Breathing Shanghai

In a city of 23 million people, staying healthy takes militant self-protection. For me, staying healthy in China is a conscious daily struggle.

In a city of pollution and overcrowding, chances for illness are ubiquitous. Public health crises are growing all over China. As Elizabeth Economy discusses in her book The River Runs Black, people throughout China are facing water scarcity, higher rates of birth defects and cancer, and poor air quality because of environmental degradation. Respiratory problems are rampant because of the poor air quality. Tap water can cause days of diarrhea and stomach pain. Viruses transmit rapidly because of urbanization and overcrowding. An infamous example is the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS in southern China. After failing to control the outbreak and failing to cooperate with the international community, China was criticized for its public health management. As the population grows and environmental destruction continues, the public health problems only increase.

From the beginning, I noticed a difference in Shanghai’s treatment of health. Near our apartment complex, there is a large hospital. Whenever I walk by the hospital, I see at least ten patients milling around, smoking cigarettes, or eating at local restaurants. Sometimes the patients are wearing facemasks, but sometimes they aren’t. They wear hospital pajamas, but they can easily walk around the block and do what they please. Even if I am not near the hospital, I usually see at least one person wearing a facemask each day. I often wonder what they are afraid of breathing in. Although it is socially acceptable to wear a facemask, other Chinese habits seem less conducive to public health. It is not uncommon to hear someone spit or blow their nose loudly onto the sidewalk. Parents hold their babies go to the bathroom on the road. Squat toilets are often dirty on and around the toilet. Trash piles up throughout the city. For the squeamish or germophobic, Shanghai would be a hard place to live.

Despite the differences in public hygiene, Chinese superstitions about personal health are often surprisingly similar to my own habits. I burn incense because it relaxes me, and every temple has countless incense offerings. Incense actually helps to reduce anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that religious temples have incense to ease their visitors. My Chinese teacher also says that air conditioners and travelling make her sick because her body has trouble adjusting to the changes in environment. I am not sure why, but both of these are true for me as well. Finally, my Chinese teacher always suggests cups and cups of hot tea to cure illness. I drink hot tea endlessly when I am sick. Like drinking chicken soup in the States, we know our at-home treatments are helpful, even if we can’t explain why.

Shanghai is an interesting place to think about public health because every person lives the public health problem. No one needs to tell me there is poor air quality; I can simply feel it in my lungs. I do not know how public health will continue in China, but it is obvious that there is real potential for a crisis.

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