If you’re new to Beijing or are planning a trip here, there are some things you can’t take for granted when it comes to your health. You might know about China’s air pollution woes but there are other facts of life to take into account here, such as food hygiene and water safety. Here’s a quick primer on what to watch out for. 

1. Smog, Smog, Go Away
Let’s get this one out of the way: Air pollution is the chief health concern for most individuals and families living here. Expats here compare AQI (Air Quality Index) and air purifiers with the same gusto that cold climate dwellers discuss subzero temperatures and snow shovel models. You can’t change the smog, but you can be proactive by investing in air purifiers and pollution masks.

2. Eins, Zwei, Dry
Beijing’s climate is characterized by hot, humid summers and dry, cold winters. In the spring, severe dust storms sometimes blow into the city from western China. These weather conditions can wreak havoc on the body; many expats complain of dry skin and brittle hair. Stock up on soothing moisturizers, essential oils, and products like argan oil for hair.

3. Food for Thought
China is plagued by regular food scandals, including dead pigs being dumped in Shanghai’s Huangpu River, pork passed off as beef with red dye and unscrupulous marketing, and cooking oil salvaged from gutters for re-use in local restaurants. Learn how to read labels, ask questions about your food, support organic farms, and do your groceries at reputable supermarkets.

4. You Are What You Eat
Problems with food hygiene extend to the dinner table. Most newcomers experience at least one bout of the much-feared “Beijing belly,” a.k.a. food poisoning. In addition, Chinese restaurants tend to use liberal amounts of salt, oil, and MSG in their dishes. Vegans and vegetarians may find it difficult to make their dietary restrictions understood, as many servers interpret chi sude (“vegetarian”) to mean “eats seafood” or “consumes meat broth.”

5. Taking Care of Business
Get into the habit of carrying tissue paper on you at all times; most public bathrooms (and even some restaurant bathrooms) don’t provide toilet paper. What’s more, squat toilets are still the norm here; they’re considered more hygienic than western-style toilets since no contact is involved. Many hutong public bathrooms don’t have divided stalls, so you may find yourself squatting next to elderly Chinese casually reading their morning paper while answering the call of nature or if you're really lucky, Beijing's heaviest smoker who has a penchant for the loudest video game imaginable.

6. Come Hell or Hard Water
After living here for a while, you might notice that clothes feel dingy and starchy after a wash and your dishes are often spotted with water stains. That’s because Beijing has hard water, which contains a significant amount of dissolved minerals like calcium and magnesium. Hard water can take a toll on your skin and hair, as well as increase energy consumption for household appliances since soap doesn’t lather up as easily. As a result, many families install water filters on their showers and taps.

7. Drinking It In
While we’re on the topic, you can’t drink the tap water in Beijing. Newer residential compounds sometimes have a separate tap for drinking water next to the kitchen faucet, but this isn’t the norm in China. Most people still get their drinking water from 19L bottled jugs mounted on a water cooler. The main brands are Wahaha, Nestle, Robust, and Yanjing. However, past investigations have found widespread cases of fake bottled water. Nestle actually allows consumers to check the authenticity of their water by going to a website (www.95001111.com) and entering the serial number on a peel-off label.

8. Calling the Shots
All imported vaccines in China must undergo clinical tests and be approved by the State Food and Drug Administration. Because the process can take several years, newer vaccines available overseas may not yet be available in China. Some question the trustworthiness of domestic vaccines, but many international hospitals – including Beijing United Family Hospital – say they’re perfectly safe. According to a FAQ on their website, “the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) mandates that each single batch of vaccine has to pass rigorous testing before being released into the market.”

9. Bitter Medicine
There are no western-style drugstores outside of international hospitals in Beijing, only traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) pharmacies and apothecaries. Most Chinese pharmacies will carry basic western remedies like ibuprofen and allergy medication, but good luck finding Benadryl, Midol, or VapoRub. Most international hospitals have an attached drugstore, but be prepared to pay through the nose if you don’t have a prescription. Luckily, popular Chinese remedies can be substituted for minor aches and pains, such as pipa gao for a sore throat or cough and 999 Ganmaolin for colds.

10. Talking Shop
Speaking of shopping, you’d be surprised how difficult it is to find some items here that you may take for granted back home: stick deodorant, women’s shaving cream, full-spectrum sunscreen, non-whitening products, good moisturizer, and tampons. Whenever you do find them, they tend to be shockingly expensive. If you haven’t moved to Beijing yet or can rely on family and friends to bring you things, we recommend stocking up on some or all of these items.

This article originally appeared in the beijingkids Health Guide 2014. To get your free copy, email [email protected] or view it online at Issuu.

Photos: Courtesy of NASA Space Goddard Flight, Jikra Matousek, Terry Johnson, Anja Disseldorp, Blake Patterson, Debs (Flickr)

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