Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Smoking like a Beijing chimney

I'm off the wagon.
Having kicked the habit in March 2004, I'm back to smoking passively again. Sigh. Wheeze.
Earlier this month, students tried to con me into believing that smoking was banned in public places in China.
Their argument went that it has long been prohibited to smoke in bars, restaurants, and universities - it's just that nobody obeys the law.
I bought into their logic on the basis that the police enforce laws in a random, spur-of-the-moment kind of way, and most regulations can routinely be ignored.
I saw people smoking in a hospital waiting room yesterday: smoking and spitting, spitting and smoking; even though there are signs up suggesting that neither are a great idea. These signs are all for show.
In Beijing's bars, you can get a flashback to pre-smoking-ban Ireland - complete with poor visibility and the 'smelly clothes' after effect. Indeed, to drink in a pub here is to journey back well before March 2004. The ventilation systems in the older haunts around here are pre-1980s. And by that I mean simply that they have doors and windows.
Similarly, walking down the street inhaling throatfuls of smog harks bag to the days before smoky coal was banned in Dublin. My favourite nugget of information - strictly from a Fascinating Fact, perspective - is that traffic cops in China have a life expectancy of 43. Forty fricking three. Imagine trying to get life insurance.
All things considered, Beijing is not a great place to bring your lungs.
However, all is about to change because recently (four hours ago, to be precise), it was announced that hotel rooms and taxis will be smoke-free for the Olympics.
Add to that the ongoing efforts to curb industrial pollution and halve the number of cars on the road in August, and my straining lungs have a lot to look forward to.
Whether enforcement remains an issue will become clear in May when the law is enacted.
However, the fines begin at 50Yuan (€5) - less than the price of 20 cigarattes in Ireland.

'My Chinese Hospital Hell'

Well, not really. I just enjoy racy headlines.
In truth, my trip to a Chinese hospital was not remotely hellish. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised by the standards of hygiene imposed by the staff.
Given that my own dear grandmother is carrying MRSA around a Dublin hospital as I write (get well soon Nana), it struck my how often everyone washes their hands. And there are sinks everywhere.
Even the cashier has a sink beside her desk and I witnessed admin staff routinely scrubbing their mitts every time they left the room.
Alas, the patients have yet to follow the good example set by staff. Standing in a queue waiting to hand over 84Yuan, the woozy-looking woman in front of me cleared her throat forcefully and spat a thick phlegmy spit onto the floor. Moments later, a teenage girl casually hacked up as she headed down a corridor. Delightful. Some Chinese people spit all day every day, but surely they could give it a rest in hospitals.
As usual, I was quite the talking point among the locals, who listened carefully as I told the clerk what I wanted to have done. Nor were my fellow patients shy about craning their necks around the door frame to observe my consultation with the doctor.
There are too many people in China for me to bother expecting confidentiality, so it's a good job I wasn't there for a syphilis test.
I was in hospital to have my cholesterol checked - much to the amusement of the medic who more or less suggested it was ridiculous for one so skinny to be so worried.
I had the same thing done in Ireland publicly and privately in the past 18 months and it took longer to be seen, cost more (if you include the GP referral) and the results weren't in for a month.
I'm getting my results from Tsinghua University Hospital tomorrow morning.
The fixtures and fittings in the hospitals here are aging, but they keep the place spotless. Most importantly, the needles and other disposables are, thankfully, disposable.
However, they don't dab your arm with cotton wool and put a plaster on you after you give blood, they just jab a tiny cotton stick dipped in iodine onto your wound, and tell you to hang around for five minutes. No mollycoddling can be expected in Beijing.
Shockingly, I left feeling like Ireland could learn a lot from Chinese hospitals. They would be perfect if only the patients would stop spitting.

Monday, January 14, 2008

'Carbon guilt' - ideal for lapsed Catholics

Lately I've been feeling regular pangs of a distantly familiar feeling which I've struggled to identify until now.
It happens when I book long haul flights or take a taxi instead of the subway. I get it when I forget to bring my own plastic bags to the supermarket and when I leave the TV on standby.

I now recognise this phenomenon to be 'carbon guilt'.

It's the nagging voice that scolds me into apologetic submission for leaving my computer on or using air-conditioning.
This new form of eco-guilt is to be warmly welcomed.
Not only will its net effect on the planet be positive, but it's a perfect antidote to the post-Catholic blues: it's somewhere to channel the guilt.
Al Gore, the high priest of this new religion, should get most of the blame/credit because it was his inconvenient film that really got me (and millions of others) into this self-flagellation. And it's no coincidence that the nagging voice in my head speaks in Gore's baritone.
Fortunately, you can buy carbon credits - the equivalent of 'indulgences' in this new-age non-religion. A UK company will wash away the guilt accrued from my upcoming flight from Beijing to Melbourne for £45.75, which is about €60.
The funny thing is, I don't think I want to be unburdened completely. I'll do what I can to quell that tut-tutting voice within, but I might take the occasional taxi just so I can indulge in a little guilt...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The day my toes froze

Harbin's location in north east China has facilitated a strong influence from neighbouring Russia.
This means Russian architecture, cheap vodka, queues for bread (I'm not joking), and dozens of little shops selling Russian tat.
As well as Russian dolls, hip flasks and kitsch soviet memorabilia, you can pick up vicious knives and taser guns. These might be handy if you find yourself in a dodgy Russian bar surrounded by scar-faced mafioso.
The ice sculpture park (see pic) is by far the highlight of the colder-than-freezing city. It includes illuminated frozen art on a scale that can't be imagined until you see it up close.
Not for the first time since we came to China, a Chinese girl stopped us and gestured towards her camera. We presumed she wanted her photo taken but, as usual, she wanted her photo taken with us.
There must be scores of photos of us in the houses of people we don't know and will never see again.
I ended up buying a pair of snow boots because my toes were literally freezing. Naively, I had turned up wearing a pair of wafer-thin-soled Asics runners.
Harbin is a unique place, not just for its -20 degree temperatures, but for its mix of Chinese and Russian cultures. I'd recommend it - but bring three pairs of socks and two jackets. And decent snow boots.