I love China, I really do. But I get the feeling that I might just die here. And I don’t mean, “I love it so much I’ll stay here until I’m so old I keel over.” No, I mean that in spite of China’s awesomeness, it’s basically a big death trap.
For the past two or three weeks I have been unable to stop coughing. I feel that my lungs are filled with junk. Maybe it’s the pollution. Hefei is phenomenally polluted. The only city I’ve visited that was worse was Beijing. Even Korea and Taiwan didn’t seem this bad. I read in a textbook (and I’ve no idea how accurate it was) that nearly 700,000 people a year die from pollution in China.
Much of the pollution comes from cars and buses, which seem to have absolutely no restrictions placed upon them. The buses are the worst. They pump out thick black plumes, and sometimes, if you’re inside the bus, there is a hole in the floor through which the smoke comes. I’ve seen people keel over and I’m never sure if they’re sleeping or dying from the toxins.
These buses and cars are death traps, also, because they’re made so poorly. I’ve been on buses with sides made of cardboard and holes in the floor through which you can see the passing tarmac. Also, people in China just can’t drive. The aim of driving here is to go as fast as possible and stop suddenly, always switching lanes blindly and keeping one hand firmly pressed to the horn. I have begun getting motion sick on Chinese roads like I only do on boats.
On the street there are also huge piles of trash. People dump their food trash and their bins of shitty used toilet paper into these big piles. The piles are swarming with rats, cockroaches, stray dogs and old people. When it gets too big someone comes along and sets fire to it.
They like fire around here. In the spring the farmers burn their waste and the smoke settles over the city. Apparently the people can hardly breathe during those months. I’ve seen farmers perform their “controlled burns” all over the place. It involves setting fire to something they don’t want right next to something someone presumably does want, and then trying to beat out the flames before they spread.
I think that fire is probably the most likely way I’ll die in China. I’m lucky to live on the second floor of my building. If need be I could jump out and escape with broken ankles at worst. My friends above me are trapped. There are no fire escapes in China, no fire alarms, no fire extinguishers… Actually, there are a few fire extinguishers. I witnessed a fire drill last week in my building. There was no alarm, but someone went around banging on all the doors, telling the students to get out. When everyone was outside (about an hour later) they tested the four or five extinguishers by setting arbitrary fires around the building and extinguishing them.
Satisfied with their Chinese fire drill, the men put the extinguishers back.
There’s also a surprisingly good chance of getting food poisoning. I’m the only person I know who hasn’t gotten it yet. Korea toughened me up. I have an iron stomach. But in China they use human excrement as fertilizer. Eating juicy produce like watermelon or tomato is a dangerous business. You can get all kinds of diseases from these things. They like to hang up meat and leave it for days. This meat sits in the street beside the piles of trash and excrement, by the rats and cockroaches. In the winter it’s not so bad because the cold slows the spread of germs, but in the summer it festers. Summer always makes a dirty place intolerable.
The heat also brings mosquitoes, and around here the mosquitoes carry malaria. No one told me that before I came here, so I never got any shots or meds. I’d go to a Chinese hospital… but I fear that nowhere in China is as life-threatening as a hospital. Even in relatively advanced South Korea I was always presented with the most foul rooms and dirty needles and doctors who felt the cure to all sickness lay in the anus. Around here I’d probably end up getting something amputated by a drunken halfwit in a stained white coat.
The water is not potable, either. I even have to feed my cats bottles water. I’m afraid of getting cholera or some such hideous affliction. Recently, in a town not too far away, 200 schoolchildren fell seriously ill after getting lead poisoning. Their water was tainted by the waste pumped into the ground at nearby battery factories.
Of course, there’s always the chance of being executed. My friends say they don’t do that sort of thing to foreigners, but my friends don’t have my luck. I made the mistake of teaching my students about satire last month, and one of them told me after class to be careful. “You can get executed for that in China,” he said. I laughed and said that I wouldn’t, but I do need to be careful. I’m not good at keeping out of trouble.
Less likely is the threat of road bandits – who apparently run riot in the southern provinces; getting caught up in the huge uprisings that regularly occur around places like Sichuan (and which are brutally suppressed before the outside world gets to hear a thing); gang violence related to drug-running on the borders with Pakistan and Burma; and even piracy on the high seas. At least these things are exciting. I wouldn’t mind being killed by pirates.
Having said all that, I’ve spent most of my life in Scotland: risking heart disease or getting glassed, knifed or bottled on the way home. I’ve also lived in America where I constantly feared being shot, and in Korea where there always lingered the threat of war, wild boar, and the world’s most aggressive geriatrics. I’ve stumbled upon giant lizards in Malaysia, been paralysed in the Philippines, and had my plane crash in Japan.
It’s a dangerous world. I could list a number of oft-used (on Facebook, at least) quotes about living life to the fullest and not fearing death… In the end, even though I’m afraid to use any of them because they have become so cliched that they sound meaningless, there is wisdom in all of them. We could, after all, die at any moment.