dull grey and red or green that suggests history, but you doubt that anything constructed in modern China could last for very long.  They are as dubious in age as the smokers themselves, with their jet-black hair, bright black eyes, and rotting teeth.

I mostly take these trains alone.  I take them to Taigu to see friends, and I take them to Linfen to visit power plants.  I used to take the train to Datong to see cultural relics—giant stone Buddhas and Daoist temples—that the Chinese built before they decided they’d rather skimp on construction materials and build shiny things for cheap.


A moderately crowded train on the way to Datong.

Trains in China oversell tickets—after they run out of seats, they sell standing tickets.  It is undoubtedly a fire hazard.  On the overnight trains, a train employee rents out footstools so that the standing folks can sit.  One time on the six-hour train ride to Datong, the guy sitting across the aisle from me had a giant Santa sack labeled fertilizer.  It didn’t appear to be full of fertilizer.  I asked him what was in it.  Cups, he said.  Boxes and boxes of cups.  He wasn’t the only one; lots of men and women alike had giant sacks.  The overhead space wasn’t enough for the number of giant sacks.  I had about a thirty-centimeter square in the aisle to put my feet.  Every half hour the snack trolley lady would come by, knocking people’s bags and feet askew, and I would have to yank my ankles into the air.

Once I was on a train to Taigu that was both smelly and crowded.  A smelly and crowded train can be better than a train that is just smelly.  I had a seat, but it was so full that I gave up elbowing my way into the compartment and stood in the corridor with a herd of people.  But people kept squeezing into the toilet, letting the accumulated odor of hours and hours of bathroom breaks waft into the corridor.  Breathing through my shirt wasn’t enough.  I edged toward a short girl standing in front of me and breathed through her freshly shampooed hair.  It was a lot better than a spacious but stinky train ride that I shared with Amelea from Pingyao to Taigu last October.  We couldn’t avoid the smell that time and just tried to talk for forty minutes straight to distract ourselves.

But sometimes it’s not smelly or crowded.  On the four-hour trip from Taiyuan to Linfen last December, I watched as people filed out of the train in Yuci, Taigu, Pingyao.  In the last hour of the trip I could even stretch out my legs onto the seat across from me.  No one was smoking for once.  A chatty middle-aged Chinese man noticed the English-language book I was reading and remarked on my language abilities.  “Your English must be amazing,” he said.  “I studied abroad,” I lied to him.  I wanted to avoid a long conversation about Asian-Americanism that would probably devolve into stereotypes and nationalism.

“Wow,” he said.  I put my earbuds in to avoid talking to him further.  He turned to the girl next to him.  “Are you from Shanxi?” he asked.  She replied yes.  He was not.  It showed in his crisp, reedy Southern accent.  He was from Anhui Province and was traveling to Linfen on business.


The mountains on the way from Taiyuan to Datong in Shanxi.

“All these noodles up north,” he said. “I can eat rice every meal of the day.  But you Shanxi folk eat noodles.  I can’t digest these goddamn noodles.”

Goddamn noodles.  Good old Shanxi.  I could pretend to belong in Beijing—my extended family lives there, and it’s full of outsiders, migrant workers, and foreigners.  But I could never pretend to belong in Shanxi.  Thick accents and earnest peasant faces.  Fucking coal country.  Shoes smeared with dirt and ash.  Dust storms and mountains.  It never rains, but the food is swimming in vinegar.  I pay rent there, but it’s never home.  So I hop on trains and go somewhere new almost every weekend, and I never have to feel like I belong.

Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China, part 3

This post is the last in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


Me with my hosts in Linfen at the Yao Temple complex.

Xiong and his wife had been cooking dinner for me every night.  “Your parents made Yao feel at home in America,” Xiong’s wife had said to me, referring to her son.  “I want you to feel as though you’ve come home too.”

On my last night, dinner was a variety of dishes, including home-pickled longbeans, a Jiangxi specialty.  I ate a lot of it.

Xiong’s wife had smiled at my enthusiasm for the longbeans.  “They’re Yao’s favorite, too,” she said.

But now the wooden dining board was tucked neatly in the corner again, and I was curled up on the sofa, reading The Brothers Karamazov and trying to tune out the awful program that was playing on CCTV.  I think it was the children singing.

His wife was playing Spider Solitaire on the computer.  Xiong was shuffling back and forth in the room, sometimes watching TV, sometimes peeling a mandarin orange, sometimes ogling his fish.

“Tomorrow is the winter solstice,” Xiong announced suddenly.

“Tomorrow is also the end of the world,” I said.

“You know what you have to do on the winter solstice,” Xiong said.

“No, what do you have to do on the winter solstice?” I asked, looking up from my book.

“You have to eat dumplings, or your ears will fall off,” he replied.  “It’s a Chinese tradition.  You’re leaving tomorrow morning, so we must have dumplings for breakfast tomorrow!”

“I’m too lazy to make dumplings,” his wife said.  “Let’s just go out and buy some frozen ones.”  She got up from her computer game, and they started to put on their heavy winter gear.  She laced up her boots, and he put on his winter coat.

I stood up.  “Don’t go out into the cold for my sake,” I said.  “I don’t need dumplings.”

They laughed and continued dressing anyway.  “Who says the dumplings are for you?” Xiong said, smiling at me as they left.  “We want our ears.”


It was warm in my room.  That night, I contemplated sleeping naked—a luxury that I allowed myself all too frequently in China, especially when I’d allowed myself that that other luxury, drinking.

I was sober tonight, but that didn’t stop me from flinging my clothes off like a tipsy college student.  My socks were stained with coal dust from the plant tour.  I stood in my slippers against the cold tile floor.  The city was quiet.  I peered outside before closing my curtains—in the city lights, I could still see the fog swirling beneath me in a grey-amber glow.  But if I closed my eyes and slipped into bed, I could imagine myself back in pastoral Ohio.