Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Help, I can't breathe!

While efforts were made in Beijing to improve the city air quality in time for the Olympics, today in Kaohsiung, which will host the World Games in 2009, for about one hour this afternoon I could hardly breathe in my own home. It was not so bad with the windows closed, but it definitely goes to show just how much a single family here can do to increase greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate the already critical problem of global warming. Why three metal cans when one will do? Although the fires were already blazing, there remained a huge amount of paper money on the sidewalk waiting to be burned.
August is the "ghost month" in Taiwan, and in their efforts to placate or drive away the spirits that are temporarily released to roam to and fro across the earth, the more religious and superstitious in the community (a surprisingly large proportion of people in Taiwan) burn huge quantities of paper money (often with the "Bank of Hell" printed on the notes) right outside their homes and apparently without any concern for who will have to suffer from the huge clouds of smoke generated (which they always make sure doesn't blow into their own home).
It is certainly difficult to talk to the more superstitious neighbors about this. To them religion is of course a very personal matter and they have always done this and everyone else does. The environmental authorities also turn a blind eye to it. Only international pressure might eventually lead to change, just as it did over an international outcry over various body parts of tigers being sold in Chinese medicine shops some years ago.
To be fair, these particular neighbors have so far only done things like this on so grand a scale on key Chinese festivals during the year. Normally, they don't cause any trouble. However, suffocation from gas inhalation is a little like drowning in water. It may only last a short time, but that is enough to kill you. Somehow people need to be educated, and to learn that what they do is fine as long as it does not endanger the health or lives of other people.
Turning to the Olympics, I have really enjoyed the swimming coverage, with nearly every swim race morning and evening being shown live. I have also watched a few other sports like weightlifting, archery, tennis or badminton, mainly because athletes from Taiwan have been competing. To see race after race with so many different nationalities represented really amazes me, and with so many sports being played, it seems that each nationality or race of people is able to excel in something or other.
It is great to see so many people competing who have been training hard and overcoming a lot of difficulties and doubts in their journey to Beijing. In a country like Taiwan, it is unfortunate that there are so few athletes who have gone to compete, relatively speaking. It is not so much an issue of whether the money exists to train athletes, but few people it seems aspire to something like being an Olympian, and if they do, there are so many social pressures to discourage them and cause them to opt for a more secure future career-wise, which will often lead them to develop a lot of unhealthy habits like workaholism, no time for exercise, smoking or eating poorly.
While increasing numbers of people are doing some form of exercise here, whether it be cycling, swimming, tai-ch'i or modern dancing, the vast majority do little or nothing. Sport is just not ingrained in the national consciousness as it is in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. Fortunately, the local government of Kaohsiung has been actively promoting health and fitness and has built a lot of bike paths around the city. That is a good start, and one can see many people riding bicycles. When I first arrived in Taipei over 25 years ago, very few people rode bicycles and if you did, you rode at your own peril and there was nowhere you could ride, except in a sea of rapidly-moving motorcycles.
The last couple of days I went swimming as usual: 4,400 meters on Tuesday and 4,600 meters today (Wednesday). Nothing particularly spectacular time-wise, but it did feel very smooth. Maybe I am being a bit laid back this week. At least I feel comfortable and I am maintaining similar times to those in the more distant past with less effort. Next week I hope to have my swim camp. How much I do will depend on how much work I can still get done. With all the swimming on TV this week, my work has suffered a little, although I guess I need to take a break sometimes. Michael Phelps said he needed a lot of time to rest, and so should we. We cannot be on the go all the time.

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