Author

Tina Haskins Chadha

The next generation of global citizens from everywhere, from nowhere

For third culture kids answering the question “where are you from” is not so simple. For the children of expats this explanation can take embarrassingly too long and cause some anxiety. Should the answer be one of nationality, where one was born, where one lives presently? Even where ones parents are from?

It was American sociologist Ruth Useem who in the 1950’s first coined the term third culture kid (TCK). She was studying the children of Americans living and working in India. The term was conceived to describe expatriate children who spend their formative years outside of their home country. They are shaped by the multicultural, nomadic spheres of their parents, many of whom are diplomats, military members or working for major multinational corporations. What she observed more than half a century ago rings true today still. Third culture kids are a globe spanning, diverse and highly adaptable lot.

As expat parents many of us find ourselves in the position of raising third culture kids. Even if we have recently moved abroad, the transition from “regular” kid to TCK happens faster than your shipping container might arrive. There are a few fail proof signs to determine if you are dealing with a third culture child. 1) The child’s accent changes depending on who they are talking too, 2) Even young children are very, very good a calculating time differences and flight durations 3) They pick up multi-language curse words before they can pass grade five spelling, 4) They know how the McDonald’s menu varies drastically from country to country. 5) They can convert the price of any toy to least two different currencies in an instant. There is a certain sparkle and fascination when it comes to this group, those with the well stamped passports and perfect recall of the best airport lounge food offerings.

Happy young mother playing and having fun with her little baby son in the park on a sunny summer day. Family on sunset

With the exception this past year due to Covid-19, expat families find themselves relocating frequently to locations that reach even the most remote corners of the globe. Children often transfer from one international school to the next every three to five years. They are exposed to communities populated by peers from dozens of nations with a melting pot of languages, customs and traditions that blend together. From this eclectic realm the concept of the “third” culture is born.

Each expat community differs in terms of the mix of precise backgrounds and nationalities, but what remains consistent is how expat groups prioritise spending time with each other. Their shared experience in a perpetual loop morphing from newbie, to fully settled in, to prepping to move again is at once both relatable and frustrating. There is the initial excitement, then the big ambitious plans to master the local language to the realisation that the posting is nearly complete and it will soon be time to pack out! Expat community members relate to one another on a level that acknowledges this state of impermanence, of always upcoming mobility whether for the annual trek back home to visit family or the move to the next post. The children of expats historically were even pigeonholed into smaller, less complimentary, category labels reflecting where their parents worked – “Army brats,” “biz kids,” “diplo brats,” even “oil kids.” Putting these belittling labels aside, third culture kids do have a unique upbringing. They are comfortable within multicultural settings. They typically are better equipped to deal with newness and change. They have to hone these skills to thrive, after all.

But it is not always smooth sailing for these cultural chameleons. There are some unique challenges to raising third culture kids. Most important may be the stress level they experience when the time comes to repatriate to their home country. A stress that can be compounded by the anticipation of culture shock their parents themselves expect imminently as well. The simplicity of early childhood is a time under appreciated by TCK parents. At the time, parents are too exhausted to recognise the early years are the “honeymoon phase” of third culture kid parenting. The inherently adaptable child will be amendable to trekking along on a variety of outings, even the “boring” cultural stops or rustic hikes through remote hillsides. The challenging teenage years are when the TCK will typically feel more worry over peer issues, fitting in or more accurately worry about being different. These life disruptions do run the risk of having lasting effects from loneliness to depression.

Yet, overall, most highlight that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks of raising third culture kids. The experience also can bring the family closer through these shared times of change and adjustment. So, let’s celebrate the benefits of today’s TCK – an ever digitally connected, creative and curious tribe. This child can become bilingual or multilingual, a skill exceptionally seamless to achieve in the early years when language skills are developing. They can gain a truly worldview perspective getting up close knowledge of everything from cultural events to civil unrest. They can be more sensitive and empathetic to people from different backgrounds and socio-economic groups. They will be highly adaptive. They will have killer stories to share with friends back home and their own children in the future. They will have a network of friends around the globe. They will always think a flight under five hours is a quick commute. They will be natural mathematicians needing to calculate cost of goods between currencies, Amazon import fees and time zone differences for social media chats with friends across an array of globe time zones. They will have a diverse range of favourite foods, goofball jokes and corny songs to love.

Some say being a third culture kids creates a risk of being rootless. Never fully belonging to one place over another. I believe it brings choice, freedom, and adaptability – benefits that are priceless.

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If we can see a glimmer of positivity from the past year as the world grappled with the COVID-19 global pandemic, one can rank widespread acceptance of masks as a method to protect our health and those around us. Many of us have incredibly spent the last 12 months wearing facial masks outside of our home seven days a week. Young and old, we are all masked warriors doing our best to stay healthy. 2020 certainly saw the mask and mask accessory industry explode like never before. 2021 and it appears that necessity will continue long into the year. We have taken this step diligently as a way to help protect our health and halt the spread of COVID-19. What we have also accomplished by default is countless hours of cleaner air making its way into our lungs. The right mask that fits well helps protect us from Covid-19 and protects our lungs from the toxic pollutants that are in the air. 

Over the past decade, I became uniquely and alarmingly acquainted with the hazards of air pollution on human health. Like a toxic friendship you just can’t shake, even short term exposure to dirty air lingers on the mind and manifests across the body with nagging coughs, dull headaches and irritation of eyes and throat. The worry of air pollution on our health over these past years became so great it yielded personal action for me. In the early 2010’s, I helped co-found an air pollution awareness and advocacy group called Care for Air. By 2016, my family had literally moved to another country, in large part, due to our search for cleaner, healthier air. I suspect we will not be alone in the years ahead to what may be a tidal wave of air pollution expatriates.

