My friend arrived into Shanghai last December, with her two daughters in tow, on the worst air quality day this city has ever seen. As she walked off the plane and into the airport, she thought, “What is that smell?” Soon, an unfamiliar taste filled her mouth and she began to feel small particles on her tongue. Instead of greeting her with flowers, her husband greeted her with facemasks.
Since my family relocated, I’ve swerved between the ditches of apathy and fear, specifically concerning food safety and air quality.
I love the variety of food in this city. My family has tried at least one new dish or food per week. Some of the vegetables that I’ve eaten from the wet market taste straight out of the garden, not like the bland U.S. supermarket veggies. The fresh carrots have spoiled me already, and the tomatoes that make incredible pasta sauce took me by surprise. And they are cheap. Enough vegetables for my family for one week cost 60RMB, a little more than $10.
But the horror stories are everywhere. 30,000 tons of chicken feet, tainted by hydrogen peroxide, seized by the government last month. 53,000 children sickened in 2008 by powdered milk with the plastic melamine added – and that was Nestlé, a trusted brand. Children are annually checked for high amounts of lead in their bloodstreams, much of which comes from the dirt and gives people ample reason to wash their produce well. Even a well-known supermarket that caters to foreigners and upper middle-class locals is rumored to have sprayed their produce with Raid. And expats absolutely DO NOT consume the local milk or honey. The city water is clean… until it goes through the pipes to people’s residences. At that point, it could contain a mixture of bacteria and (more likely) heavy metals.
As for the air quality, it has been clear and beautiful since we arrived. The consistent rain keeps the pollution at bay and we can open windows to bring in a nice breeze and the rich smell of flowering plants. My son has even noticed some planets shining in the clear night sky. Our compound hosts vibrant greenery and today, my son and I spotted this butterfly just outside our front door.
Then there is the rest of the story. In the winter, the weather patterns change and farmers burn their fields. Everyone has an app on their phones that monitors the official air quality. They check it every morning in the same way a person would check the weather in order to decide what to wear for the day but in this case, the question is, “Do I wear a facemask or not?” If the air quality index is 200+, most people send their kids to school with facemasks on. The day my friend arrived, Shanghai hit over 500. That same day in Beijing, the AQI was over 700, the point at which you can’t see your own hand fully extended in front of you.
Because of these issues, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to avoid both carelessness and paranoia.
You may live in a very different environment than I, and yet I have confidence that you have come across this dilemma at some point in your life.
Carelessness and paranoia, or more generally apathy and fear, are the attitude extremes. We are all given ample opportunities to respond to situations with one of these two attitudes.
Let me give you a sampling of some of these opportunities.
In raising our children.
In developing our marriages.
In building our careers.
In pursuing our studies.
In maintaining our health.
In addressing conflict.
In combatting injustice.
In stewarding our money.
Take a quick self-check.
Are you apathetic or fearful in raising your children?
Are you apathetic or fearful in developing your marriage?
Are you apathetic or fearful in building your career?
Are you apathetic or fearful in pursuing your studies?
Are you apathetic or fearful in maintaining your health?
Are you apathetic or fearful in addressing conflict?
Are you apathetic or fearful in combatting injustice?
Are you apathetic or fearful in stewarding your money?
Are you apathetic or fearful in some other area of your life?
The “I don’t care” attitude. Apathy lulls us to sleep like the tryptophan after a big Thanksgiving meal. All hell could break loose around us and yet we would be content to continue on as if we never knew. Better yet, we don’t even have to know that something should or could be different in this area of life. We can live in a false bubble. And if, by chance, that bubble should break, we can always blame the mess on someone else. After all, we never did anything. And the people we love are left questioning why we didn’t step in.
The “Danger is lurking around every corner” attitude. Fear either paralyzes us or transforms us into living monsters. We are driven, compelled, or overwhelmed by fear. News, advertising, and even weather forecasts play on our fears, knowing that it will lure us into watching more, buying more, or tracking more. We begin to hover, control, panic, run, over-analyze, hoard, worry, or… the list goes on and on. We smother or wound people and then wonder why we have pushed them away.
Listen. Our apathy or our fear impacts people. It hurts people. To do life well, you and I must learn to spend our time driving the road between the ditches of apathy and fear.
The name of the road between apathy and fear is wisdom.
The portion of the Bible entitled “Proverbs”, aptly dubbed the “Book of Wisdom”, contains 31 chapters of one-sentence pithy sayings. Chapter 2 answers the question, “Where do I start to get wisdom?”
“…indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear [respect, awe] of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
The Lord and wisdom are linked because when you are lacking something, you have to get it from somewhere outside of yourself. If you don’t have wisdom, you can’t work harder by yourself to produce it. If you desire to find wisdom, you will go to a person who can give it to you. It just so happens that the wisest, most just, fair, and right person is… God.
God does not respond to you with apathy. He cares about your life, He involves Himself in your world, and He loves you deeply even when you run away. He died in your place.
God does not respond to you with fear. He has confidence in His own power and strength, He sees all sides of every situation, and He brings justice to the oppressed. He crushed sin and death when He came to life from the dead.
In order to learn wisdom, you must come close to the God who shows neither apathy nor fear. When you understand, with all of your being, how He responds to you with love and justice, you will begin to live wisely also.
Practically speaking, if you lean toward apathy or fear, try reading one chapter of Proverbs a day. This crazy book covers everything from nagging wives to the value of children to how to take criticism to having integrity in business.
My personal October challenge is to read one chapter of Proverbs each day. Will you join me? Let’s do life well.
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If you are curious about our response to the environmental challenges in Shanghai, read on.
We buy this water and have it delivered to our house. It’s not as high-end as buying a filter for your sink faucet but it’s a middle-of-the-road solution that is very common here. We take brush our teeth with the tap water and take showers and baths in it as well.
Most foreigners drink shelf-stable UHT milk and cream. I tried the milk and immediately had to get the taste out of my mouth, so we’ve landed on this fresh milk imported from Japan.
Shanghai boasts several semi-organic food delivery websites that cater to foreigners. We buy our meat and milk from there. I will continue to get most of our fruits and vegetables at the local wet market. Many people I know in the States are also concerned about the additives that come along with their food and produce, so that aspect of food safety is not new.
I use this spray and the drinking water to wash food that we will eat raw and unpeeled. We peel as much produce as possible. However, when my sweet vegetable lady hands my kids carrots that she just peeled with her antiquated rusty knife, I won’t blink an eye. People are just more important than worrying about contaminants.
We invested in air purifiers for our home. They will likely run constantly in December and January. While we can, we will leave the windows wide open.
We will be buying one of these vogmasks, or something similar, for each of our family members. They look a bit like gas masks, which is unnerving, but they are high quality and will protect our kids’ lungs.
In essence, we are actively planning for what we can while enjoying the really great aspects of this experience overseas. We will face challenges, but we will not be anxious about what we encounter, knowing that the God who brought us here will take care of us here.