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.

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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

60 responses to “How to Die in China”

  1. […] posted a little something over at the Nervous Breakdown. It’s called “How to Die in China” and is about the […]

  2. Slade Ham says:

    It’s funny that you mentioned the satire thing. I was supposed to be in Beijing and Shanghai a year or so ago to do shows. Pretty much bars where there were either Western expats or English speaking nationals. There was quite a bit of talk about what we could and could not get by with. The guidelines, while never solidified since the trip canceled at the last minute, looked like they were going to be quite strict.

    Regardless, I was excited to go and still may plan a trip. My visa is still valid and unused. I think of everywhere I’ve played, it would have been the most challenging, the breathing, bandits, and pirates aside…

    • China is a lot of fun, but I went to Beijing about two years ago and felt the FEAR. There were cops and military everywhere, and CCTV watched your every move. It was scary. I felt like if I made a joke about Mao I might get arrested. It sounds paranoid, but that’s what you’re told in the west.

      It seems different when you live here. For the most part people seem to like living in China and speaking their mind, but I imagine that once you get on stage you would be pretty restricted. They don’t even pretend to have freedom of speech here.

      I read an interesting article about a rally car driver with a popular blog (takes about 300 million hits). He founded a literary journal and it took a long time to put out one issue because of what he could and couldn’t say. In the end, he got it out with the government’s agreement, but was denied the right to publish a second issue.

      Fuck, even blogs are banned here.

      Well, I’m making China sound really shitty… I highly recommend you come here and say what you want. The worst that would happen is your visa is revoked and you get kicked out. Or yeah, and you may get lung cancer.

      Also, they have pole-dancing PANDAS!

      • Slade Ham says:

        We have pole dancing pandas here, too. Let me rephrase that. There is a girl at this one strip club that is half black, half white, and weighs about 450…

        Maybe I should just visit China.

        • Goddamn you, Mr. Ham. I have bad lungs and you just about made them explode. I can’t get that poor pole-dancing monstrosity out of my head now.

        • Slade Ham says:

          Glad I could plant the image, hahaha. The upside is, I get a new joke out of the deal, though I don’t know if I could tell it in China yet or not. You make a damn fine straight man, Mr. Wills.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Mmmmmm. Festering summer meat. That sounds tasty.

    Dear Leader David – I laughed when I got to the bit that said ‘They don’t know my luck..” And then I thought, well actually you ARE lucky. You seem to find yourself in all sorts of situations in which most other people would either get fatally sick, or get killed, or fall down dead with shock.

    But still, DON’T TAKE ANY CHANCES! And buy a mask. Or take up smoking. Maybe the tar from the cigarettes will help coat your lungs and keep the pollution at bay.

    It’s no joke, though -the pollution. It really is dangerous. Particularly the fumes from buses. Stay clear of them.

    But once again, you tell a story so very well, you have an exceptionally keen eye, and I am very much looking forward to more China escapades.

    • You’re absolutely right, Zara. I am lucky. Very lucky. When I talk about my luck, I mean it just like you said it – crazy things happen to me and I always emerge with a story to tell. I’ve been working on a couple of potential TNB contributions recently, and they all involve “my luck.” I tried to pinpoint where it began, and I came to a story of getting chased out of a small town by an angry mob when I was about fourteen. Just my luck.

      Oh, Chinese cigarettes! Do you smoke, Zara? Maybe I should try to send you some. They are AWFUL. It’s like smoking a rolled up newspaper stuffed with burned hair. It HURTS a lot to take even a tiny puff.

      The buses are what’s killing me. I try to save money because I can travel anywhere on a bus for only $0.12. That’s cheap, even in China. But the buses are old. They’re crammed with pickpockets, too. There’s a saying here: “A Hefei pickpocket could pick a penny out of a crab’s asshole without it noticing.”

