Thanks for the Blue Skies, G20 Hangzhou

A view of downtown Shanghai on August 18

For many people, this photo is nothing to write home about it. Being able to see a blue sky peeking through the clouds on a sunny day is commonplace, after all. It wasn’t something I thought much about until I moved to a country where a summer sky is more likely to resemble the grayish-blue hue of exhaust smoke than the bright azure I always knew when I was growing up in Miami.

People from China’s east coast, where a huge portion of the country’s industry is based, appreciate a clear day when they have one. And this year’s G20 summit is bringing weeks of gorgeous weather to the region as China prepares for an influx of foreign leaders and media.

Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau has ordered factories in the region to shut down in the weeks leading to the environmental conference, which will take place in the nearby city Hangzhou on September 4-5. Although Reuters reported factory closures would begin August 26,  my recent ability to take deep breaths of fresh air seems to indicate that some may have shut their doors a bit earlier.

The government is taking several steps to ensure the clear blue hue (already dubbed by Chinese media and social media as “G20 blue”) will endure until the end of the summit.

According to China Daily, “environmental protection inspectors will patrol key transportation areas, such as the airport, railway station and highways to catch emission violators and to prevent the burning of crop waste and garbage.” In addition to Shanghai, neighboring provinces are also reducing or halting production in an effort to keep the skies G20-blue for the upcoming conference.

International meetings tend to result in clear air in China.The notoriously smoggy Beijing was free of its hallmark air pollution when it hosted a meeting of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2014. To achieve “APEC-blue” skies, the government stopped production in 10,000 factories and reduced production in another 39,000 in the provinces surrounding Beijing.

It speaks to the enormity of China’s air pollution problem that the government is shutting down industry in a major region (which I assume must have some kind of economic consequence) for at least two weeks in order to give Hangzhou the illusion of a clean environment. Because whatever appears in photos or on television during the conference’s coverage will be just that: an illusion. Something tailor-made for media consumption.

But I’m still going to enjoy it while I can!

Shanghai’s Beautifully Deceptive Blue Sky

A blue sky overlooking Shanghai’s West Nanjing Road on January 19

After what feels like weeks of rain and the thickening encroachment of grey, choking smog that usually signals the onslaught of winter in China, today Shanghai has been rewarded with a practically azure-colored sky.

This is a shot of West Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street leading to People’s Square, the center of downtown Shanghai. From this angle the World Financial Center ( commonly known among expats here as the “bottle-cap opener building”) and the Shanghai Tower, Pudong’s defining – and tallest – skyscraper. Both of these buildings are part of the city’s now iconic skyline on The Bund, one of Shanghai’s prime tourist attractions.

I typically gauge the city’s level of smog by the visibility of those skyscrapers. If I can clearly see the buildings, as I can today, I figure it’s a good day. There are some days – yesterday morning, in fact – when the air pollution is so thick that both of the buildings are almost completely obscured. On those days, I have to squint to make out any faded sign of the mammoth Shanghai Tower.

It’s a beautiful day today. But, is it a clean day? My Air Quality Index application tells me I shouldn’t trust my eyes. Despite the lovely facade, there is still apparently an unhealthy level of PM 2.5 in the air today. As I’ve already written, particulate matter 2.5 – a byproduct of exhaust fumes and burning fossil fuels – has been linked with various health disorders, including respiratory diseases and blood clots.

An AQI under 50 is categorized as a “healthy” level of PM 2.5. Anything above 100 is considered “unhealthy.” The most concerning category, between 301-500, is “hazardous.”

I’m pretty sure my entire winter in Jinan, Shandong last year consisted of “hazardous” days. Those aren’t as common in Shanghai.


Blue skies can be deceptive.




What the hell are the four tones of Mandarin?


I can’t pretend that my spoken Chinese skills are anything other than basic, but I know a decent number of useful words. I can say some everyday sentences (yes, these sentences are mostly related to greetings, shopping and ordering food… but it’s something!).

But even though I know I’m using the correct words, and I know what I’m saying, the local Shanghainese often look at me with confusion when I order my yībēi kāfēi (cup of coffee) or ask for the price (duōshǎo) of one knickknack or another. That’s because my mastery of Mandarin’s four tones can be described with one word: shit.

Mandarin Chinese has four “tones” that affect the way the words are pronounced. While that may seem like a perfectly straightforward concept to understand, attempting to comprehend and imitate those tones can be a struggle.

In Mandarin, each syllable of a word is pronounced with one of four tones: the first tone (high level), second tone (rising level), third tone (falling and then rising) and the fourth tone (falling). Each tone is represented by a different symbol in pinyin. Because many Chinese characters have the same pronunciation, the four tones differentiate those words when they are spoken.

The most commonly used example involves the Mandarin word “ma”.

  • First tone: mā (mother)
  • Second tone: má (to bother)
  • Third tone: mǎ (horse)
  • Fourth tone: mà (to scold)

Moreover, the toneless “ma” is also used at the end of sentences in order to signify a question.

It makes sense in theory. In practice it’s… confusing.

While the English languages does use tone to alter the meanings of certain words or sentences (think of the sharp, falling tone we might use when angrily saying a word like “No!” or the rising tone we use at the end of spoken questions ) they do not heavily influence the language. Our ears – at least my ears – are not trained to pick up these small nuances in vocabulary words and then process those nuances as different ideas. Unless it’s processing sarcasm.

Simply put – it is extremely difficult for me to hear the various tones in Mandarin unless someone is speaking really, really slowly. Trying to imitate those tones, particularly the falling-and-rising third tone, is even more difficult. And often results in a lot of laughter from the Shanghainese watching this bewildered American trying to order a bowl of wonton soup without the aid of a translator app.

For more on the four tones I recommend this video by a Chinese-American woman who made an explainer specifically for English speakers.