Tagged: Shanxi

Goal Assessment

“Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later.” -Evan Osnos


I’m leaving China in 8 days.  The Evan Osnos quote is a cop-out way of me saying, I could have posted so much more on this blog these past ten months.  In fact, I’ve actually filled an entire journal with stories, ramblings, and feelings that I haven’t had time to fully process. In other words, even though I won’t physically be in China after July 19, I will still be updating this blog because I think I covered about five percent of what I learned and experienced.

I went back and looked over some of the posts I’d written.  It was a considerably less embarrassing experience than looking over my middle school Xanga. I came across a gem of a post (well, really, weren’t they all gems?) where I set myself some extracurricular goals. Let’s see how I did:

1) Brew beer using a hot plate.

I did this many times with several different Taigu cohorts to varying degrees of success (failure?). For beer snobs: we made an extremely dry Christmas beer (we argued over the name but I stand by my choice, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”), and three unnamed beers: an IPA with a nice hop profile but no carbonation, and two porters. None of them were carbonated enough and everything was vaguely medicinal.  But they all got you drunk!

2) Visit Huangshan and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

I didn’t go to Huangshan, but I did visit Tiger Leaping Gorge–with some family friends, Amelea, and V over Chinese New Year.  We were in the throes of an awful Chinese tour.  We only got to go to the tourist-ified part of the gorge, but it was still absolutely beautiful.

3) Convert a Chinese man into a feminist.

This is a very long story that I have failed to document properly for seven months, but here’s a teaser: I met a 22-year-old round-faced Shanxi village boy on the train, and even though he’s a huge chauvinist by Oberlin standards, he listens, and now he has a gay friend.

4) Hit up a Chinese gay bar.

I didn’t go to a Chinese gay bar. But I did go to a Chinese bar and act gay. Maybe that counts.

5) Do a wedding photoshoot.
5a) Convince a dude to be in my wedding photoshoot.

Yeah, this didn’t happen. The closest I got to this was my friend’s entire extended family mistaking me for his betrothed. Cultural hilarity ensued, including an episode where his mother tried to dress me in one of her turtlenecks because she thought I was cold. But too many weird gender issues surfaced. To be continued.

6) Revisit Hooters in Sanlitun in Beijing.

I did not revisit Hooters. I am not sure that it is still open in Beijing. I suppose I still have time to meet this goal because I’m flying out of Beijing and will be there a few days before my flight, but at this point in my life, Hooters no longer seems important.

7) Become less terrible at basketball.

I think I touched a basketball once.  I think that’s more contact with a basketball than I had in all of 2011. Goal met!

4.5/7. That’s almost 65%!

My Taiyuan Expat Life


A few weekends ago, like I do many weekends here, I took the train down to Taigu to visit the Shansi fellows.  As usual, we were hollering at each other at dinner over Tsingtaos and noodles, when someone brought up once again how they couldn’t imagine how I could stand living in Taiyuan.

“What do you mean?” I shouted, banging my beer on the table.  “I’m going to have my honeymoon there!”

I shouted that for dramatic effect.  Taiyuan is not for lovers.  A Taiyuan honeymoon is even more absurd than an Ohio honeymoon.  At least in Ohio, you’re guaranteed clean air with your game of cornhole and your footlong hot dog.  A Taiyuan honeymoon would probably consist of a visit to the provincial museum to be reminded of Shanxi’s glorious mercantile past, a dinner full of at least three different types of noodles, and a smoggy walk down Liu Xiang, Taiyuan’s brightly lit shopping district.  The area is crammed with young couples—girls, faking their melancholy in fluffy skirts, leaning on wide-eyed skinny boys who carry their purses.  A Starbucks opened there a few months ago.  I think it’s right next to the 李先生 (MISTER LEE) beef noodle chain restaurant, although I’ve stopped keeping track of the various chain restaurants.  Their signs all look like they use the same font, and they often have mascots with men who look like ethnic Colonel Sanders.

On bad days, I would tell you that the only bright side to a Taiyuan honeymoon would be the reassurance that your marriage can probably sink no further.  The city gives a dull first impression.  Facing the train station is Yingze Boulevard, lined with mid-range skyscrapers, honking cars, and big-bellied men advertising rides to surrounding cities.  Someone told me that part of the street had collapsed in March, perhaps related to land subsidence due to nearby mining.  Supposedly the Shanxi millionaire coal barons live in Taiyuan.  Sometimes while waiting for the bus, I try to peer into the tinted windows of the luxury cars zipping by for glimpse of the slick-haired men inside.  Taiyuan can feel sprawling:  when I want to buy cheese, I have to commute by bus for almost an hour.  But it can also feel like an overgrown village, with its slow daily pace; almost everybody takes an afternoon nap.  Even though I am surrounded by foreigners because I live in the foreign student dorm at my university, the city has few of them and even fewer establishments that cater to them.  This makes for better cultural immersion but inevitably becomes stifling.  Sometimes I just need to throw back a (western) beer and pretend I’m not in China.