      But again, I’m making China sound bad. I really do like it here. For one thing, there are a lot of magicians. People also really like to dance, and at night the streets fill with mid-aged to old women, all dancing to ancient songs.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Okay, I have got to hear about you being chased out of town by an angry mob. I’m picturing pitchforks here…

        I do smoke.. but I would be far too scared to inhale a Chinese cigarette. (Of course, I am totally fine about sucking in the other 1000 toxins in my normal cigarettes…)

        China does sound like an amazing country. The people I know who have been there either love it like crazy or can’t bear it. It doesn’t sound like a place that would inspire a mild reaction. The law is pretty tough though. We had a case in NZ last year where our dairy company got mixed up in a baby formula scandal, where the Chinese arm of the company was putting melamine in the formula. The Chinese nationals responsible were executed. Of course, here – they would simply get a slap on the wrist with the proverbial wet bus ticket.

        Please, please, write the mob story..

        • There was at least one pitchfork, held by a farmer with whom I got into an argument over phone coverage. The rest of them were hurling bricks. Ah, Scotland… It’s like an old Frankenstein movie.

          Chinese cigarettes have none of the restrictions places upon them that cigarettes anywhere else have, and that’s presumably why they’re so very, very awful. I mean, if some countries are actually banning toxins from these death sticks… what do China allow in theirs???

          Yes, China is nothing if not crazy. They love executions – but thankfully they reserve them for the locals, and not foreigners. Well, not many foreigners. I remember that melamine thing. In Korea they hate Chinese (and all other non-Korean people) and they used melamine as another way of insulting the entire Chinese race. (They also say, “Your face was ‘Made in China'” which I must admit is quite funny.)

  4. Judy Prince says:

    I wonder whether you could move back to Taiwan if you had your cats rigorously medically checked and approved by the authorities there. It is, after all, nearby PRC, and you like the culture and people, and I doubt it’s anywhere near as polluted as PRC, David. Barring that, p’raps a return to Japan. Or the UK, but p’raps not in Scotland, if you want to be in a new place; that is, one which you’re not accustomed to from childhood.

    I worry about the effect of pollution. At least you have a chance to avoid it as so many Chinese do not, most unfortunately for them.

    • Taiwan was great but it sounds like it’s impossible for the cats. I’ll still keep it in mind for future vacations, but no amount of testing will get them into the country easily enough to make it viable.

      China is great, but only for a year or so. I wouldn’t subject myself to the pollution much longer than that. It’s so bad here that many people can’t wear contact lenses because the air destroys them!

      Japan isn’t easy with cats, either. I think that the US will probably be the next stop after China, although I’m not sure yet how I feel about that. I really like living in Asia.

  5. Judy Prince says:

    I hope you don’t need to stay in PRC as long as a year, David.

    If the USA’s your next stop, we’ll be waiting for you with guns blazing. 😉

    I note that you didn’t mention England or the UK on that list! Is it bcuz you prefer Asia? But if they don’t allow your bringing your cats, except in polluted PRC…….what’s to do? Do the USA and the UK allow your cats to be brought in?

    • Honestly, I like it here enough to stay a year. I’ll be sad to leave. I’ve made more friends in China already than I did in Korea, and I find the language and culture infinitely more fascinating. The pollution is the only real problem. Even the crazy govt doesn’t get me that much because I know that everywhere else in the world it’s the same.

      England has always been off my radar. The UK as a whole. Don’t care much for it. Besides, it’s near impossible to bring cats in. The UK is like Australia – a Nazi regime in relation to animals.

  6. Ah, your pollution story reminds me of living in Spain for a summer. Not sure if it’s still the same but they also didn’t have any restrictions on cars/bus emissions, and it was the first and last time I ever experienced anything like asthma. When I told my host family they should come see me some time in the States, their eyes got very big and they answered, “Oh no no no! We’d get shot there!”

    • Haha, all around the world people are terrified of coming to America because they’ll get shot. I never paid much attention to that old rumour… but then when I spent time in American cities I couldn’t help but feel like I was always about to get shot.

      Guns are scary.

      I’ve only ever been in Menorca and Barcelona, and that was a long time ago. I don’t much remember either of them, beyond the beach and a couple of good restaurant. I can believe, though, that the pollution is a killer. Spain can be a pretty rough country in places.

