When I first started working in China, my students laughed at my name. A day or two later, as I talked with my manager, I was told that my name had been a bit of a problem in the hiring process. “Our last teacher was called David,” he told me. “The Chinese didn’t want us to hire another one.”

I thought this more than a little strange. If my name had been “David Hitler” or “Kim Jong-David”, then it might have been a little more understandable… But even so, I couldn’t imagine why my name – surely one of the least imaginative a parent could bestow upon a child – had been jinxed by whoever came before me.

Then the stories came out, albeit slowly. My co-workers – a friendly and talkative bunch with whom I can discuss just about anything – were very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of “Crazy David”, as he was known.

I learned a few things about him that began to explain why he was so intensely disliked:

 

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.

China isn’t really what I expected. It’s better, in many ways, and also worse. In other words, it’s unique. It’s its own strange place which really doesn’t match well with the western view. For example, where’s the communism? Aside from the portraits of Mao, I can’t see anything “Red.” All I see is McDonalds, KFC, Hilton hotels… Everyone is trying desperately to sell something, to make some money.

It’s dirtier than a porno theatre, too. The streets are quite literally coated in shit. Some places are too dirty for cockroaches, and others are too swamped by roaches for dirt to settle. Trash piles threaten not only an array of diseases, but the possibility of collapsing and crushing a passer-by. The skies are an orangey-yellow colour, thick with the exhaust fumes from millions of overcrowded buses and motorcycles driven by small children and even smaller old men and women.