Today we know air pollution is on the rise globally. According to the World Health Organisation more than 80% of city residents around the world are exposed to particulate pollution at unsafe levels. Seven million people are killed prematurely each year by air pollution in both rich and poor countries. Sadly, Thailand is no stranger to air pollution and it’s not just Bangkok. Chiang Mai ranks among the top regions for exceedingly high levels of hazardous air. Saraburi, Chonburi and Samut Sakhon unfortunately also join this list. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by the University of Chicago shows long term exposure to fine particulate pollution is shortening the average Thai’s life expectancy by more than two years. In the most polluted areas that number grows to four years of reduced life expectancy. The AQLI found that 87% of Thailand’s 68 million residents are exposed to air pollution levels exceeding WHO guidelines. This public health crisis of dangerous and toxic air hits children, the elderly and the most vulnerable people hardest. It is estimated that 10-15% of children in Thailand suffer from asthma.

 So, what is going on with Bangkok’s air? In recent years, there have been some improvements. Yet still the problem persists with air pollution levels reaching highest levels over the winter and drier months. Seasonal weather patterns and human activities combine to make the winter months here in Thailand particularly bad. Compounding that – Bangkok is not a very windy city. The lack of wind is problematic in the cooler months as PM 2.5 pollution particles build in the air and there is not enough wind to disperse them. The cooler temperatures cause an inversion effect which results in the air pollution stagnating for days at a time. Thailand’s air pollution problem comes from a combination of vehicular emissions, biomass burning, agriculture and industrial emissions, among other factors. Our location on our planet even plays a role in exacerbating this problem. A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that effectively where air pollution comes from is as important as how much is emitted. Air pollution generated in the areas closer to the equator where there is more heat and light yield more ozone than regions farther from the equator. That unfortunately puts SE Asia squarely in this hot zone.

Whether we know it or not, air pollution is shaping our lives. But we can get educated and take better ownership of the air we breathe to protect ourselves and to ensure we do not become major contributors. The problem of toxic air will not go away without sustained efforts – large and small.  So, what can we do on an individual level to reduce our own personal air pollution footprint? Well a lot it turns out. Small changes at home snowball. The air around us improves and our example begins to set in motion a collective responsibility.  

So, starting today, why not proudly become a clean air ambassador: 

  1. Wheels matter:
    Go on two wheels when possible! Bike around town if that is safe in your area. If you own a motorcycle or diesel car, consider switching on your next trade-in or purchase to a hybrid or petrol vehicle. In the meantime, reduce your emissions by ensuring your car isn’t the one idling for long periods in the driveway, at markets or school. For all vehicles, turn the engine off when not in motion.

When it comes to getting around, consider walking, biking, or public transport when possible. 

  1. Check readings daily and avoid outdoor aerobic activities during peak air pollution times.

Air pollution levels tend to be highest during early morning and evening hours. Sadly, this is also when temperatures are most pleasant for outdoor exercise, especially when wearing a mask. Check air pollution readings via your phone app, like IQ Air or Air Visual, before taking that power walk or run outside.  

  1. Become a compost convert! Dispose of garden waste eco-friendly
    Learn how to compost and organise a neighbourhood composting group. Food from dinner leftovers to inedible waste like eggshells and garden waste can be composted which helps nourish the soil and in turn reduces what goes into landfills. Think it won’t make a difference, well, consider this: Organic waste (food and garden waste) in landfills generates methane which is a potent greenhouse gas. Compost can also capture and destroy a significant portion of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air. 

  1. Clean green air inside your home 

For most of us, the majority of our time is spent indoors, whether at home, work or now virtual school. Indoor air it turns out is as polluted, sometimes more so, than outdoor air. The air inside is compromised by both external pollutants (PM 2.5, ozone) that come in through every window and open door, as well as indoor air generated toxins (benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, ammonia and trichloroethylene) from paints, varnish, leathers, plastics and more. These indoor air pollutants are linked to headaches, eye irritation, dizziness and more. The good news is we have some natural remedies at hand. The use of several plants can dramatically improve our indoor air. 

NASA’s 1989 Clean Air Study set out to find the best ways to naturally clean the air in space stations. The result? They also determined the best plants to purify your indoor air at home. The Spider Plant, Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Peace Lily, Dracaena and Chrysanthemum make great natural air filters and they are pretty hardy for those of us who are not natural green thumbs. NASA research suggests at least one plant per 100 square feet of home or work space. 


Learn more about air pollution causes and solutions. Join clean air movements such as www.careforair.org. Sate safe and healthy from air pollution and Covid-19.

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Calming the mind and boosting wellness during this time of new normal
by Tina Haskins Chadha

I’ll admit I’d long put meditation in the bucket of “not for me.” It seemed too dull, too ‘new age-y’ and too self-absorbed, I thought. Yet for years I lived in the periphery of meditation’s allure. I was a long time yoga practitioner discovering the transformative impact of both the physical and the breath work of yoga back in the mid-1990’s at NYC’s famed Jivamukti yoga studio. When I later moved to New Delhi, India I deepened my yoga practice and ultimately completed a teacher training programme. Sure, while practicing yoga the concept of chanting and pranayama made sense. There were those calming minutes to focus the breath and quiet the mind, to set an intention for the practice. Yet somehow meditation on its own seemed well…  too inward, too unproductive a use of one’s time. The idea of extended meditation outside of yoga just struck me as impossible! How to sit still for long periods? How to silence the mind?  And to what end?

Then came COVID-19. And the shockingly swift halt of “normal” life. The panic and worry of what might happen here in Thailand and elsewhere. The stressful grind of home schooling children month after month with no end in sight. The blur of week after week passing socially and physically distanced from so many. We all were in uncharted territory. It was here during this COVID era of “new normal” that I started becoming more curious about meditation. I wondered if it could really be a method to quiet the mind, to reduce anxiety, to provide a sense of calm and peace. Was it even possible to put a pause on the endless chatter of my mind? One afternoon out of the nowhere a memory popped into my mind. 5th grade. Taft Elementary School about 90 kilometres North of New York City. There was a progressive music teacher, whose name I’ve long forgotten, who had all 20 of us preteens reclining flat on the floor with our eyes closed, curtain drawn and classical music cranked up. She wanted us to really hear the music. It seemed silly and perhaps odd to us 10-year-old kids, but looking back I realised this was an early exercise in mindfulness, in a meditation of focus.