  7. D.R. Haney says:

    But, David, when you wrote about your plane almost crashing, you said you were smiling the whole time because you knew you were, and are, impervious. And I believed you, and now you write this? I don’t want to hear any more I-might-die-here stuff, goddamn it.

    • You know, you’re absolutely right. I am invincible. I forget that sometimes.

      Actually, 2011 was an odd year. I think that after visiting Hunter S. Thompson’s kitchen I earned the right, finally, to die. I can die happy now. No more invincibility.

  8. Matt says:

    And the countdown to David’s inevitable deportation from China starts….now….

    • Yes, I’ve thus far avoided writing about China in any level of seriousness. I still haven’t gotten into it but it’s a start. The beginning of the end, I suppose. Then again, in these days of the internet one really needs to shut the fuck up… If I said too much here I could have myself banned from any number of countries before I even had the chance to fuck up!

  9. David,

    My parents were just in China and they could barely breathe the whole time they were there. My father keeps trying to explain how he could touch the pollution with this hands and see it hanging in front of his face.

    Both of them were sick with hacking coughs for a solid month after they returned.

    Anyway–that’s all terrible, of course, and I nearly took a job in China way back when but didn’t because my baby had asthma. That was probably the right call, now that I think about it.

    What are you eating there?

    I should also note–however lamely (I am tired right now)–that you never fail to crack me up.



    • Yes, the pollution has an odd physical presence that makes it all to difficult to ignore. The fact that you can see it is alarming. You cannot hang out your washing here, or it comes in dirtier than it was before you washed it. I made that mistake with a couple of white t-shirts… They are now orange.

      The coughing gets to you, too. I live in the cleanest part of town and yet with every passing day my lungs ache a little more. Maybe if you come to China you should think about the far west or the south.

      The food here is great, but very greasy. Very, very, very greasy. It swims in grease. There’s a lot of beef, pork and duck. The pork isn’t safe and you shouldn’t eat the vegetables. It tastes – obviously – nothing like Chinese food in America or Scotland or Japan or Korea. It’s just Hefei Chinese food. I’ve also eaten Sichuan (hella spicy) and Cantonese (hella noodley) and Beijing (hella gassy).

  10. angela says:

    First of all, where were you living in the U.S. that you constantly feared getting shot?

    I’m sad to see China has not changed much since the 10 years that i lived there. I’ve experienced SO many of the same things you did when I was in Changping.

    Buses. YES on the black fumes. After a trip into Beijing – an hour each way – I’d come home and blow black stuff out of my nose. I think I’ve exprienced the hole in the bus floor thing and the breathing in fumes. Also, they will stuff people on the buses like there’s no tomorrow. On one ride shortly before the Spring Festival (btw, get ready for COMPLETE MADNESS when people are traveling before the Lunar New Year), the bus had so many people, it tilted onto two wheels as we took turns. I was wedged in the middle and just basically closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

    Getting sick. I caught a cold every single month I lived there. The bathrooms at my school were filthy, and had no running water. So I couldn’t even wash my hands. Once I think I caught a cold just breathing in the dust from my own house.

    Garbage. The Chinese have such a weird attitude about garbage. They just dump it on the ground rather than put it in a garbage can. I think there’s this idea that the floor is dirty no matter what. Once I got chastised for trying on new shoes directly on the department store floor instead of placing the shoes on this piece of cardboard. Weird.

    After I left Changping, one of my friends wrote me that there was a small breakout of BUBONIC PLAGUE in town. two people died, if i remember correctly.

    Water. Definitely had to boil my water all the time and peel all my fruit. I did get sick from watermelon shortly after my arrival, and got VIOLENTLY ILL from shell fish in Dalian. (DO NOT EAT THE SHELLFISH.)

    Luckily you experience Korea first. I had come straight from the U.S. and basically completely freaked out for about a week.

