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.
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.
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.
Today, I found myself at one of the most dismal places I have ever been in my life.
I went with my adviser and two of my labmates to Duerping Coal Mine. Duerping is about thirty minutes outside of Taiyuan. It’s been in operation since 1956. Last year, according to people at the mine, they produced 5 millions tonnes of coal, and they expect the mine still has 40-50 more years of coal to go. It’s a state-owned enterprise, under the large umbrella of Xishan Coal and Electricity Power, which is according to Wikipedia, is the largest coking coal production enterprise in China and the second largest in the world.
I told my adviser, Professor Cao, that I wanted to see a mine. Because my adviser is the best, he contacted a former classmate of his who is now a bigshot at Duerping, and he drove me and two labmates, Leili and Xiao Deng, out to the mine this morning. The apartment skyscrapers of Taiyuan gradually changed into shorter, more decrepit buildings. I watched the faded blue-grey smog of Taiyuan descend into denser, purer white-grey. I saw houses that resembled shittily built 四合院 (traditional Chinese courtyard), hastily painted an ugly teal, smeared with black coal dust. Piles of unfinished, trashlike construction lay on every other corner—a common sight in China, but somehow uglier than I’d ever seen it. Cao pulled into the mine parking lot. We got out of the car to squint into the smog-swathed mountains toward the mine.
“This is typical coal community architecture,” Xiao Deng said knowledgeably to me as we looked around us.
“What does that mean?”
“Everything is smeared with black,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Yep.”
Cao’s friend Xie arranged for the coal propaganda department to give us a tour. The word “propaganda”–宣传, xuanchuan–has a different connotation than it does in English. There’s no element of conspiracy or manipulation in xuanchuan like there is in propaganda, and in some contexts, it simply means the same thing as publicity. We got two ladies as our guides, one of them holding a giant video camera that she didn’t know how to use. She kept pointing it at us randomly for a few seconds, and then at the ground. I couldn’t tell what she was trying to film. The other girl was wearing a green dress and was pretty cute, especially against the backdrop of smoke and smog. Focus on the bright things in this place, I thought to myself. I kept coughing into my coat. We were only half an hour outside of Taiyuan, and I couldn’t breathe anymore. She was the only brightly colored thing against the grey landscape. Even I blended in with the surroundings with my beige coat.
“Xiao Chenrr here”—that’s what Cao calls me in his thick Datong accent, it’s a nickname that perhaps translates best to “Young Chen”—“is from America,” he told the propaganda ladies. “I guess the air is a lot better there. We don’t cough here anymore, we’re used to this.”
The propaganda ladies chuckled halfheartedly. They took us into a hallway with panels of large Communist-style posters with lots of happy touched-up photos of scenes from around the mine.
“Here’s our dangmama, 党妈妈,” the cute one said, pointing to a picture of a seventy-year-old woman sitting in a throne-like chair surrounded by young smiling faces. I’d never heard that phrase before, but it meant exactly what it sounded like—Party Mama. A matronly model citizen is glorified by the Party.
“She used to bring rice porridge out to the miners,” she said. A Molly Pitcher type, I thought to myself. Molly Porridge.
“Wow! And people still visit her even now?” Cao said. I had to admire Cao’s enthusiasm.
“Yes, workers will visit her and bring gifts on major holidays,” our tour guide replied.
We walked to the entrance of the mine.
“It used to be a lot cruder than this to go down into the mine,” the cute tour guide said. “Now it’s kind of like an amusement park ride.”
It looked like a ski lift into hell. A bunch of benches on lifts rotated around and descended into darkness. I tried to peer into the depths.
“Have you ever been down in the mine?” Cao asked the cute tour guide.
“Yes, one time I took reporters from Xinhua News Agency down there,” she said.
“How cold is it down there?” I asked. No stupid questions.
“They need what you’re wearing, plus another coat,” she said, and we all laughed. What a hoot, coal miners and their outerwear.
“But women don’t usually get to go down into the mine,” she said. She’s a badass, I thought to myself. I’d wanted to go down into the mine. Except not really, I was barely able to breathe as it was. “Women usually pick rocks out of the coal conveyor belt,” she said, pointing above us at a storage area.
“What?” I said. I didn’t hear her right because that job sounded like the stupidest thing I had ever heard.
“If you have rocks in with the coal, your coal won’t burn with as high of an efficiency,” she explained.
Nope, I heard her right. And she had to fucking explain to me that having rocks in your coal will make your energy efficiency lower. Thank God she didn’t know that I had an Oberlin physics education. Look at me, failed intellectual elitist, I thought to myself.
