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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.