When I first arrived in Taiyuan, I was determined to forge a fulfilling social life.  Chris, one of the Jamaican exchange students downstairs, took me to the guitar school across the street.  We formed a hodge-podge band with Li, the guitar teacher, and a few of his guitarist friends.  I played on a decrepit keyboard while Chris played the bass in Li’s office, which was a giant studio with an electric drum set and many guitars hanging on the walls.  The guitarists would take turns playing with us while the rest of them chain-smoked and drank tea on the sofas in the corner of the studio.  Usually Chris led, but sometimes he’d make me pick the chord progression because he would get bored with himself, I think.  I would get nervous trying to remember the jazz standards I’d learned at Oberlin and resort to playing blues derivatives or “Autumn Leaves.”

One time after rehearsal, we went to karaoke, which meant that everyone except Chris and I sang Chinese-language pop songs and chain-smoked on the sofa in our private room.  I tried to get Chris to sing Beyonce with me, but we didn’t know any of the same songs.  Instead, I sang Christina Aguilera’s new single because Jing, one of the younger guitarists with a haircut resembling jets of water from a fountain, had told me that he thought she was “sexy.”  At dinner, he once took out his iPad to show me photos he’d saved of her.   I was not sure whether to be offended.  He and Chris would often make pidgin sex jokes by incorporating hand gestures and snippets of Chinese and English phrases, so I thought that maybe we could bond over some crude humor.  But the music video turned out to be too sexual for him, or maybe he thought I was too much of a girl to laugh at my dirty jokes.  Most of the video consisted of Christina, in false eyelashes and leopard print tights, grinding on various male hipsters before she killed them in an explosion of glitter and neon paint.  I sang awkwardly while Jing smoked his cigarette, his eyes averted.

We stayed out until 3 a.m., which confused me because several of the guitar teachers were middle-aged men with families.  Li dropped Chris and me off at the school gate.  Because it was so late, the gate was locked, so we had to climb over it to get to our respective dorms.  As I put on my pajamas, I pondered whether I had found my community in Taiyuan.  I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.

After about a month and a half, it became evident that the members of our band did not have the same taste in music.  The guitarists liked Chinese pop and occasional cerebral crap; Chris liked R&B, and I realized the impossibility of learning bluegrass tunes with a keyboard, electric guitars, and an electric drum set.  I also could never hear myself playing over the loud guitars and would instinctively lean my right ear over the keyboard before realizing that all the sound was being emitted by an amplifier across the room.  Soon after that, I left for a conference in Beijing, and on my return to Taiyuan, I never played with them again.

This spring, my adviser introduced me to one of his students, a girl named Xiao, who helped me collect heating data for my research.  Xiao was from a county near Linfen, and she was a very composed and wise 21-year old.  We would meet in the school cafeteria and have two-hour-long conversations over bowls of rice congee and fried dumplings.  I am not a huge fan of rice congee, but I became a huge fan of Xiao.  She was the most articulate student I’d met in Taiyuan, and we would talk at length about politics, feminism, and literature.  I also noticed that she somehow made fluffy lace skirts work for her.

The first time we met, she had just taken a Mandarin exam.  Because China has so many dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible, students are required to pass a Mandarin exam.

“How did you do?” I asked her jokingly.  She was so eloquent with her literary references and fancy conjunctions that it was making my head spin.

“I did okay,” she replied, smiling.

We would talk intensely about history or politics for a while, but then I’d make a stupid joke about her love of congee or my lack of cultural sensitivity, and she’d laugh and say “嗯, 明白”—which was her equivalent of rolling her eyes and saying “…Right.”  After each of our congee-fueled evenings, I would have to restrain myself from texting her because I wanted to ask her to hang out all the time.  Her texts were full of disgusting emoticons along the lines of ~^^o.O, but along with her fluffy skirts, I forgave her for them.  She was my spring beacon, shining through the Taiyuan smog.

However, after about two weeks, I realized that I did not illuminate Xiao’s life like she did mine.  She had exams all the time, and we stopped hanging out, which I tried but failed not to take personally.  One night, after we had rescheduled coffee for the third time, my neighbor, Bastian, invited me to go out with some Taiyuan friends and his friend visiting from Germany.  Bastian was determined to show his German friend a good time.  He had procured three giant bottles of liquor for the night.  While pouring shots of Smirnoff for the six of us, Bastian, who is half-German, half-Taiyuanese, explained that his uncle, who works for a construction company in Taiyuan, has a giant cabinet full of western liquor for entertaining possible business partners.  Thus, he supplies Bastian with large quantities of alcohol.  This is convenient because liquor is an essential part of the expat diet.  I took several shots and decided to abandon common sense for the night.

