I spent April 4, Qingming Festival, in Beijing with family. Qingming is one of many holidays when the Chinese government pretends to give you time off—you get three days of rest so that you can travel, but then you have to make up two of them by working for seven days in a row.
Qingming is a multi-purpose holiday. First of all, it is the first day of the fifth solar term on one of China’s many calendars. This particular calendar year is divided into 24 solar terms, which farmers have used for centuries as a rough timeline for when to plant and harvest crops. In addition, Qingming has become a memorial for this guy named Jie from the 600s BC. Jie was so loyal that during a famine, he cut off a piece of his own leg to make soup for the Duke of Jin. The story goes on, but I don’t know it because I got distracted after the leg-meat eating.
I know Qingming best as Tomb-Sweeping Holiday—a day to honor your ancestors. Traditionally, everybody cleans the ancestral tomb and offers food, incense, and paper, which symbolizes money, to the dead. But these days, because the holiday is so short, many people skip tomb-sweeping to go on vacation.
“You should go tomb-sweeping with your aunt,” my dad told me over Skype, when I talked to him about my Qingming plans. “She does this very traditional ritual; you’d find it interesting.”
My dad gets along well with his sister, although both of them think the other is crazy. My dad is hyper-rational, and my aunt is hyper-religious. She believes in demons and warns me regularly about the apocalypse. Every time I see her, she tries to convert me to her neo-Buddhist religion. Before my fellowship, I’d cumulatively spent probably little more than a week of my life hanging out with her, but since September, I’ve seen her every time I go to Beijing. We often have intense conversations. Sometimes we discuss my family’s history during the Cultural Revolution, and sometimes she goes on long diatribes about the moral degradation of my generation while I try to defend the existence of short shorts.
Despite Qingming’s long history, my aunt told me that its life as a state holiday is quite short. A Wikipedia search later told me that the government has only recognized Qingming since 2008.
“I think the government did it because Taiwan does it,” my aunt said. “We can’t let ourselves be outdone by Taiwan!”
As usual I couldn’t tell if she was being tongue-in-cheek, but I wasn’t about to get into an intense discussion over this one. I can talk short shorts, but I’m no authority on Taiwan-mainland relations.
We went to the cemetery on the morning of April 6, a Saturday. My cousin—her son—packed the trunk of the family sedan with a broom, a dustpan, and a bag of rags. We also loaded the car with two huge plastic bags of food: dumplings, braised duck legs, sweets, steamed buns, bottles of tea, and cans of almond milk. These would be offerings to our relatives. The five of us—my cousin’s wife at the wheel and him as co-pilot; my aunt, my twelve-year-old niece, and me crammed in the back seat—set off toward Huairou, one of the villages adjacent to Beijing, where my grandparents and uncle are buried in the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
Despite that my dad was born and raised in Beijing, his family is from Fujian Province in the south. His parents and uncle were born in Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian, and moved to Beijing before my dad was born. I’d met all of them, but barely—when I’d seen my grandmother, she was bedridden after a stroke before her death in 2000; my grandfather died in 2009, but since I could remember, he’d had varying degrees of dementia; my uncle died in 2010 from stomach cancer, but I’d never had a real conversation with him.
Traditionally, they should have been buried back in Fujian in the ancestral tomb. But as my aunt keeps telling me, the tomb was destroyed. This, according to my aunt, does not bode well for the Chens.
“That’s why your father’s generation had no sons,” she told me. “The Chen name ends with you.”
I didn’t have a reply for that one either.
The traffic to the cemetery was awful. My cousin had brainstormed a convoluted route to avoid cars, but he failed, but we were stuck on the fifth ring road for an hour.
“It’s because the weather is finally nice today,” my cousin said defensively. “It rained on Qingming. I bet everyone is rushing to the tombs today because it’s sunny.”
My cousin’s wife was also a terrible driver. But she was the only one in the car who had a Chinese driver’s license. My excitement of this milestone in heritage discovery morphed in and out of terror as she almost merged onto a car in the next lane.
We finally arrived at the cemetery at noon after a three-hour drive full of hiccups. Without all the traffic, it should have taken an hour and a half. My cousin led the way toward the thousands of white stone tombs, arranged in neat rows on the side of a hill.
After about a five-minute climb, we arrived at my family’s plot. All the tombs in this particular cemetery looked about the same—gold font carved on bright white stone, erected an altar. Each couple shared a stone, with their names written vertically, preceded by some synonym of the word “benevolent.” The name of the person who had paid for the stone was inscribed in smaller characters on the side of the stone. In some instances where only one member of the couple had died, the living spouse’s name was already etched into the stone, but the characters hadn’t been painted yet. My grandparents shared a tombstone, while my uncle’s, a smaller one, sat to the right of it. His wife’s name hadn’t been carved into it yet. I don’t know what happens to people who don’t have a family. The cemetery gave the impression that all the people there came from full, intact families.
“There’s a place for your dad there,” my aunt said helpfully, pointing to the empty space to the left of my uncle’s tombstone.