Woman practicing yoga by a lake

With the extended isolation of COVID-19 and the slower pace as life has begun to resume to this “new normal” would this be the time to really give meditation a shot? I began with inspiration from a few podcasts like “Untangle” and “Meditation Minis” and revisited the writings of author and secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.  When I realised I could set the standard lower by trying to meditate for even one minute, then three or five minutes, it was an aha moment. The expectation of “meditative perfection” started to crumble. I realised it was inconceivable to expect to sit with a quiet mind and meditate for extended periods and for a beginner that wasn’t really how it worked. I also discovered there is no single path to meditation, no one size fits all. There are literally dozens, even hundreds, of meditation techniques and the only way to find the best for you is to try them. And different types of meditation yield different benefits. Generally, meditation styles fall into a few categories: Focused Attention Meditation which focuses on a single object during the whole session such as the breath, a mantra, a visualisation or an external object. Then there is the Open Monitoring Meditation where one monitors all aspects of our experiences without judgement or attachment. These can be internal thoughts, feelings, memories or external such as sounds and smells. Mindfulness and Vipassana are considered to fall into this category. And finally, there is the Effortless Presence Meditation where the attention is not focused on anything at all. This is said to be the deepest state and really something only those experienced can attain.  

Zen stones on beach pukaki lake

So, I jumped in and began to give it a shot to discover if a meditation practice for me would be feasible. I literally started with a few minutes. Some experts say meditation is possible even on the busy, rush hour packed BTS train, if that was the case, I could give it a shot in my home locked behind a closed door from two dogs and three children. I started with just a few minutes a day and began to move up in increments of five minutes week by week. I’ll confess not every day went smoothly. How many breathes before I’d lose focus? Sometimes it was only one. He wandering, monkey mind is near constant! It was truly exasperating to try to “turn off” the mind’s endless reminders, to-do lists and wandering thoughts. Experts are unanimous on the importance and the exponential benefits of daily practice. I can report it is a work in progress, but there are noticeable benefits that I can feel. And I look forward to these daily minutes. Practice makes perfect doesn’t apply to meditation, but what we pay attention to matters. What we practice grows. 

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It would have been easy to let the 4,000USD salon bill ruin my good time in Doha. It was admittedly a quick vanity stop at the local salon to get a wash and blowout after two days of travelling left me feeling a bit tattered. Later that day, we had a holiday lunch to attend with old friends, and who was I to turn down the chance for a little “sprucing” and polishing up? Thirty minutes later, I felt refreshed, ready to see dear friends after a long time and extra pumped up to explore Qatar’s desert capital city, a modern metropolis of sparkling new and inventively designed skyscrapers. Why hadn’t we thought of visiting Qatar sooner, I wondered. Located on the NE coast of the Arabian Peninsula, it was a prime “midway station” on our annual migration from SE Asia to North America. It’s also a pretty cool place as it turns out – modern, cultural tuned-in and super clean, plus beautiful beaches, and a far less flashy vibe than Dubai. The extra bonus was it purportedly had great shopping – not of the Louis Vuitton kind (they had that too, it’s in the hub of the oil-rich Middle East after all!), but shopping of the Souq and handicrafts variety. This was going be my kind of place! So, in an effort to preserve my Qatari rials as “market money”, I happily accepted the offer to put my $25 (about 800B) salon charge on good old Visa. When I looked to sign the bill, the charged amount had many, many more zeros than expected, even given the 1 Rial to 8.5 Thai Baht exchange rate! The salon manager feigned an innocent input error, and then claimed to not know how to void the transaction. Hmmm. Strangely she instead offered to refund me what amounted 4,000USD in cash! The whole affair smelled highly suspect. After 30 minutes of confusion and frantic calls for help culminating in the manager of the adjacent shop who came to the rescue, we sorted it out and I walked out feeling slightly less “Pantene fabulous” but still improved.  

This bizarre incident on that first day didn’t cloud my experience with Doha, a chic and really kind of groovy Arabian city. We arrived at the ultra-organised and luxe Hamad International Airport with a gigantic 23 foot bronze teddy bear sculpture titled “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” by Swiss artist Urs Fischer as its centrepiece. This giant teddy has a lampshade coming from his head and the lamp base coming from his tush – I knew right then Doha had personality. This piece I learned later had last been seen in my native city, New York, where it was on display in front of the Seagram Building. Several years later, it was auctioned by Sotheby’s for over 6.8 million – next stop Doha’s posh terminal.  

As Qatar’s capital, Doha is also its most populated city with just under a million residents, the vast majority of them foreigners. Qatar’s overall population, estimated to be a mere 2.6 million, is made up of over a hundred different nationalities, Qataris comprising a mere 10%. Founded in the 1820’s as an offshoot of the Peninsula’s older Al Bidda settlement, Doha’s history goes back centuries as a trading port and epicentre of the pearl industry. It was only as recent as 1971 that the country was formally declared an independent nation. From the 1950s to 1970s the population of Doha grew from just over 10,000 to more than 80,000.  In the 1940s oil was discovered in Qatar and the small country joined the Middle East oil club, thus radically changing its trajectory from a small, sleepy fishing and trading port to immense wealth and influence. Qatar is the richest country on Earth with the highest per capita income in the world. The UN regards it as the most advanced Arab state for human development – and it shows in the enthusiasm Qatar has taken to supporting the worlds of culture, art and entertainment. Doha is becoming known as the art capital of the Middle East with public art installations, independent galleries and major museums featuring Islamic and major European and North American artists. Also, evident everywhere is how the city is gearing up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with sports stadiums in various stages of completion. This future event is often on the minds and lips of everyone from hotel workers to shop girls to taxi drivers. 

