The Air We Breathe

I returned from Kathmandu late last night. More on my other-worldly experiences there and in India and Tibet to follow. Today, I want to share the news that my Peace Corps odyssey has come to an end. I debated whether to write a post about it. I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s currently in, or thinking about joining, Peace Corps. And I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care about being judged for backing out of something I had planned to do. Those concerns are outweighed by my desire to put my genuine self – the good, the bad and the ugly – into my posts, in the hope of helping someone who’s going through a similar experience. So here goes.

When I decided to apply for Peace Corps, I pictured myself living in a village or small city in South America, habla-ing Espanol, and helping people improve their skills and education to make their lives better. I put South America as my preference on my Peace Corps application and started investigating places to brush up on my Spanish skills. During my Peace Corps interview, I was told they only send people to South America who are already fluent in Spanish.

I was nominated to teach English at a university in China. Anxious to learn more about what that experience would be like, I searched for books about volunteering for Peace Corps in China. I hit the jackpot with Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Michael Levy (the “Kosher” part referring to the fact that Levy is Jewish). Levy liked his experience in China. The intent of his book is not to discourage people from joining Peace Corps.

But Levy wrote about things that were news to me. Did you know that sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China? That nearly 200 Chinese cities fail to meet minimal air quality standards? And that fifty percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they’re not even fit for industrial usage, and ninety percent of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated?

Levy describes his airplane’s “slow descent into a brown soup of pollution” and an “industrial nightmare” in Chengdu (the capital city of the Sichuan province and Peace Corp’s headquarters in China):

“I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after contracted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn’t be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one’s lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corp nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.”

This seemed far-fetched to me, too. How could any country, especially a world power like China, be in such horrendous environmental condition in 2012? Then the Universe handed me a gift. I went for my annual physical at Northwestern and my regular doctor was on vacation. I saw another doctor who recently returned from several years of living in China.

She confirmed the dangers of breathing Chinese air. After living in China for two years, a CT scan of my lungs would look like that of a life-long smoker. Knowing that I’m on Synthroid (a prescription thyroid medication), she also told me about her mistake of getting a prescription filled in China. Many commonly used U.S. medications aren’t available in China, or don’t contain the same ingredients, or are counterfeit. She became seriously ill from the prescription medication and had to return to the U.S. for several months of detox.

Not exercising or taking my thyroid meds for two years would be compounded by what Levy describes as the “oil heavy” Chinese diet, consisting of “fried dough for breakfast every morning and piles of greasy meats for lunch and dinner” (something  I experienced first hand during my week in Tibet, which is officially — albeit very, very sadly — part of China). And the meat frequently comes from man’s best friend. Lassie. Rover. Toto. Levy describes walking past the “Dog Meat King” every day on his way to his classroom: “Its name – as well as the carcasses that dangled in its windows – made me pretty sure they weren’t serving chicken.”

Not. What. I. Bargained. For.

Sometimes that thing you’re pursuing with all of your energy turns out not to be the right thing for you. But if you’re lucky, and if you’re open to it, you learn from the journey. You learn about yourself, the world, and what truly matters in life. In this case, I learned that while I was willing to sacrifice my material possessions, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health. I also learned how lucky we are to find ourselves living in a place where we can step outside and breathe the air without worrying about what our CT scans will look like as a result.

I still have visions of going to South America for volunteer work. Only this time I plan to go to Guatemala in 2013 to help build schools from recycled materials with an organization called Save The World Today (featured in an article in the September 2012 edition of Oprah’s “O” magazine). Did I mention they don’t eat dogs in Guatemala?

6 thoughts on “The Air We Breathe

  1. Thanks! Although I had a fantastic time abroad, it is good to be home. I have a new found appreciation for fresh vegetables, streets that only contain cars (no cows, school children, scooters or rickshaws), and western-style toilets. However, I miss the smell of burning sage, the bright colors and beautiful embroidery of saris, and greeting people with “Namaste” (in Nepal) and “Tashi Delek” (in Tibet).

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