We started cleaning the tombstones. The altar was covered sparsely in several months’ worth of leaves and twigs. My aunt swept while my niece and I wiped the stones off with a rag. When the tomb was clean, my cousin lit incense in handfuls of three and handed some to each of us. We took turns placing the incense in the clay pot in front of each of the tombstones.
“All right, say something to your great-granddad,” my aunt said to my niece. She looked pretty lost. We all stared at the freshly swept tomb in silence as the smoke from the incense floated above us. My aunt had explained to me that the incense is transmitted to another space that the dead inhabit.
“You can just bow,” my aunt said finally to my niece, who was still standing in front of the tombstone in confusion. My niece bowed and got out of the way.
Next, my aunt laid out the food in take-out containers around the tomb. She had specifically bought all their favorite foods—dumplings for my uncle, sweets for my grandparents, and then all the fixins for a full meal. She opened the containers—“so it’s more accessible to them,” she explained.
“Let’s go burn the paper now,” my aunt said. We left the food on the tombstones—for the dead to consume while we burned paper—and scrambled back down the mountain toward the entrance. Near the entrance of every Chinese cemetery I’ve ever visited is a large furnace for burning paper. The furnace has twelve different slots on each side, and each one represents a different zodiac sign. My aunt had prepared three post-it nametags with my relatives’ names on them, and we stuck one each above the dragon, snake, and dog slots—my grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s zodiac signs, respectively. She then divided out the giant stack of paper we’d brought among the five of us. We had fake ingots, folded out of shiny gold paper, and giant fake bills that were unfortunately labeled “HELL MONEY” in English. My cousin took out his lighter, and we started burning the paper in the furnace.
The hell money came in giant denominations, on the order of hundred thousands of RMB. “It’s because you have to bribe the demons in the afterworld to actually give the money to your relatives,” my aunt explained. “Only a little bit of the money actually goes to your grandparents. Most of it gets confiscated by the demons for their own use.”
The cemetery provided several giant pokers. I kept poking the fire while my cousin threw in gold ingots. The sky wasn’t smoggy for once. I tried to ignore my own guilt as giant plumes of smoke choked out of the furnace chimney.
After we finished burning several million RMB’s worth of hell money, we started climbing back toward the tombs to collect the food offerings we’d left. On the way back up, I noticed a giant red banner that said “FIREWORKS, FIRECRACKERS, AND INCENSE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN IN CEMETERY.” I pointed it out to my cousin.
“Oh, yeah,” my cousin said. “They’re afraid of the mountain catching fire. It’s really dry out here. But everybody does it.”
He also pointed out that vendors were selling fireworks, firecrackers, and incense just outside the cemetery gate. By now, it made sense to me. I had been in China too long to be surprised at banners with sound advice that no one follows. Beijing is full of banners that say “INCLUSIVITY,” and yet every time I go to the city I always encounter someone whom I want to punch in the face.
When we returned to the tombs, someone had eaten most of the food we’d brought. We collectively stared at the empty take-out containers.
“We brought really nice food this time,” my aunt said.
“They ate all the meat,” my cousin said.
“Someone must have followed us on the way in,” my aunt said. “Someone was watching us and waiting for us to leave!”
She was right. My grandparents’ tomb was tucked away in a grid of other completely identical tombs on a hill. It was not easy to find. We had even gotten lost on the way in. But she didn’t seem upset that someone had just eaten the only meal my dead grandparents and uncle would probably get this year.
“Is this weird?” I asked.
“No, people do this all the time,” she said. “It’s probably the cemetery keepers. It used to be worse because people were so poor; they wouldn’t leave anything. Now they’re picky and only eat the fancy food.”
Whoever had plundered my family tomb had generously left us a can of sweetened coconut milk and the box of steamed buns. My niece drank the coconut milk. Children are supposed to consume the offerings because the ancestors will protect whoever eats them. But maybe my ancestors are accidentally watching over some douche bag grave robbers.
We packed everything up, got back in the car, and my cousin’s wife drove us back to Beijing in terrible traffic again. Maybe the ancestors were protecting me, or maybe I was a bit delirious from the hell money fumes, but I felt peaceful on the ride back. Amidst the jerking of the car, the honking horns, and my cousin periodically shouting at his wife for narrowly hitting several cars, I fell asleep.
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.
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:
Ip = [(Ihi-Ilow)/(BPhi-BPlow)] (Cp-BPlow)+Ilow,
where Ip is the index of the pollutant; Cp is the rounded concentration of pollutant p; BPhi is the breakpoint greater or equal to Cp; BPlow is the breakpoint less than or equal to Cp; Ihi is the AQI corresponding to BPhi; Ilow 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Beijing is a motherfucking city. In the day, people are crammed everywhere, looking for ways to cut you in line. Cars race pedestrians to the crosswalk. The buses are often packed past capacity, vomiting people at each stop. Once, I accidentally elbowed a little boy in the head while I tried to squeeze out of a subway car.
But the swarms die down at night. I encountered this empty underground walkway on my way home after Mongolian food with Joseph on a Friday night. I stood here and whistled for a while.
The billboard on the right side wall says “PATRIOTISM. INNOVATION. INCLUSIVENESS. MORALITY.” The red banner overhead advertises egg tarts, tofu, and marinated duck necks.