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What AQI 300 feels like

You don’t come to Shanghai to coast.

Most take on modu (魔都), or Monster City in Chinese, because it is an adventure. The challenges attract a certain kind of people that keep life infinitely interesting in this little town of 15 million. That’s what I love most about this city — the people. People from all around China and all around the world. Shanghai is a little bit rough around the edges, which gives the expatriate community here that eccentric air. I've met an NYU professor who performs burlesque on weekends. A migrant worker who started her own nail salon chain. Entrepreneurs, educators, movers, shakers, and plenty of nutters.

Life in Shanghai can be pretty sweet. You'd be hard pressed to find another city with as much intensity. On any given day, I expect to be sneezed at / yelled at / run over by an electric scooter / advised to drink more hot water / witness my cab driver clipping his nails / witness a child and/or grown man peeing in the streets / manhandled by an old lady / told to marry. I've learned to love it.

Now you see it; now you don't.

Then I woke up on Christmas morning to see the city submerged in that ominous gray mist. My phone alerted me that the Air Quality Index, or AQI, is well over 200 (side note: the government started censoring apps that gave me good readings… My trusty Airpocalypse app no longer works). I reached into my stock of heavy duty pollution masks, the N95 masks once reserved for the SARS epidemic in Taiwan.

I have a mask in just about every coat pocket these days.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

But this is air. You're in it. Behind the medical grade face mask with filters and metal bits and spinning fans, it’s fear. Every time the AQi exceeds 300, my instinct is to hide. When you see the air around a street lamp tinged a muddy yellow and it stings when you inhale, your body is telling you to run.

It’s a quiet panic.

Woman in pollution mask

Air, water, and food. If you allow yourself to worry about the safety of everything, all the time, as an expat in Shanghai? You'll go nuts. I've taken the necessary measures, and I’m trying to convince myself to let the rest go. This is the Shanghai premium you pay. In exchange for the dynamic city life, here’s what you’ll need:

Pollution masks.

N95, Respro, Vogmask, etc.

Air purifier.

This can run you anywhere from 300–7000 RMB (50–1000 USD). Replacement filters can be pretty costly, too, and often out of stock when pollution peaks.

Bottled water.

Delivered to you in jugs.

Water filter.

Most expatriates will have these installed at home to halt hair loss and skin irritation.

Good Health Insurance


But there’s still much to love about the city. You can find cuisine from just about anywhere in the world, Turkish, Yunnan, Indian, Thai, Cajun, what have ya. And you can actually afford it. Don’t make me do the math here (I majored in English for a reason), but on my entry level salary, I get to enjoy fine dining a couple of times a month / cab around the city / get anything delivered / enjoy art and theater / travel a few times a year. And I actually manage to save a teeny bit of money.

So I'm still here. That’s got to count for something. If I love a city enough to suffer for it, then it must be worth it.


So I'm still here. That’s got to count for something. If I love a city enough to suffer for it, then it must be worth it.


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