The night would be my first and only clubbing experience in Taiyuan.  We took a cab to Bonbon—“the only club in Taiyuan that plays good music,” James from Jamaica described it.  He later expounded that that meant it was the only club in Taiyuan that played English-language music.  Everyone purchased the all-you-can-drink Budweiser special and started chain-smoking.  I had never seen any of them smoke before, but being in a club makes all vices seem like a good idea.  For the third time that night, Bastian offered me one of his very slim, womanly cigarettes, and this time I didn’t refuse it.

I spotted a Chinese girl smiling at me from a nearby table.  In retrospect, it might have been because I was with a large group of foreigners.  She was wearing a black-and-white-striped top and had a bob haircut.  She had very pretty eyes, which was enough for me.  I approached her table to pretend to have a conversation.  The dance music was so loud that she could scarcely hear me even when I was shouting in her ear.

“Where are you from,” she yelled into my ear.

“I’m an exchange student at TYUT,” I shouted back.

“TYUT, huh,” she said.

“Yeah,” I yelled back.  She raised her Budweiser to me.  We drank to each other.

I pretended that she was another beacon, shining through the beery mist in my brain.  I allowed myself to forget my doubt about her sexual orientation and asked her to dance.  She refused me but offered me a cigarette.  The Budweiser was clouding my judgment, so I allowed her to light it for me.  While I was trying to not choke on the cigarette, I turned to her guy friend, who I’d determined was gay because he’d asked me for Bastian’s number.

“I like your friend!” I yelled at him. “What’s up with her?”

“Just talk to her!” he yelled back.

With her friend’s blessing and Budweiser coursing through my body, I decided that the best way to see if she liked me was to try to sit on her lap.  She immediately jumped out of her seat.  I still had enough sense to be mortified, so I ran off and started dancing behind Bastian.

After I recovered slightly from the sting of rejection, I skulked back toward her table to find that she and her friends had left.  Trying not to feel dejected, I decided to take a cab home alone.  I figured that I had used up all my luck for the night, and I’d definitely drunk my money’s worth in Budweiser.  I emerged from my cab, managed to climb over the locked school gate, and stumbled into bed.  I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.

The next day, I think I had lunch with Kate, a fifty-something-year-old English teacher who lived two doors down from me.  This past year, Kate has jolted me out of my downward spirals and has served as a voice of reason.

Coincidentally, Kate was an Oberlin graduate.  Back in the U.S., she’d been a tax and estates lawyer in Chicago, but she had been teaching English in Taiyuan for the past two years.  She’d come here because as a Baha’i, she wanted to help create and support the budding Baha’i communities in Shanxi.  She was the chillest person I had ever met.  After graduating from college, she had been a Watson Fellow in the Caribbean, and I think she had rid herself of expat anxiety then.  She tried to learn Chinese when she first arrived, but by the time I’d met her, two years into teaching in Taiyuan, she’d resigned herself to only knowing basic phrases and communicating mostly through amiable body language.  She was comfortable with comprehending 10% of most conversations she had and managed to be present without having to open her mouth.  She laughed off insensitive or racist comments and completely overlooked common Chinese habits often repulsive to expats, such as public spitting, strangers shouting nonsensical English at her, and nonexistent traffic etiquette. While I am leaving Taiyuan for Tucson after less than a year here, Kate recently committed to teaching a fourth year in Taiyuan next year.

During our conversations, she spoke barely above a whisper—I always leaned in to listen.

She told me, way back in the beginning when we first met, the secret to living here:  “You can be pissed, or you can be amused.  I choose to be amused.”

I made a note of her words in my journal but could have done better to keep them in my head.

Sulfur dioxide emissions in China

Sulfur dioxide is a component of air pollution that leads to the formation of smog and acid rain and can cause some nasty respiratory illnesses.  Shit’s bad news.  The burning of coal makes up 90% of sulfur dioxide emissions. I’m currently researching sulfur dioxide emissions at a particular power plant in Linfen, but in addition to that, I’ve been compiling data on macro-level sulfur dioxide.  Here are some lovely graphs and tables for everyone’s edification and a brief context for that staple of the planned economy, the five-year economic plan of China.

China’s sulfur dioxide emissions from 2005-2010 are as follows:

Year              Sulfur dioxide (tonnes)
2005              25,494,000
2006              25,888,000
2007              24,681,000
2008             23,212,000
2009              22,144,000
2010              21,851,000


Please note that the y-axis does NOT start at 0.