We discovered, there is a fair amount to do in Doha, other than chilling on the beach. When in Doha, why don’t you: 

Time Travel: Katara Cultural Village straddles heritage and modern culture

When the sun sets venture to the Katara Cultural Village, a sprawling area located on the Eastern coast between West Bay neighbourhood and the Pearl with eateries, art spaces and music venues. Its maze of cobbled alleys was designed to evoke the Arabian-inspired architecture of years past. It’s home to everything artistic and musical: The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Qatar Fine Arts Society, Qatar Music Academy and Theatre Society. There’s even the Doha Film Institute (DFI), a not-for-profit cultural organisation located in Katara Cultural Village, with the mission to oversee film initiatives and help develop a sustainable film industry in Qatar. In recent years, the DFI hosted the Doha edition of the famed Tribeca Film Festival. While there find the time for a delicious meal. Reserve a table at Boho Social, a chic restaurant in the Katara Beach Club complex. The terrace seating is best for the spectacular views of the Arabian Peninsula and the Pearl.

Get your art on

There is no shortage of museums, but my favourite is the newly opened National Museum of Qatar. Actually, it was our taxi driver who sealed our fate to pass on a visit to the Museum of Islamic Art and go directly to the newer National Museum of Qatar. He insisted, “No Ma’am, skip this one! All the good art has moved to there!” Completed and opened in March 2019, the National Museum of Qatar tells the story of how the country and region evolved through time from a geological and biological perspective, and from the standpoint of human history. The museum’s exterior design, created by renowned architect Jean Nouvel, of interlocking discs gives the feeling of simultaneously being ready to fall down and being placed at totally odd and random angles. It turns out the placement of the discs supports the weight evenly and offers some shade. The design was inspired by the desert rose, a crystallised mineral formation found in salt basins. The effect is very sci-fi and ‘space-agey’! Once inside the building design has visitors making an elliptical circuit through time from Qatar’s earliest eras and culminating at the Amiri Palace, the historical palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar during the first part of the 20th century.

Shop, Shop, Shop! 

Doha is not a walking city. Given the extreme heat much of the year, this would disappoint few. In addition to the Katara Cultural Village, Souq Waqif is a place one can enjoy meandering through alleys browsing, people watching and generally taking in pretty incredible ambiance. The site of the Souq Waqif dates back well over 100 years as a traditional trading post for Bedouin people. It was rebuilt in 2006 after a major fire and today somehow manages to be charming, inspired “near-authentic” and pretty well organised. This open-air street market is the best place to shop for an incredible array of items – pashmina, Bedouin weaving, carpets, shisha, incense, gold, pearls, falcons, and more. Visit in the evening from 19:00 – 23:00.  

Directly next to Souq Waqif can be found the “sister”, highly specialised souqs: The Gold Souq and the Falcon Souq, my personal favourite spot on our adventure in Doha. And you guessed it, it is here that one can shop for gold and live falcons respectively. The Falcon Souq is dedicated to all things related to these majestic hunting birds: Sale of actual birds – with many leather hooded falcons on display at various shops, falcon gear and accessories (yes this is a major retail category!), falcon training equipment and anything the experienced or aspiring falconer could want or need. It turns out that falcons are a serious investment. The going rate for a falcon can start at a reasonable 3,000USD up to 1 million USD.  It’s important to remember, traditional hunting with falcons has a long, long history in the region. The first known reference to falconry appears in the ruins of Nineveh under the Assyrians in an engraving dated to 750BC, in current-day Iraq.

Next to the Falcon Souq is the Falcon Hospital a multi-floor, state of the art facility where owners can bring their falcons in for top notch care. The hospital treats every and any condition from surgeries on injured birds to Xrays, incubators and general maintenance grooming of feathers and nails.

Have a desert sand dune adventure

Sadly, we didn’t have time for this on our trip, but it is top on my list for our return visit. 

The sand dunes are said to be high and steep making dune bashing as it is known an extreme sport. You can even spend a night in a luxury Arabian tent, eat like a local and sleep under the stars. Don’t expect to see Qatar’s large desert mammals though – the Arabian oryx and Arabian gazelle are protected animals and held in nature reserves. With some luck, perhaps one can spot the Arabian Sand Cat!

Chill on the beach

Doha’s position on the coast of the Persian Gulf means there is no shortage of coastline, gorgeous beaches and turquoise water. Venture from the big resorts and check out a local public beach. There are many to choose from: Fuwairit Beach is one of the most popular beaches with pristine white sand. Located north of Doha, this amazing beach is also home to the Hawksbill turtle. Or try: Zekreet Beach, Simaisma Beach, Sealine Beach, Katara Beach or Khor Al Udeid Beach.  Remember to follow local rules on the public beaches – no bikinis allowed.

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Camel Fair

One of our most memorable travel experiences was a weekend spent at the peculiar and beguiling Pushkar Camel Fair, known locally as Kartik Mela. The tiny, normally sleepy, desert town of Pushkar, located 145 kilometres from Jaipur in India’s northwest, transforms into a massive, multi-day livestock exhibition, trading fair and carnival in the sand for five days each year.

Thousands of camels, horses, cattle and their accompanying traders descend onto this Rajasthani village making it one of the largest animal trading fairs of its kind. In recent years, it’s also become a significant tourist attraction which has led to the arrival of carnival games and oddities, hawkers and hippies. The rise of Pushkar as a tourist destination has, though, led to a reduction of the number of camels traded from historic peak numbers at well over 30,000 to an estimated 10,000 traded in recent years. And, the real trading of livestock is happening in the days prior and first few days of the event. Regardless, it seemed to be such an epic gathering and captivating experience that I felt sure we must go see it.

It took only a little convincing on my part to get my two sons on board with this adventure. Animals. Check! Camping. Check! A best pal and his Mum to join the trip. Check! My husband was a bit more skeptical. Aren’t camels smelly? Aren’t they known to spit? Don’t we see enough camels in Delhi during the Republic Day Parade? The boys and I decided not to let his skepticism dampen our enthusiasm. With that, we decided to make a Mums and boys adventure trip of the weekend. The timing was right age-wise to take my two sons, aged 9 and 7 at that point, on this expedition. A dear friend and her 7 year old son teamed up with us and we made a small group of it. It would be the boys first camping experience.

