Why Living In China Is Making My Hair Fall Out

Sabrina Mondschein
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I am 24 years old and I am losing my hair.

My friends and family helped me find out why, and we discovered that, coupled with a limited diet and a little stress, Xi’an’s pollution has taken a toll on my body.

I had moved to Xi’an after college to study Chinese and start my journalism career. I found three Chinese college students looking for a fourth roommate and thought the $50 in monthly rent would make for a cheap language immersion experience.

Xi’an is a coal-burning city; there are three smokestacks sitting directly outside my window. They puff fumes into our apartment, coating everything in a film of black dust. This is not the “bad” part of town—almost everyone has a window looking out onto smoke stacks. I can now recognize the smell of coal burning anywhere, and when the slightest whiff comes through the house I rush to close all the windows and curtains. My roommates say they are Chinese and therefore do not notice the smell.

Locals are not entirely oblivious to the pollution, however. In winter, most people wear a facemask because the air is colder and that much more polluted from coal-burning ovens used for heating. Those from outside the city reminisce about the fresh air back home. Comments on the pollution replace chitchat about the weather. “Did you go out yesterday? It was so foggy!” goes the euphemism.

My Chinese friends and neighbors react to smog the same way they would likely react to fog: annoyance, but never anger. They say the air is bad, but shrug it off. “What can we do?” they ask.

I initially took their shrugs as a sign of apathy. But when we had to pay the electricity bill, my roommates were all but apathetic. We use a prepaid card for electricity, much like a calling card. When the money on the card runs out, there is no electricity. We then run down to the management office, card in hand, to top off.

One day, my roommate, Michelle, came into my room for the second time that week to collect the roughly 10RMB ($1.30) we each contributed to the electricity bill. “How about paying 100RMB ($12) this time?” I offered. My three roommates collectively gasped. One hundred was way too much.
I offered to pay the whole bill, since I refused to use florescent lighting, played music any time I was home, and took longer showers. I was, after all, the big consuming American in the group. But they refused. They tried to explain that this was our apartment, and we all share it. We cannot separate the bill to see how much one person uses, so we all have to pay together. Furthermore, they argued, if we put too much money on the card we would get careless and forget to turn off the lights.

Their solution was to use less electricity: to take out the lights in the living room, since we only watch TV there, and to shower less. After little more debate, we agreed that for now I could pay up to about 25RMB ($3.25) in electricity, and we could discuss the arrangement again later. I was satisfied with our decision, but bewildered by their thinking.

During the following months I began to understand their logic: It embodied thriftiness to the highest degree. They saved every plastic bag, mended even the most inexpensive clothes or pots before buying new ones, and adamantly avoided taxis, even in the rain and cold. Two would sit at one desk to study so they could share the light from one lamp. We spent hours cleaning the apartment each week to save the 20RMB ($2.60) it would cost to pay a cleaning lady.

Quiet and unobtrusive, my roommates were nevertheless resolute in their views and acted them out wholeheartedly each day. To them, each yuan spent was hard-earned money from their parents. They did not feel they had the right to spend it freely, and they didn’t have much of it to begin with.

The sense of ownership my roommates felt over our home coupled with their sense of debt to their parents astounded, humbled, and at times upset my consumption-based senses. Sometimes I just wanted a long, hot shower or a room filled with light on a dreary winter day, but no one had ever made me so acutely aware of the costs. And my roommates hadn’t even picketed outside my room.

They had a strong sense of their role within their family, but also within the home we had created for ourselves. They each contributed to the bills and the hours we cleaned. Their bonds with their parents seemed to be at the forefront of their minds; they often brought it up in conversation, and so did the stream of friends that came to visit us. “This is the Chinese way,” I would often hear. This was their honor code as they defined it, which made me question how “Chinese” I would ever try to be, and what that would mean in the context of my daily life. 

Looking back, I don’t ever remember my roommates complaining. When the weather was turning and one of my roommates, Liyang, couldn’t afford a coat, she smiled and told us not to worry; she could just wear more layers. I didn’t hear an undertone of bitterness, and her attitude astounded me. She was just doing her part.

My roommates’ motivation might not have been to protect the world’s ecosystem, but they were helping “their environment”: their family and friends, even when those people were thousands of miles away. Wild protests and gloom-and-doom messages have their place in the realms of politics and media, but what really makes us change? I had seen the protests and felt the verifiable anger of friends around the world who sincerely cared about making a difference. But no one affected my behavior and my outlook more than my roommates, starting with a debate over the electricity bill.


Posted on 6/22/2009 by

Colin Jones

Colin Jones

I am surprised how thrifty your roommates are, I had roommates for the first couple years I was here but we never felt the need to go to such extremes and it is not as if they were wealthy but it never seemed so necessary to save every last yuan we could get our hands on. I too live within a wiff of a coal burning plant and the black dust it leaves on everything is well recognized in your story, we do have a cleaning lady come in every week or we just could not keep on top of it. Also might I add that towards the end of your story you trail off from the begging, might be good to bring it all back to the beginning where you started and tie everything up.

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