    • When I was in the US I was very happy, but I mostly in the mountains. Whenever I went into the cities I was afraid. I’m not used to big cities and I frequently found myself wandering into bad neighbourhoods and being told quite aggressively to get out. Also, I was friends with a gang of Mexican drug-smugglers in California who loved to get drunk and play with guns. Oh, and someone down the road from one of the houses I lived in shot his wife and kids. Actually, now I think about it, there were guns everywhere. And that was weird to a guy like me who’d never seen one up close before.

      Ah, the buses. They are unpleasant. One great thing is that you don’t need to hold on because they are always so packed full that you can simply let go and the sheer volume of people will hold you up straight. But the filth… gah. Nasty. Standing at the bus stop is a dangerous pastime because every time a bus drives by your lungs are filled.

      You know, touch wood but I still haven’t properly been sick. I went through the “foreigner flu” over and over in Korea. I think that my immune system has been strengthened, but also I have learned to be very careful. I wash my hands obsessively because everything is so dirty. I’m also too rude these days to share food, which is a great sin here, but I don’t want to get sick.

      I was explaining to my girlfriend yesterday about the garbage. In Korea there are NO garbage cans. Absolutely none. People throw their shit on the ground and even if you want to be civilised you just cannot find one. In China they are everywhere…. but people don’t use them!!!! It’s crazy.

      Bubonic plague? Oh lord.

      Note: Don’t eat shellfish.

      • angela says:

        wow, what a U.S. existence! needless to say, growing up in suburban NJ and living in Boston and Manhattan, i never experienced such a thing.

        though of course everyone i knew in China assumed everyone in the U.S. owned a gun. and a three-car garage. and a swimming pool. and (inexplicably) many wigs.

  11. Lenore says:

    sometimes i think that you would be very unhappy living somewhere safe. where you weren’t in danger of falling out of a cardboard bus or being “glassed” or being attacked by a giant boar or whatever. i think you just like to test your mortality a little, Wills. which works for me, because i like when you write about it.

    • Thanks, Lenore. Like I said in that plane crash story, I’m always filled with a perverse thrill when something awful is happening to me… I say, “Oh my god, if I don’t die I’m going to have a sweet story to tell people.”

      Is being “glassed” something you’re familiar with? I always figured it was a Scottish phrase, but maybe I’m wrong.

  12. Wayne Mullins says:

    Sounds like you’re having a blast in China Will. Glad to see you are still plugging along and defying the Grim Reaper’s attempts on your life.

    Sad thing is, after all of this action and excitement, you’ll probably get done in my an uneven paving stone in Rhyl.

    Many people come to Wales, few manage to leave!

    • Haha, I’ve never thought about Wales before, but I really should go. Apparently my surname (Wills, not Will!!!!) is Welsh.

      And yes, I’m sure I’ll finally get done in by something mundane in some uninteresting locale.

  13. Brian Eckert says:

    Such descriptions of China are what scared me when applying for jobs there, and one of the strongest reasons why I didn’t end up taking one.

    I know you say China is great and you love it, and I’m sure it is a fascinating place. There was a time when I was cool with living in any diseased needle of a nation, but I think those days have passed. I could do a month or two, sure, but even the filth and stench of Korea used to get to me a bit, and it sounds like China is way worse.

    The most polluted city I’ve ever been to was Santiago, Chile. I met an expat there, a triathlon participant or some equally freaky-fit specimen, who developed asthma from the smog. It does get to you. I developed a serious case of acne in Korea, and I hardly ever had zits even as a teenager.

    Anyway, interesting post. Be safe, but not too safe, because while I once was the provider of such outlandish expat tales, I’m now primarily a consumer.

    Fuck, I am becoming a pussy.

    • I think you would like it here a lot more than Korea. The differences are hard to put across. On the surface there are many unpleasant similarities, but it’s there. The people make a difference. The atmosphere, the vibe. China is more fun and welcoming. And, strangely, it’s freer.

      If you’re single you’d also dig the women… The throw themselves at foreign men.

  14. You clearly love it there. It’s in between every word. You’ve woken up next to China, rolled over, and decided she could use a good scrub with the toothbrush. But you’re not going anywhere. Not even to get up and get dressed.