We took a short flight from Delhi to Jaipur, India’s Pink City, and made the three-hour drive by car to Ajmer, one of Rajasthan’s oldest cities, and then onto Pushkar. The picturesque Aravalli Mountain range created a dramatic backdrop in the distance. The landscape as we pushed on becoming scraggier with little vegetation underscoring this region rests on the edge of the Thar Desert. We saw the famous Brahma Temple in Ajmer and Pushkar Lake, an artificial lake created in the 12th century important for religious pilgrimages, along the way. By the time we reached our destination we were happy to have made a provision stop at the onset at the Big Bazaar hypermarket, India’s version of Tesco Lotus just outside of Jaipur, to stock up on provisions. It turned out to be fortuitous. We were grateful to have the extra food, water, SPF and hand sanitisers in the days ahead.

Camel festivalWhen we finally reached what would be our home base for the next two nights, the Heritage Camps and Safari, we were grateful to be out of the car and on solid ground. The mobile tents were situated near the main Fairgrounds and were billed as “luxury camping” – a marketing term taken with a dash of hyperbole. Our camping accommodations were rather rustic, but our proximity to the Fair was ideal, making it all worthwhile. We had a simple tent with a zipper closure to seal us off from the cold, desert evening air and a bucket and tap to clean up after a dusty day exploring the fair. It was a far cry from “glamping” to be sure! I was surprised at how vastly the temperature fluctuated from day to night. Highs can top out at 40 degrees Celsius and swing all the way down to 15 degrees at night. The first night I realised I drastically under-packed for the cold and we slept in every single item we had while inside our thin sleeping bags! I also found sleep difficult as I contemplated the safety of sleeping alone with two children in an “unlocked” shelter with a simple cloth and zipper keeping any unsavoury types out. I kept my heavy flashlight under the pillow as security. Both my friend and I were up by dawn, a bit tired, but excited for the day ahead.

The history and tradition of the Pushkar Camel Fair is said to go back 150 years. It coincides with the full moon around the Hindu lunar month of Kartik, typically occurring in October or November. For Hindus this timing has deep significance. The two days around the full moon are thought to be the most auspicious of the year. It is said that all the gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion come to Pushkar Lake on the day of the full moon and absolve those who bath in the lake of their sins. It was a temping thought, but I decided to stick to a bucket bath back at the camp with my travel-sized Nivea.

While visitors stay in their camp accommodations or the few traditional hotel options, camel herders stay with their camels huddling around campfires in small groups each evening to eat, stay warm and strategise for the day ahead. Before daybreak, the traders rise, camels kick up the desert sand and all the action begins. All the camels traded in Pushkar are dromedary which have one hump; they, in fact, make up 94% of the world’s camel population. The camels travel to Pushkar from seemingly every corner of Rajasthan. The bushy eye-lashed camels are from Bikaner; the racing camels from Jaisalmer. Traders carefully inspect each animals posture and the teeth. The gait is evaluated. When seated, they pull the camel’s tail to check the reflexes. With so many animals, sellers make every effort for their camels to stand out. They dress them up as if they are attending a red-carpet event, adorning them with bells, pompoms and bright fabrics. They shear their fur and create beautiful designs, grooming them to perfection.

The event is a riot of colour, sights and sounds and quirky exhibitions at every turn. Beyond the trading, there is the famous camel race, an awesome spectacle. Dressed up camels are paraded about. They pull carts giving rides. They are even entered into beauty contests. Then there are the non-camel events which give the event a carnival vibe: The turban and moustache competitions, the snake charmers, acrobats, dancers and magicians. And there are plenty of hawkers, some pushier than others, trying to sell their goods. Mobile street stalls sell classic local treats like chaat, chai and the dreadful paan. There is a pastiche of camel goods to be had – edible camel milk, camel wool shawls, camel dung paper and notebooks. Hot air balloon rides can be booked at dawn and dusk for the deep-pocketed. For those wanting a photograph of a handsome camel and trader expect to pay. The going rate when we were there ranged from 10-50 rupees a photo!

Camel

Let’s just say, we learned a lot about camels from this experience. People domesticated camels more than 3,000 years ago. They are exceptional animals designed to thrive in extreme conditions. They famously can go a week without water, and months without food thanks to the fat stored in the hump that gets converted to energy. Double rows of extra-long eyelashes keep sand out of their eyes. They can handily close their nostrils completely to keep sand out during a sandstorm. They can survive temperatures as hot as 49 degrees Celsius. They also are, in fact, loud. They moan, groan, rumble and even make high-pitched bleats. They run surprisingly fast – up to 64 kilometres per hour, the same as the average racehorse. And it’s true, they do smell. The regurgitate food like cows and then chew it again. The process results in smelly breath which on its own would be malodorous. Add to this, their peculiar habit of peeing on their legs. They actually do it on purpose to cool themselves down! I hoped the boys wouldn’t get any pranking ideas from this trick!

For the record, camels don’t actually spit. It’s more like throwing up. The bring up the contents of their stomachs, along with saliva, and project it out. For anyone with toddlers, dealing with unexpected bodily fluids is part of the ordinary terrain anyway. The camels do this not because they are sick, but to surprise or distract whatever the camel feels is threatening it. Hint: If you see a camel’s cheeks fill up and bulge; step back, it is about to expel a projectile of smelly, saliva. We returned home after a few days happy for this mesmerising and surreal experience. For those who plan a trip, it’s well worth going early, during the first few days of the Fair. That’s when much of the action is happening. The 2019 Pushkar Camel Fair was held on November 4-12. The 2020 Pushkar Camel Fair will be held on November 22-30.

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Flowers

Expat life is full of contradictions. Enviable on many fronts –Instagrammable holidays, eclectic cultural experiences, friends from around the world. Yet it is a life that can also be quite sheltered. One is buffered from home country problems and turmoil in ways that are positive and negative. Life in a foreign country fosters resilience to manage many life changes and challenges but also puts a strain on family relationships and friendships back home. Those in one camp can’t really understand or relate to the experience of those from the other camp. And only you, the expat, can straddle the difference. The expat, by default, cultivates the development of two distinct communities that truly never overlap – the “back home community” as in the people who really know you or think they do, and the “expat community” populated by unique, often fast-moving situational relationships. Most often, we as expats toggle between these communities with ease. It’s only when major life moments happen – a wedding, a birth, a death – that the longing for loved ones back home and the insufficiency of these disparate communities comes into focus. The sheen of expat life then loses a shade of lustre.

