the best is yet to come

"Why does this soymilk taste so chalky?" and other subtle differences

The sky has turned grey. The air has turned sour.

Earlier this week I got a (not-so pleasant surprise) during my morning routine, as I groggily checked the day’s weather on my iPad. I opened up SkyMotion and did a double take: the forecast read “dreary” – a description that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. Now, what does dreary weather entail? Well, I had a chance to experience it first-hand. It entails a whole lot of smog, or (as we are supposed to) say in Shanghai): fog. The ‘mist’ permeates the streets, the buildings, the air. It makes it impossible to make out the skyscrapers or look across the river into the IFC and Pudong. The ‘mist’ gives the air an acidic tinge of pollution, industrial strength laundry detergent, and just a hint of rot.

This does not bode well.
This does not bode well.

This is one of those things I was warned about coming to China, but when it finally came, I was still unprepared for it. The pollution index has been climbing. Some days the sky is a crystalline blue and others it teeters around 261/500 on the AQI scale (with 500 being the fiery depth of hell).

Living abroad, I am coming to terms with the fact that the differences between China and the US are subtle, but startling. In the end, it’s really the little things that get you – like weeks starting on Mondays instead of Sundays. Or the barely lit toilets in my office building (seriously, why would you only install a light fixture over one stall when there are clearly three in a row?). And then there are the big things. According to the government (and the Party), I live in the part of China that doesn’t get central heating. Each morning I’ve been sleeping in my college sweatshirt and leggings in lieu of proper pajamas (what are proper pajamas one might ask? In this case, a college t-shirt and lavender shorts). The coldness of the air here is damp, bringing a very distinctive chill to your bones. Without central heating, as I get up from the warm confines of my bed, I shiver as my toes reach (very reluctantly) towards the icy floors. I put on a sweater, and another sweater, and a coat, and then I feel ashamed of myself because it’s still only 50ºF out.

Being a foreigner living abroad is difficult. You are, at once, immersed in the city and so far outside of it. But then again, as I develop routines, I feel myself growing closer and closer to Shanghai. I can’t imagine a morning, where I don’t stop by the local Family Mart to grab a Japanese green tea, or a chocolate soy milk.  I’ve been starting out my mornings with Family Mart chocolate soy milk (soy milk is healthy, right?) and the hot, fresh 豆浆 (when I can get it). And while I’m on the subject of soy milk, I can add it to that list of foods I once supposed to hate. But even the soy milk here is a far cry from Silk. It tastes so distinctively chalky, like a pureed bean soup.

Yet, as I get a (I would normally use the word ‘steaming’ here, but I wish the milk was hotter to be honest) mug of soy milk every morning for just 3RMB, the subtle differences of China begin to drift away and those little things, whether they be the soy milk or the 2RMB bananas I buy from the food stalls, remind me that – for now at least – Shanghai is home. And for all the people following at home, perhaps this is the part where I saw that it’ll be home for a little longer than I had anticipated (yeah, I know, way to drop big news in the middle of a paragraph like that). Aside from my personal life (which has been slowly tanking over the course of the year), everything seems to be slowly going my way. I now feel like I have a purpose for being in Shanghai (although some might say aimless wandering is also a purpose of its own) and if things go according to plan (but then again, when do they ever do?), I may be extending my stay here just a little longer than I had hoped. How much longer?


0 thoughts on “"Why does this soymilk taste so chalky?" and other subtle differences”

  • Weeks start on sunday, didnt even know about that. I never imagined that a week would start on sunday, the traditional last day of the week in the western world :p
    The last two times ive been to china we mostly had “fog” non-stop. Out of three weeks I saw perhas only on a couple of times blue sky and sunshine (in Xi’an)

    • That was honestly very foreign to me when I moved to the States, but I’m so used to having the first day of the week be Sunday (if only from the example where someone might say ‘next week’ to me on a Sunday, and my instinct automatically tells me they mean seven days from now and not tomorrow) that I’ve had a lot of misunderstandings involving that in China.

      I’m actually in Russia at the moment and the smell of the fog has been replaced with the burned rubber of Moscow..

  • I would say our week begins on a Monday too. So how does that difference manifest itself in America?

    And do you wear a face mask then? When I worked in Manchester you do see Chinese people commuting in face masks and you’re never sure whether it’s because of the cold, or the habit, or because of our extremely mild pollution, by comparison. I was never able to work that out.


    • I feel like the difference is mostly logistical (calendars all start on Sunday and entering days of the week into things like Excel will always start off with Sunday). I’m sure that’s not the official reason, but Sundays are also when all of the NFL games air, so to many people, that’s a proper start to the week!

      I feel like outside of China, most people wear the pollution masks when they’re sick (I saw so many of them in Japan), but I should be wearing a mask more often in China. I don’t largely out of laziness and because the mask fogs up my glasses haha

  • When we lived in Shanghai, my then 2-year old went to play with some leaves on the bushes. I saw nothing wrong in that until I saw her hands – completely black. Yes, makes you think of what your lungs look like after breathing that in 🙂
    And the best way to beat those damp cold winters would be to rent an apartment with heated floors, although they’re more expensive, of course. Or, another good but cheaper alternative, – you can buy all kind of warming devices, starting with electric blankets and including electric rugs, so in the mornings you can step down from your warm bed onto a warm rug 🙂 I think that’s better than warming up with air con or oil heaters – they turn the air into something so dry your eyes and nose hurts :S

    • I’ve been meaning to get a humidifier once I get back into Shanghai next week. I’m still surprised now the air has been so damp yet so dry at the same time. My skin (and hair) have been suffering so much over the past few months. I’m in Russia at the moment, seeing my mom who is coming from the States, and she’s bringing a non-trivial amount of American toiletries for me to take back to China, partially because I don’t trust Chinese skin care products, and partially because things like Cetaphil cost over 140 kuai for a tiny bottle!

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