  15. Wayne Mullins says:

    I tried to say your name in Welsh – Dafydd Wi(gutteral throat sound)s.

    I need a lay down now.

  16. Simon Smithson says:


    This is everything I know about Scottish culture, right here.

    That and Hamish Macbeth.

    Most of what I know about China is from Jet Li and/or Jackie Chan films. Oh, and the Australian media’s increasingly panicky reporting on having a rising superpower next door.

    I am glad we now have a Man in China to share more knowledge. Which is how I’ll be referring to you at dinner parties, cocktail hours, and soirees:

    ‘Well, it’s interesting you should think so, Kimberly. But my Man in China has a different point of view on the economic situation…’

    • Jackie Chan is a good guide to China. People here are obsessed with him. His smiling face graces the advertisement for every product on the market.

      I’m glad I can be your ‘Man in China’. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. I was the ‘Man in Korea’ for a while, but unfortunately that has little hold unless I was working in Pyongyang: “Well, it’s interesting you should think so, Kimberly. But my Man in Korea has a different point of view…”

      “You have a man in North Korea?”

      “Oh, no… I mean South Korea.”

      “There’s a South Korea?!”

  17. Brad Listi says:

    “there is no place more dangerous in china than a hospital.”

    hilarious. i sometimes feel that way about american hospitals. my wife has had two stints during the past few months. the first for childbirth. the second for a bulging disc in her lower lumbar.

    not inspiring.

    • Probably the only thing that would make me consider living in Scotland again is the health care. It’s free, it’s quick and it’s effective. I have no complaints about it. I never did get to see an American hospital, thankfully. I’ve not heard good things…

      In Korea it was pretty bad. The doctors would invite random people in to stare at the foreigner as I got treated. China is apparently worse. The doctors are allowed to smoke as they treat you and there aren’t many restrictions on clean equipment…. But then again, apparently the big hospitals in Beijing and Shanghai are as good as any of the best in the world.

  18. Irene Zion says:

    Victor and I went to China and Mongolia once. You could actually see particles in the air. Victor had a terrible cough. We thought he had pneumonia. When we got back he was going to go see a doctor for some meds. What happened when we got back is that his cough went away. Just like that. The air alone will kill you there.

    • Poor Victor. I vaguely remember you telling me about your trip to China. It’s not the sort of ideal holiday destination that everyone would enjoy, but it works for me. I’m just hoping that my lungs, like yours, recover when I return. I can tolerate the coughing for now but not forever.

  19. Joe Daly says:

    Good stuff, David. My mind is racing now, trying to get me to insert pithy cliches about the preciousness of life and the uncertainty of death, but instead I’ll just say this: Word.

    Your travel writing continues to engage and inspire. I’ve done some pretty extensive traveling throughout North America and Europe, but never in Asia. Maybe once China gets the smog and death trap thing resolved, I’ll make it over there.

    In the meantime, I’m holed up in Dublin, fending off wintry rains and junkies asking if I have a lighter they can borrow (the old Glaswegian game where they ask if you have a lighter, you say you do, and as you reach for it, they stab you). Heading out to dinner in a little while. Here’s to hoping we all make it home from dinner tonight. Wait- that was just a pithy cliche. Shit. Sorry.

    • Thanks, Joe. Enjoy Dublin. I’ve never been there myself, but if it’s indeed anything like Glasgow… well, just be careful. They do consider stabbing a sort of fun pastime.

      I suggest that you get to Asia if you get the chance. The plane fare is more expensive but it’s so cheap when you get here (except Japan). It’s like a totally different world. I’ll probably end up living in America one day, but not until I’ve seen enough of Asia.

  20. Dana says:

    You may never get invited to write for China’s Board of Tourism, but holy crap you crack me up. When I read this the other day I had to read several passages out loud because my co-worker insisted I share what was so funny. Also, based on what you’ve written here, I’m almost certainly never going to China or South Korea.

    Keep on defying death — we need your insights!

  21. Marybear says:

    Chinese Fire Drill !

  22. Vendas de produtos online, importados com frete grátis…

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