After the tour was over, the tour guides took us back to Xie’s office. He called some lady from next door to pour tea for us. I was a bit confused about that. Who was that lady? She was wearing a nice pantsuit, and he was also yanking her around like some sort of housekeeper. Pantsuit don’t deserve that, dude. I didn’t have time to dwell on her, though, because then came the elaborate song-and-dance number that is a Chinese invitation to lunch.
“Just stay a little longer, have some lunch with me,” Xie said.
“No, we’ve been taking advantage of your hospitality for far too long,” Cao said.
“We never see each other, what’s a little lunch between friends?” Xie said.
“We’ve been too much trouble already,” Cao said.
They talked about their kids for a little while. Xie’s kid went to Tsinghua, one of the top two elite universities in China. The government throws money at it. You’re a big deal if you go there. Everyone was impressed with Xie’s kid. Then it recommenced.
“Come on, just stay for some lunch,” Xie said.
“I really couldn’t,” Cao said.
We talked for a little bit about coal mines in China. Xie says that the recent 18th Party Congress is probably going to relax regulations on mines more. I asked him what regulations or pollution controls they had on the mine.
“We don’t really have pollution controls,” he said. “You see the big silo where we keep the coal? That used to be open to the air. I suppose that is our pollution control. We put a lid on that thing.”
“Mmm,” I said.
Xie started inviting us to lunch again.
“Come on, let’s eat some lunch,” he said, getting up.
“We really can’t,” Cao said. Xie dragged him toward the door, and we all followed.
“We really shouldn’t be such a burden to you,” Cao said, allowing himself to be coerced to lunch.
“It’s no burden,” Xie said as the rest of us stumbled after him to the restaurant.
It looked like it was the one nice restaurant in this mining community. There was a wedding going on outside of the restaurant, with a line of people beating drums in ceremony. Who’s getting married in this mess, I thought to myself. Maybe today’s the day that I see a lump of coal wearing a dress. I hope she’s not wearing white, she’ll be Miss Havisham grey by the end of the ceremony.
“If you’re lucky, you might even get to see the bride,” my labmate Leili said to me. She seemed excited about it. Chinese girls are always excited about weddings. Chinese girls always force me into making generalizations about them.
“I don’t give a shit,” I thought to myself.
After the tour, when we were drinking tea in Xie’s office, he’d asked me, “这地方不错吧?” which means, “Nice place, right?”
One thing I’ve learned in China is how to lie between my teeth. American living isn’t that much more luxurious than living in China. How did you know that I like racist jokes? I’m not gay.
“Yep,” I said, and I drank to that.
It’s getting cold in Shanxi. It’s starting to reach that temperature where my morning ritual includes me debating whether to wear long underwear.
I took these photos in early October, when I could still go outside in only a sweater. It was still that point in my Chinese life that I remembered to carry a camera. These days, I haphazardly hop on buses and go places and never remember to bring my camera. In related news, whenever I go to Taigu to visit the Shansi fellows these days, I will often forget to bring pajamas, but I’ll never forget the beer. Priorities.
I should probably write more. But I also should go to bed. What a life, to be an expat in China.
Yesterday I was eating dinner with Rachel, an expat most recently from the good old Bay Area, and our friend Sui Nan, who is a Taiyuan native. Sui Nan works 12-hour days five days a week at a bank, and she’s currently studying to take her masters exam in January, so sometimes it’s hard to pin her down. Despite her hectic and seemingly soul-sucking work schedule, she is bubbly and overly hyper all the time. She is obsessed with Spongebob Squarepants (the Chinese translation, 海面娃娃 haimianwawa, means something like “sponge baby” or “sponge doll”) and likes to put fresh fruit in coffee. Anyway, yesterday Rachel and I told her that lemon and milk curdle when mixed. So there we were, in Rachel’s living room, Sui Nan sipping on a mug full of coffee with half a lemon and milk.
I was trying to grill Sui Nan about what the hell there is to do in Taiyuan. I haven’t figured out what the hell I can do in this ginormous city. I’d seen signs for a vinegar factory.
“Have you been to the vinegar factory?”
“Nope, but I’ve been to the liquor factory,” Sui Nan said, while poking the lemon around in her mug.
The famous baijiu in Taiyuan is called 汾酒 (fenjiu), named after the river Fen (汾河). I’ve had it maybe three times and enjoyed it once, but my standards for all alcohol have been shattered here. I drank a Corona here two days ago, it was the fucking best.
“Why did you go to the liquor factory?”
“I was on a middle school field trip.”
Rachel and I both stared at her.
“How old were you?” I asked.
Sui Nan then explained that once, her middle school took her an hour out of town to visit a Sino-Japanese war hero’s grave.
“It was very far away, so they wanted to make the trip worthwhile,” she said. “The liquor factory was on the way. So we went to the liquor factory too.”