For a while I thought China was killing me. But that was unfair.
Through my wife’s and my first year in Shanghai, I felt worse by the day. Tired, achy, surly, weak. And that’s not even counting the hospital stay with IV-drip antibiotics, after I naively drank bottled water in a Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurant—and on the way out saw a waiter filling the “Evian” bottles from a hose. Friends we’d known in our pre-China life did pitying double takes when they came to visit. Surely the ochre skies and suspect sanitation of China were to blame?
Actually, no. On a trip back to America, I learned that I felt sick because I was. Just before moving, I’d apparently developed an odd endocrine disorder that makes people tired, achy, surly, weak. No space for details, but: if your doctor tells you that very high blood-calcium levels may indicate an abnormal parathyroid gland, listen up! On a later U.S. trip, after we’d moved from Shanghai to Beijing, I had an operation that resolved the problem. I went back to China feeling better than I had in years.
But like most outsiders who have spent time there, I naturally wondered: now that I’d recovered, would smoky urban China start killing me for real? The health situation for ordinary Chinese people is obviously no joke. After stalling, the Chinese government recently accepted a World Bank estimate that some 750,000 of its people die prematurely each year just from air pollution. Alarming upsurges in birth defects and cancer rates are reported even in the state-controlled press.