Family manThe longer one lives abroad the more likely the possibility of dealing with the death of a loved one. It was here in my 10th year overseas when our family was faced with this. It happened over our summer holiday in the United States. A dear family friend, Bill, passed unexpectedly at the young age of 52. We were fortunate to be “back home” and to spend time with him in the days before he passed. A Friday night outing into the wee hours debating the merits of egg-white based cocktails and an ageing jazz band. A Saturday afternoon spent teaching my children card tricks and having the patience to listen to my daughter’s lengthy demonstration of her robotics project from summer camp followed by an early dinner. He appeared to be his normal healthy self, perhaps a bit tired and a touch of grey, as we all are. It was inconceivable that less than a week later, he would be dead. Far too soon. A bright star extinguished. We were in shock. Outraged and confused. We spent the remaining few days of our trip preparing to fly back home to Bangkok and grappling with the aftershocks. How did this happen? Why him? What next? Would the funeral take place before our flights back? What about having some time to distill and internalise the finality of it all with those we love before flying back to our expat community where our grief would be invisible.

Bill was the kind of friend who made everything beautiful. Incredibly creative, funny, and always finding a reason to smile, Bill was a close friend for 25 years. He was the friend who would whip up a tray of perfect mojitos in a flash at the summer beach house for “the six-ish” sunset cocktail hour. The one who would regale us for midnight runs for icebox cake at NYC’s West Village outpost of the famed Magnolia Bakery before that was a thing. The one who could always be counted on to give succinct, yet humorous, critiques on our fashion or home décor fails, then spend hours designing and restyling the most gorgeous outfit, home, garden, whatever. It would only be Bill to get everyone in the pool for hilarious “synchronised swimming drills” the night before my wedding. The one you could count on to gossip or vent with at any hour. Only Bill would drive the scenic, winding roads of New York’s Hudson Valley agreeing to deliver a dozen softly-chirping baby chicks, ill-advisedly and humorously Face Timing the entire experience. As much as I loved him, my children profoundly did too. 

with kidsHe was creative, kind and, oh so, generous. A highlight of each summer trip back to the States was time spent with “Mr. Bill” and his annual surprise activity for them. He’d turn up, typically hours late, full of creative ideas and bags of treasures in hand. Coloured paper, stencils and frames for at home art projects. Garden walks, books and parchment paper for flower pressing tutorials. He’d arrive at our flat inevitably at some point with whimsical, life-sized, animal balloons for my children as “welcome home” pets knowing how much they missed their two dogs in Thailand. When he asked if my then 6-year-old daughter, God Daughter, had a Barbie doll and I answered not yet, it was classic Bill to turn up the next weekend with literally bags and bags full of Barbie dolls – Soccer Barbie, Mermaid Barbie, NASA Barbie, Sparkle Barbie, Pet Vet Barbie, Proudly Pink Barbie, Barbie Busy Gal, Travel Stacie and Dreamtopia Chelsea too. This along with an entire bag full of outfit changes and accessories too. That was Bill. He was exuberant. When he did something, he went big.

That translated to his career and personal life evolution too. After more than two decades in product design and interiors for Gap Inc, Coach, and other major brands, he craved stillness and authenticity. His next and ultimately final chapter focused on interior design and restoring his beloved 1754 Hudson Valley farmhouse, that and gardening. Russian sage. Five different kinds of hydrangeas, five different types of lilacs. He learned the now-late artist Ellsworth Kelly’s property bordered him and he took this as inspiration to cultivate the ultimate country retreat. Once he remarked, half-worried, half-joking, if his garden was becoming “too Versailles for Columbia County?” That’s how he lived with enthusiasm, in the moment, in colour. With his devilish grin he encouraged us all to live. With exuberance. With joy.

Far from homeWhen confronted with a loss, expected or not, it does come as a shock to the system. Experts encourage us to accept and acknowledge the process of grieving without structure or a timetable. In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D. proposed the now famous five stages of grieving which help represent what one goes through when dealing with terminal illness and death. She came to this after years of working with terminal cancer patients. These now famous stages detail the common phases people experience as they go through the grieving process.

  • Denial: This can’t be happening to me, my family, someone I love.
  • Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
  • Bargaining: If this goes away, I will do this in return.
  • Depression: I’m too sad to do anything.
  • Acceptance: I’m at peace with what happened.

What the five stages don’t directly take into account, and is uniquely tailored to expats is guilt. Guilt when we live half a world and multiple time zones away. Guilt that we can’t spend any – or enough – time with remaining loved ones to share, convalesce, laugh and cry together. We may even wonder, would things have turned out differently if we lived in our home country? Would we have noticed symptoms of an illness, encouraged proper care? Loss creates an emotional wound. Life as an expat lacks the normal rituals of grief. The expat is expected to just get on with life. Experts say we don’t get over grief, that time doesn’t so much as heal these wounds, but that we learn with time how to make peace with our loss.  

I’m determined to hold onto the treasured memories, to remember the great times together. But what I can share is that Bill’s death gave new meaning to my own life. It’s when confronted with a death that we are starkly reminded of how precious life is.

 

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gemology

Jewellery. What is it and why do we wear it? Across cultures and spanning the history of humanity, the act of adorning our body for women and men is both personal and universal. It can be art or seduction; it can be a form of protest, or of rebellion. Jewellery, what is says about us and its transformative effect, makes it much more than superficial.

I can link my interest in gemmology back to the boy king and his visit to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a long, long time ago when the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit rolled into town, but when it happened it was the hottest ticket in town. I was only a child dragged along for the outing by my enthusiastic Mother and her equally exuberant sisters’. Yet, even at that age, it was an electrifying experience. While the historic significance of the artefacts was lost on me, I was astonished by the crowds and the sheer number and array of objects – animal themed relics depicting lions, ostriches and falcons, myriad of gold and gem inlaid pieces some meant to be worn amulets, bracelets, collars and rings, others to embellish from ornate boxes to model boats to a coffin made entirely of gold. I’d never heard of lapis lazuli, quartz or turquoise before, nor did I grasp the rarity and craftsmanship of these discoveries. But I was hooked. Who created such amazing pieces? And why? The sensational discovery of Tutankhamen, a short-lived Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, revealed nearly 5,400 fabulous treasures so many it took ten years to document them all. The treasures in the tomb were found literally stacked in cases and boxes – necklaces, pectorals, amulets, pendants, bracelets, earrings, and rings of such superb quality they could rival any of our modern techniques.

