Keeping calm during the Airpocalypse

It’s been a relatively quiet couple of weeks here in our household. Though Guangzhou continues to surprise us, we’ve settled into a weekly rhythm of work, Chinese class, dinners with friends, tourism, and quiet time at home. Less than two months ago, the smallest things like riding the metro, hailing a cab, or meeting friends for an outing were big adventures (as you may recall from my lively descriptions in previous posts). Now those things have fallen into our weekly routine. Happily, we’re able to continue one of our favorite pastimes here – hanging out in tasty coffee shops.  Our new favorite serves waffles and gives you a teddy bear instead of a table number.

One of our new favorite haunts – with waffles!


Air quality has been the biggest recent adjustment for us. Last week the air pollution was the highest it’s been since we arrived. The weather tends to stay a consistent level of 85-90 degrees and stormy, but air pollution fluctuates hourly. I recently downloaded an app called “Airpocalypse” that provides live readings of the “air quality index” (AQI) along with cute cartoons and tips.


After quite a bit of research (thanks Wikipedia) I still don’t really understand the AQI, but it essentially measures the amount of pollutants in the air. A reading under 100 generally means the air is safe to breathe, but over 100 it starts to get yucky. Last week the air jumped to 164, yuck!


Interestingly Airpocalypse still said “no mask needed” on those high pollution days, which probably speaks to how common bad pollution is here. Relative to how it is in Beijing and Chengdu, Guangzhou generally has much better air, so we really can’t complain. Amaury and I both donned our masks for a couple days to be on the safe side, but no one else seemed to use them. All the stormy weather has been giving me some bad headaches lately and that combined with the pollution gave me a pretty nasty migraine last week. I felt weirdly satisfied that I got one just as the air pollution reading spiked along with a thunder storm… Migraines can be super unpredictable and it feels strangely good to know the when and why this time.


Polluted haze last week


Beyond the physical effects of bad pollution, the worst part is gray skies and foggy haze. This week we feel the blessing of good air. Today’s reading is all the way down to 8! Hooray for blue skies!

And as the air has cleared, I’ve experienced another kind of clarity on the language acquisition side. Lately, I’ve been startled by small glimmers of understanding. Such as suddenly realizing that I understand what the intercom in the metro is saying as it announces the next station or the cheerful welcome message in the supermarket “huanyíng guanglín!” I’m even starting to read basic characters and can have a simple text message conversation in Chinese (with a dictionary handy). But, funnily enough, the more I get comfortable with Mandarin, the more I realize that there’s a whole other layer of foreign language in Guangzhou that I don’t understand at all.


Most of Guangzhou is Cantonese speaking, especially in areas outside the city center. When I first arrived here, I could barely tell the difference. Now I realize that for all my efforts to speak Mandarin in restaurants, taxis, and shops, most of the waiters, drivers, and staff speak Cantonese. Of course, they can speak Mandarin also – many people in China are bilingual in Mandarin and their regional dialect – but Mandarin is often a switch they make for customers that don’t speak Cantonese. So far, I know two words in Cantonese: “m̀hgòi”(thank you) and “sahm” (three).

Guangzhou sure has a way of keeping you humble.


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