End of Asian Days?

The girls on the tram up to Victoria's Peak in Hong Kong.

The girls on the tram up to Victoria’s Peak in Hong Kong.

People often ask me what it is like to be an American expat in China.  I tell them that it is a life-changing experience, mostly for the better, and that my family and I have benefitted significantly from our time in Shanghai.  The Chinese people have been wonderful and the travel that we have been able to do throughout Asia Pacific has opened all of us to amazing new cultures (our most recent trip being Hong Kong).  Living in such a dynamic city has us wondering how we will ever be able to go back to our lovely, yet very small hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.  I truly love China and Asia Pacific so much that, upon my return to Shanghai last August, I seriously began to wonder if I (and we) shouldn’t just plan to stay here for the foreseeable future.

Backing up my inclination to stay in Asia is the reality of what this region is becoming economically — this century’s Europe.  Wealth, and the financial capitals that follow it, are moving to Asia Pacific.  Singapore has a higher percentage of millionaires than any other city on the planet.  Both Shanghai and Hong Kong are openly trying to undermine London’s position as the leading financial services center in the world.  New markets such as Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam are quickly bringing millions of new consumers into the middle class (not to mention the hundreds of millions in China).  Japan is finally coming out of its decade-long economic funk and, if you reach far enough eastward, India is doing its best to turn itself into a consumer superpower.

And then there is China, rising precipitously to economic superpower status in the world, and bringing much of Asia Pacific with it.  My premise that this region, economically, is this century’s Europe was supported recently when most of the Western world celebrated Britain’s announcement that it had achieved 0.8% economic growth in the 3rd quarter, the fastest in three years.  China’s economic growth in the same quarter?  7.8%.  No competition there.  As far as I’m concerned, Asia Pacific is the future.

The view from the Ford offices in downtown Pudong about a month ago.  Below, the view a couple of weeks ago.

Top, the view from the Ford offices in downtown Pudong about a month ago. Bottom, the view a couple of weeks ago.

Then this month happened.  As readers of this blog know, I hit the “expat wall” last January when the air in Shanghai turned brown and the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit 317, a record.  I wrote about the end of days then, and the fact that, if the bad air pollution was staying, we would be leaving China.  Two weeks ago Friday, the AQI hit 605 and it was end of days all over again.  We have had mostly good air quality since we returned to Shanghai from the U.S., which made that Friday all the more disturbing.  It really pissed me off to watch the smog descend all around me, and I made the executive decision to keep my kids home from school, spending the day with their arms wrapped tightly around one of our 5 air cleaners.

Girls in the hot tub of the Intercontinental, with Hong Kong harbor in the background

Girls in the hot tub of the Intercontinental, with Hong Kong harbor in the background

This situation also impacts my theory on China becoming a superpower and leading Asia Pacific’s economic growth:  It can never be one if the quality of life of its population is compromised by environmental pollution.  The Chinese people have put up with alot over the last 50 years to get where they are today.  Many are prosperous, educated, and worldly, and know that they lack many of the luxuries that we in the West take for granted.  They also are a people that revere family, and if you start messing with that, social harmony, which is one of the pivotal values of China, will be threatened.  That is unacceptable to everyone here.

The Big Buddha comes into view from our gondola, high above Ngong Ping Plateau in Hong Kong.  It's the biggest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world.

The Big Buddha comes into view from our gondola, high above Ngong Ping Plateau in Hong Kong. It’s the biggest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world.

Our family can successfully get around the bad water and questionable food production in China, as annoying as that may be.  (My new favorite food purveyor here is Kate and Kimi, and they work very hard to provide clean, quality produce — kateandkimi.com.)  But the air is another story.  Yes, I have Vogmasks (vogmask.cn) and Totobobo masks (totobobo.com) for outside, and my guy Leroy keeps us rich in air cleaning machines (alencorpchina.com) for inside the house.  But all that costs a good amount of money, and takes a lot of effort, to use and maintain.  Where does that leave the millions of middle class Chinese who have only recently emerged from the countryside, and now find urban areas like Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing grossly polluted?

The ladies and the Big Buddha

The ladies and the Big Buddha

As goes China, so goes Asia Pacific.  Pollution is not just one country’s problem, it is the entire region’s.  Japan is experiencing high pollution levels drifting in from mainland China, as are South Korea and Taiwan.  Singapore (a city-state I could happily reside in) has annual bouts with bad pollution as farmers in Sumatra, Indonesia burn their fields, sending toxic smog to Malaysia and beyond.  We spent a glorious Thanksgiving weekend in Hong Kong recently and even that city, which sits at the end of a peninsula surrounded by water, and is an island itself, was experiencing bad pollution drifting over from the mainland.

Karen and the view of Hong Kong from our room

Karen and the view of Hong Kong from our room

My original premise was Asia Pacific is the new Europe, replacing that region’s importance in the world economically.  My new premise is that Asia Pacific is screwed if the region does not resolve its environmental pollution issues.  Europe did it, as did the United States, while still industrializing.  Neither is perfect, but they are a lot cleaner than China.  My daughters will purposefully drink from the faucets when we go home to Michigan, just because they can.  They wouldn’t even pretend to do that here in Shanghai.

Brunch 100 stories above Hong Kong at the Ritz Carleton

Brunch 100 stories above Hong Kong at the Ritz-Carlton

I love Asia Pacific and I love China, but I won’t risk my family’s health to live here.  The travel we have done in the last year and a half in this region has been epic.  I would never trade this Shanghai adventure for anything, and would do it again in a minute.  I do not want to shorten it because economic considerations trump quality of life ones.  I hope it doesn’t become end of days in Asia.

This has become a regular view I have of my daughters -- from behind, with backpacks, powering through one Asia Pacific airport or another on the way to a new destination.

This has become a regular view I have of my daughters — from behind, with backpacks, powering through one Asia Pacific airport or another, on their way to a new destination.

Cassidy on Victoria Peak high above Hong Kong, with a view back across the river toward our hotel.

Cassidy on Victoria Peak high above Hong Kong, with a view back across the river toward our hotel.

Karen and Stephanie on the  gondola to the Big Buddha.  It was kind of scary being that high up, supported only by a couple of wires.

Karen and Stephanie on the gondola to the Big Buddha. It was kind of scary being that high up, supported only by a couple of wires.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “End of Asian Days?

  1. Howard, I really enjoyed reading your article. I enjoyed the wit and the insight. I totally agree with you concerning the pollution. I never thought that the pollution would be such an issue until this winter.

  2. I like the valuable information you provide in your articles.
    I will bookmark your blog and check again here frequently.
    I’m quite sure I will learn a lot of new stuff right here!
    Good luck for the next!

  3. If Shanghai is the future why do so many Chinese want to leave it and go to places like NZ and Aus and the US and Canada? Same goes for India etc.

  4. I’ve enjoyed reading some of your posts about the beautiful and less-than beautiful parts of your experience. I see you’re still in Shanghai after the winter of 2013/14. How did this past winter compare? I am on the brink of a job decision that will impact two little ones, and some of the threads are terrifying. You seem like a parent of the more balanced variety.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s