But the ancient Egyptians weren’t alone in adorning themselves. Evidence shows even prehistoric humans decorated the body with shells, fish teeth and coloured pebbles. Over the years, jewellery forms continued to grow and expand to include ornamentation for every part of the body: Crowns, tiaras and combs for the top of the head; earrings and nose rings for the face; necklaces, brooches, breastplates and belts for the neck and torso and on and on. Jewellery in Ancient Rome was used to such an extent that gold rings were worn by noblemen, eventually jewellery became so democratised it spread even among those in lower social ranks as documented by archeologists. Here in Thailand, jewellery making and gemstone sourcing go back centuries. Gold travelled through Thailand some 2,000 years ago through Hindu settlers from India’s eastern and southern regions. About seven centuries ago, silver tooling emerged as a prominent craft. Today, Hill Tribe Silver is legendary worldwide for beautiful tribal and nature motifs. Chiang Mai is also famous for its distinctive silver jewellery.

The tradition of gold and gem-based jewellery reached a peak in circles of power during the Ayutthaya era. Historically, rubies and sapphires were in abundant supply through the country. In its heyday, Thailand’s most coveted gems were the deep-red rubies mined in the Chanthaburi region since the 15th Century and blue sapphires from around Kanchanaburi. Now the local mines are largely depleted, yet the Thai industry evolved and gave rise today to a dynamic cutting and polishing epicentre that turns rough stones into glittering gems using the most advanced methods possible – some above board and others not so much. More than $650 million worth of gemstones are exported from Thailand annually, about half of that sapphire according to the Gem and Jewellery Institute of Thailand.

Today, Thailand is one of the world’s most prominent modern centres for gems and jewellery serving as a major hub of production, gem treatment and trading. Raw stones are imported to Thailand from around the world for cutting and treatment, much of it still happening in Chanthaburi, a town 150 southeast of Bangkok. Nearby many of the world’s rubies have been mined from Myanmar’s Mogok mine dubbed “Valley of Rubies” and known for the world’s finest “pigeon’s blood” coloured rubies, the majority of these stones make their way into Thailand for cutting, treatment and polishing. Other gemstones coming into Thailand today come from much, much further away: Rubies from Sri Lanka, Mozambique and Madagascar, sapphires from Australia, India, Tanzania and Montana, USA, jade from China, New Zealand and Myanmar, opals from Australia, and on and on.

design

Twice a year, each February and September, the global gem industry descends upon Bangkok’s massive Impact Challenger Hall at the Bangkok Gems and Jewellery Fair (BGJF). This event is ranked among the world’s most important and widely attended events of the industry. It’s here that all the key players in the global gems and jewellery business come to source, trade and network. It’s also an incredibly eye-opening and overwhelming experience for any novice jeweller. Row after row of vendors showcasing cases of loose cut precious and semi-precious stones – sapphire, ruby, aquamarine, tourmaline, spinel, garnet, peridot and more. Walking these aisles is a dizzying experience, especially when one considers the various ways sub-standard real stones are treated to yield a higher retail value. Layer onto this, the abundance of lab-grown stones that have gained more and more acceptance in mainstream markets. The next BGJF event will be held September 10-14, 2019 with the last two days open to public attendance. For anyone curious about the jewellery industry, it’s a must-see exhibition. 

So, years after having my eyes opened by the boy king and long after professional stints working with luxury brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Shiseido, I decided it was serendipity to land in Bangkok and have the opportunity to reignite my interest in gemmology here in “The gemstone capital of the world”.  And, thus began my brief tenure as an “apprentice” gemologist and jewellery designer as a student of the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (AIGS) located in Silom. Founded in 1978, AIGS was the first international gemological education centre in SE Asia. Today students come from all of the world to attend courses. In 2018, I joined their ranks for a series of short courses. Gem treatment and identification. Ruby and sapphire grading and pricing. Countertop sketching and design. For weeks, I trekked through Bangkok’s notoriously unpredictable, snarling traffic, crowded sidewalks and rainy season road flooding tormenting those within earshot with my poor Thai, “Wannee rottit maak maak,” “Ow gawfee mai wan” and “AC thangan yangrai”.

My classmates varied widely in age, background and experience. There was the dapper, 20 something Iranian jeweller in town for courses to sharpen his skills before returning to a family business; the hip Australian certified gemologist already with her own private clientele looking to polish skills and make new sourcing contacts, the Japanese Mom of two in Bangkok from London with a background in high-end jewellery sales and design aspirations. The scruffy American jeweller with a West Coast boutique keen on learning how to spot great finds and bargain well at the Chantaburi and Mogok markets. Then there was me. Communications professional in the midst of a long career sabbatical. Mother of 3 (still shorter than me) humans and 2 canines. Soccer Mom and yoga enthusiast. Part-time writer, passionate clean air advocate. And a curious, gemologist in training, perhaps? I didn’t fit the typical AIGS mould.

So, you might wonder, what on earth is a gemologist? Simply put, it is a specialist in gems. It’s the science of natural and artificial gemstones and gemstone materials. Typically, it takes years of academic study to become a trained and qualified gemologist. These experts spend most of their time identifying, grading and appraising gemstones. They’re also trained to conduct a series of scientific tests to confirm the identity, chemical composition and various other technical details of a specific gem. Many spend hours in labs analysing and grading gemstones of all types, while others work with auction houses to appraise gems, with jewellery designers to source materials and advise on designs, as buyers or sales people in retail.