The highest sulfur dioxide emitting provinces in 2010 are as follows:

Province                  sulfur dioxide (tonnes (2010))
1. Shandong              1,538,000
2. Inner Mongolia      1,394,000
3. Henan                    1,339,000
4. Shanxi                   1,249,000
5. Hebei                      1,234,000


Please note that here, as well, the y-axis does NOT start at 0.

The highest sulfur dioxide emitting provinces in 2010 per capita, however, are as follows:

Province                  sulfur dioxide (tonnes per capita (2010))
1. Ningxia                  0.055
2. Inner Mongolia      0.052
3. Xinjiang                0.028
4. Shanxi                   0.026
5. Jilin                        0.021

As usual, the significant figures are iffy because I don’t know the uncertainty on the data that I have.  Notice all the provinces are in the north. Ahh, bless the north with its bountiful noodles, gangly demographics, and sulfur dioxide! Also, after an admittedly not thorough literature search, it is unclear to me why these provinces are the most emitting per capita.  Some papers claim it is linearly related to GDP per capita, which makes sense, but I’m not going to pretend that I did any research into whether or why Ningxia has a high GDP per capita.  But then some papers say that there is no correlation.  I just know that Ningxia is known for its grapes.  We all know that…people working in the grape industry…need to burn coal…ok, I’m pulling this out of my ass.  I doubt that grape production is correlated with sulfur dioxide, but perhaps that is a masters thesis waiting to be written! You’re welcome, hypothetical graduate student!

To put these numbers in rough context, the data I got from my power plant in Linfen says that pre-scrubbing, the sulfur content of the total coal burned per day is on average 100 tonnes.  That means that if all of that sulfur is converted to sulfur dioxide, the mass is around 200 tonnes. But if we assume the desulfurization equipment can get rid of 90% of the sulfur dioxide, that means that a single, modern 600MW power plant emits about 20 tonnes of sulfur dioxide per day.  So China’s total sulfur dioxide emissions per year is EQUIVALENT to about the SO2 emissions of 3000 power plants of the specs I’ve assumed above.

China realized on paper that they needed curb their emissions during the tenth five-year plan (2000-2005).  In the tenth five-year plan for energy conservation and emissions reduction (节能减排第十五规划), they set a target to reduce SOby 10% compared to 2000 levels, but sulfur dioxide emissions actually increased 42% during that period.  They fucked that one up, but many people probably got shiny BMWs out of all of it.

They did better during the eleventh five-year plan (2005-2010).  They actually reduced SO2 by 14% from 2005 levels!  This is especially impressive because the economy was developing and electricity generation actually grew by nearly 80% in this time period.  Flue-gas desulfurization (FGD), or scrubbers, were installed on 86% of all power plants by the end of 2010, compared with 14% by the end of 2005. Schreifels’s paper (see below) cites six factors for the reduction in emissions:  (1) the instruments used to outline the goal, (2) the political commitment to enforce the emission targets, (3) Central government accountability for provincial and local officials and power company executives, (4) verification of emission measurements by the Central government, (5) greater government focus at all levels on the SO2 goal, and (6) revised policies and programs that placed an emphasis on performance and incentives. I’m not going to write out all the details because really you should read the paper, because it’s awesome. It’s quite specific about how incentives, enforcement, and better coordination between governmental bureaus have curbed SO2 emissions.


Basically everything on the history of policy is from this article and this article, and all my numbers from the China Environmental Statistical Yearbook. The most recent data I could get was from 2010. Full citation below:

Schreifels, J.J., Fu, Y., Wilson, E. J. Sulfur dioxide control in China: policy evolution during the 10th and 11th Five-year Plans and lessons for the future. Energy Policy, September 2012.

Gao, C., Huaqiang, Y., Ai, N., Huang, Z. Historical Analysis of SO2 Pollution Control Policies in China. Environmental Management, January 2009.

Chinese coal production

Time for some more graphs.  Since I did coal consumption many months ago, why not do coal production?



Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shaanxi are the top coal-producing provinces by far.  Collectively, they produced over 67% of China’s coal in 2012.  Shanxi and Inner Mongolia produced 54% of China’s coal in 2012.

Cultural lesson: why have my y-axis in units of 10,000 tonnes of coal? Because in Chinese, you don’t count based on thousands, millions, and billions (factors of 1000.). You count in factors of 10000, known as wan, 万。I just copied all of it from China Data Online so it’s still in these units out of laziness, I suppose you could say.

You can actually find this information in the Coal Museum in Taiyuan(煤炭博物馆), a convenient ten-minute walk from my home on Yingze Dajie, just west of the Fen River.  I think it is the only useful I thing I learned from the coal museum, although the 3D movie is nice; it sprays water at you to simulate dinosaurs spitting during the naissance of coal formation.


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.



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.