The Unraveled Teacher

The Real Deal with Kunshan’s Air Quality

When my husband was offered a job at Kang Chiao International School in Kunshan, China last spring, the first concern we had about moving our family there was the air quality. China is notorious for having horrible air quality, and I had experienced the black, sooty air of Beijing firsthand on trip there a few years back. The air hurt my eyes and turned my snot black. There was no way I’d ever consider living in Beijing, especially with my daughter. But, Kunshan, which is wedged between Shanghai and Suzhou, is quite far from Beijing. It also seemed promising that Shanghai is a coastal city, and generally speaking, coastal cities enjoy fresh ocean air.

I took to Facebook and found a group called Kunshan Expats Group that had lots of information about living in Kunshan. Someone had already asked the very question I had in mind. Responses to the question of air quality were somewhat vague, but still encouraging. There seemed to be a consensus that Kunshan enjoyed plenty of clear days that were perfect for outdoor activities with kids. I didn’t look much further than this- I was looking for positive answers that would affirm my desire to move overseas, and China was really the only option that came with a decent salary.

Arriving in Kunshan

We flew into Shanghai and arrived at night and half dead from the awful flight. We had no sense of what the air was like then. The following morning, someone from my husband’s school picked us up and took us into Kunshan. As we sat in the van for the nearly two hours it took to get from the Pudong airport to our hotel in Kunshan, we stared out the windows silently. Both my husband and I were looking at the brownish grey sky that was not cloudy. I was filled with dread.

We we got to our hotel in Kunshan, I had to stand outside with our baby because people were smoking in the lobby. The air outside was only marginally better than the cigarette smoke inside. I felt at that moment that we had made a huge mistake. I think it’s quite normal to feel this way when moving your family the other side of the world, but being outside is really important to me. I remember telling my husband there was no way I could run here if this was how bad the air was going to be.

Occasional Clear, Blue Skies

Luckily, the skies cleared up pretty well the very next day. The sky was blue, although only if you looked straight up. Smog clings to the horizon even on good days. What we learned was that in the late summer months, there are good days and bad days. You just have to pick and choose what days to go outside if you want to avoid heavy smog.

Typhoon Season in Kunshan

As the typhoons began rolling in, I was excited. Usually when we had some rain, the air was much cleaner the following day. A typhoon would be like a much needed pressure washing for the gross air! What actually happened was a few hours of really clear air immediately following each typhoon but then these horrible brown smog clouds would get pulled in. The air would be even worse for a few days.

The Bad Months

Winter has been awful. We never see the sun which is due to either overcast skies, super smoggy skies, or a combination. I started using an app called AirVisual to check on the air quality to determine whether or not I should go running. When the air is really bad, I can feel it in my lungs during a run. The app is pretty neat and has colors for the different levels of air quality. Green is obviously healthy, clean air. Yellow means the air is in moderate condition. Orange indicates that sensitive people should stay indoors and that windows should be kept closed. This is the most common level in Kunshan. Then there’s the red zone in which it’s recommended people wear masks or stay inside. I originally thought red was the highest level of poor air quality, but man was I wrong! There is purple and then even purpler! It rarely gets to that level, but it does get there. Today we are enjoying “very unhealthy” air in Kunshan.

This is the view from our apartment. The river just beyond those buildings is quite close. On a really good day, you can see for miles beyond the river.

The Takeaway

I do not think we’ve had enough good days for me to tell anyone that Kunshan has decent air quality. When you compare Kunshan to Beijing, maybe we fare a bit better, but I actually check up on Beijing’s air quality a lot and they seem to be doing much better than Kunshan these days. I have not seen sunshine in weeks and I haven’t seen a day in green zone in weeks. Each day the air seems to get worse. I worry the entire winter will be this way. This has resulted in me keeping my daughter inside far more than I’d like to where we have air purifiers running constantly.

Shanghai and Suzhou have pretty much the same air quality as Kunshan, so if you’re considering moving to any of these places, this account works for those cities as well.

If it seems as though I’m being picky or whiny, it’s because I think breathing clean air is a big deal. The reason you find so many Chinese people spitting all the time is because their sinuses are literally clogged with junk from the bad air. People who live their lives in polluted cities like the ones in China tend to develop all the problems that heavy smokers develop.

Some things about living in China are fantastic. I had a chocolate milkshake delivered to my door the other night and right now I have an ayi cleaning my apartment while I leisurely type out a blog post and play with my daughter. However, the air quality (and internet censorship) is what’s got us looking for our next home outside of China a few years earlier than expected.


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