There is an environmental disaster of epic proportions looming over the great city of Shanghai and it is threatening to change our way of life forever. We are being forced to dress differently, walk differently and apply chemicals to our skin to protect us from this hazard. In spite of the evidence, some observers claim that this phenomenon is a natural occurrence in cities that do not contain 26 million people and 5 billion cars.
I have been doing extensive research and have found out that this phenomenon is called "the sun" and it has been beating down on us without mercy for much of the summer, especially in the last week. To more recent residents of ‘The Hai’, this may not seem like a big deal; indeed, if they were formerly denizens of the North Pole, for example, they would probably welcome the heat.
However, those crusty veterans who love nothing more than to bore their listeners with stories of “the way it used to be in China, long before Starbucks, when we had to grind coffee with our teeth and wash it down with boiling water,” the intense heat of the sun is a sign of impending Armageddon, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, a surfboard his steed, and a beach umbrella his standard. Is there going to be much more of this clear-sky thing? I certainly hope not … I like to be able to see what I’m breathing.
It never used to be this way (cue the collective eye roll at the ranting of the crusty veteran…). Way back when, Shanghai was a real city, where men were men and they all had black lung. What the city lacked in automobiles it made up for in coal-stoked power plants, belching factories and two-stroke tractors that could poke a hole in the ozone layer like a bowling ball through damp tissue paper. There were some days where I nearly chipped a tooth breathing. At one point, I seriously considered taking up smoking just so I could filter the air that I inhaled. It is true that from time to time, the wind would blow in some blessed harmonic convergence of meteorological forces and the sun would peek out of the haze. On one such occasion, in the company of my daughter, a pre-schooler at the time, I stood in awe as she stopped in her tracks, extended her arms to soak up the rays, chanting, “the sun, the sun…look at the sun.” Yikes.
In preparation for the Expo in 2010, Shanghai city leaders, in their wisdom, moved most of the industry outside the city limits and, of course, industrial pollution has moved along with it. With clear skies, the sun is visible, and weather forecasters are no longer the object of curses. At least not from newcomers to the city. The rest of us, however, are less than excited because we are all too aware of the attending hazards.
For example, on a sunny day in Shanghai, many women will shield themselves with umbrellas, presumably to prevent looking like human beef jerky when they are 80. Walk around downtown at lunchtime and witness the Battle of the Bumbershoots as they fight for sidewalk space. It is now possible to be blinded by the sun … not by staring directly into it but by being poked in the eye repeatedly by a series of office workers wielding their umbrellas like Mary Poppins on a caffeine-fueled rampage. In the old days, being blinded in this fashion was rare; however, coughing up a lung was a real threat, so I suppose there were trade-offs.
Recently, when I was out playing a round of golf (at least that is what good players call it; I use other four-letter words to describe my game), I applied 50 spf lotion to my exposed parts to protect me from the sun. For those of you who are not chemical engineers, 50 spf is like wrapping yourself in aluminum foil, the protection is supposed to be that good. The claim is false. In the end, I ended the day short 12 golf balls and 15 shades darker than my usual pasty-white-beached-Beluga-whale look. Next time, I will bring more balls and wear a surplus nuclear fallout suit.
Just think of all the accessories we must now acquire here to protect ourselves: sun visors, sun glasses and big floppy sun hats, to name just a few. What a pain! Do you know what my tall, gangly frame looks like in a big, floppy sun hat? I’m not sure how to describe it but I’m pretty sure I could pick up signals from space were I positioned properly.
My point is that the heat of the sun in Shanghai is intensifying to an alarming degree. Recently I visited a client’s office where the staff had opened the windows though they were running the air conditioner full blast. Apparently, they had been indulging in this peculiar practice for quite some time, because the strength of the sun’s rays had peeled the lead paint on the walls and curled the AstroTurf on the floor.
Years ago, the recipe for a Shanghai summer used to read “cover with a thick layer of petrochemical particulate matter and bake at 350 degrees for five months.” Today, we have more modern cooking techniques available to us courtesy of the sun: broiling, toasting, searing and good old-fashioned barbeque.
We also have something called the “heat index” to more accurately measure our suffering. For example, the other day the mercury read 39 degrees (103 degrees Fahrenheit for Paris Accord-snubbing Americans) but the heat index registered 43. I am not sure how useful a distinction this is … kind of like saying: “I was run over by a mini-van but it felt like getting hit by a truck.”
Welcome to the new Shanghai summer. And keep your hazmat suits handy.