Don't blame it on Beijing

By Lara Farrar (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-08 10:08
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Don't blame it on Beijing

METRO reporter Lara Farrar reveals how the relocation affects expats' health

"For a while I thought China was killing me. But that was unfair."

That is how James Fallows, former Beijing correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, begins a recent article on whether foreigners living in China are shaving years off their lives by, well, living in China.

"How long could outsiders live in big, polluted Chinese cities before facing the same actuarial risks as the people who'd grown up there," writes Fallows who is now reporting for the Atlantic back in the United States. "Now that foreigners have business, cultural and sheer-fascination reasons to spend time in China, should those opaque skies scare them away?"

Really, should we be afraid? The World Bank, after all, estimates in 2007 that some 750,000 people die prematurely in China just from air pollution. And recent reports indicate cancer cases, birth defects, and other illnesses, including diabetes, are rapidly increasing in the country.

With such stories swirling around amidst sandstorms, smog and swine flu, it's no wonder conversations among expats in Beijing and elsewhere often swerve towards the topic of how we are feeling here: Our hair falls out, a lot, when we wash it. Perfect complexions inexplicably turn putrid. We always feel tired. Our stomachs hurt. Has China turned us into a bunch of crazed hypochondriacs?

Yes and no, according to Marie Shieh, a physician at Beijing United Family Hospital.

"It is easy to blame Beijing," said Shieh. "But part of the tiredness and feeling down is from the stress of moving to a new place. Stress-related illnesses are some of the most common things we see."

Don't blame it on Beijing

Yes, life is undoubtedly full of stress for those who've just landed in Beijing. But what about those of us who have been here for a while?

"We see more diarrhea than we would in the United States," said Shieh. "It is probably because of a combination of different diets and bacteria compared to their home countries."

Lovely thought, but certainly true that chicken feet, donkey burgers and stinky tofu tend to cause more tummy aches among expats than ordinary Chinese.

As for incidences of other illnesses expats have imagined up as some sort of exotic China syndrome, Shieh's response is disappointingly normal: Foreigners catch the same bugs here as they probably would back home.

"We see the same kinds of things we see everywhere," she said. "Yet there are a lot more infections to be picked up by all of the different people around us."

And also apparently by the number of people some of us are sleeping with: "I see a lot of sexually transmitted diseases here," Shieh said.But what about the impact of something more serious than STDs and stomachaches: pollution.

"Of course, pollution, toxic chemicals and pesticides will definitely take a toll on our health," said Shieh. "I think it is good to drink organic milk and eat organic food and get regular exercise. We do know if you exercise in pollution it is better than no exercise at all. Pollution is just part of the whole equation."

So maybe weaker expat immune systems make it a little easier to get sick. And culture shock and other stress make us tired. Pollution affects everyone, so no excuse there. Bottom line: if you are foreign and you are not feeling well, do what you would do anywhere - eat well, exercise regularly and get plenty of rest.

Or, as Fallows writes: "Worry about something else!"