Ring

For the average consumer, we think of gemstones in terms of an emotional response. Do we love the way it looks, the way it makes us feel? And diamonds are by far the most understood. Thanks to being well-anchored with the global engagement and wedding industry, diamonds are synonymous with the 4 C’s guidelines. But what of coloured gemstones? How are they rated and classified? And what is done to stones to make them look better and sell at higher price points? Quickly, I realised there is more to this story than one could imagine. Here’s what I learned about coloured gemstones and jewellery shopping.

A gemmology crash course:


Gemstones – know the 6 categories: Gemstones can be classified in one of six categories, understanding the technical differences will help when shopping the market.

Natural gem: They are made entirely by nature. The only human-altering to natural gems is through ordinary cutting and polishing. Much of what we see in the gem market place features stones augmented and treated with manmade techniques that go beyond skilled cutting and polishing, to improve colour and clarity. Natural gems are minerals with a special chemical composition and crystal structure that repeats itself. This unique combination of atoms has to be a perfect recipe to grow a gemstone.

Treated gems: Any natural gemstones that have been altered by people beyond ordinary cutting and polishing. This includes heat-treated, oiled and stabilised methods used on stones like ruby, sapphire, emerald, turquoise. Synthetic gems: This is a gem that has the same composition, structure, properties and appearance as a natural gem, except synthetic gems are lab-grown. 

Manmade gems: The same as synthetic gems, but they have no natural counterpart. They are entirely lab-created. Assembled gems: Gemstones produced by assembling two or more pieces together. The pieces can be natural or not. They are referred to as “doublet” or “triplets”. For example, there is usually a natural stone on top and a synthetic base stone.

Imitation gems: A gem material, either natural or otherwise, that has the same appearance as the gem it imitates. Classic examples are cubic zirconia, famous as imitation diamond or red spinel, famous as imitation ruby.

Stone enhancement: They do what to make the stone look better?

Heat treatment: Virtually every coloured gemstone on the market has been heat treated, a technique rarely disclosed to the consumer. Proper heat treatment can turn a useless rough stone into one that is commercially viable and gorgeous. We can see a stone has been heat treated through clues detected under a microscope like crystals, “fingerprints” and blue spots.

Dyes and Oils: Stone cracks are filled to improve the stones clarity and/or colour. Upon microscopic examination, colour concentrations revealed in the cracks will give it away. Dyes and oils can also be prone to “sweat” or drip from cracks.

Lead glass filling: This technique is used to dramatically improve very poor-quality stones that have many cracks and cavities. Evidence of this treatment can be detected easily with a jeweller’s loupe revealing gas bubbles along fractures. The process itself can cause further stone fracturing. This enhancement practice is considered taboo; it makes the stone unstable.

Bleaching: Porous gems like jade, pearl and tiger’s eye quartz are often bleached to with acid to lighten and improve colour. It tends to make the stones more brittle and even more porous.

Rating stones: Hardness, colour saturation and clarity

Stones are rated for durability and resistance to scratching with the Mohs Scale of Hardness a one to ten ranking of minerals in order of their hardness. Diamond, ruby and sapphire ranking hardest, while emerald and jade fall in the middle making them among the most brittle, scratch-prone stones. The beauty of a stone is rated by saturation, how vivid and rich is the hue, and tone, which evaluates the lightness or darkness of the colour. In the case of coloured gemstones, we view stone clarity as an evaluation of external surface blemishes such as stone scratches and pits, and internal inclusions that can be seen by the eye, loupe or microscope. These can be a fingerprint, growth pattern of the mineral or fracture. The more easily visible the lower the grade. No two gems have the exact same set of inclusions. The chances for truly exclusion-free gemstones are extremely rare.

Tools

Tools of the trade:

The dark field loupe and tweezers are the essential handheld instruments. The loupe lights a stone from the sides providing 10x magnification. It’s great for a quick look to reveal stone fractures and clarity-enhancements such as lead glass filling. For a 100% accurate gemstone identification and assessment on treatment history, a lab report from a certified lab such as AIGS or GIA using a microscope would be necessary.

Go off the beaten path, try unique and often more affordable stones:

There is a whole world of natural semi-precious gemstones that look very much like their higher priced cousins. But the bottom line is when considering gemstone jewellery, go with what you love. Find pieces that can be “everyday wearable” and often looking at a less travelled path will yield more affordable options. Consider tourmaline, citrine and peridot for their vibrant hues in yellow, green and orange. Despite its low hardness and tendency to chip, moonstone in the right protective setting such as cabochon makes a stunning choice. Tsvarorite is a type of green garnet that evokes the look of emerald, without the high price point or brittleness. Or opt for natural red spinel or natural garnet in lovely vibrant hues of red instead of ruby.

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Air Pollution

Expat. Wife. Mother. Writer. Yoga enthusiast. Clean air awareness advocate and NGO co-founder. The last one I never could have predicted when I took a hiatus from my career in branding and corporate communications to focus on my young family and our move from New York City to New Delhi and then years later on to Bangkok.

Air pollution only consciously entered my life a decade ago. When one lives in a place where the air is clean or appears to be so, air pollution doesn’t cross the mind. It was 2009, the year we moved to India that I first took notice and gave consideration to the air we breathe. I soon learned a new language, the acronyms and lingo of air pollution. PM 2.5 and nanoparticles. AQI, VOC’s, NOx and ozone. True HEPA versus HEPA Type. Prior to that, I thought of air pollution only perhaps when stuck in traffic behind a truck expelling dark exhaust. Soon clean air, or the lack of, began to consume my thoughts year-round. The sky was often a murky haze. Clouds never appeared distinct or sharply formed. The media buzzed about the colloquially-dubbed “winter fog” as if the smog didn’t exist at all. But the facts seemed indisputable. The air we were breathing somehow tasted metallic on the tongue, caused cancelled flights and delayed trains and left city residents with endless weeks of dull headaches and eyes so irritated it was impossible to wear a single contact lens.

Eventually, every member of our family of five had persistent, season-arching coughs. Then it was shortness of breath and finally the inhaler for our eldest. Some days the problem was very apparent, the pollution causing poor visibility that made road signs a hazy mirage. Other times, it was invisible, the air seemed ok, crisper, yet local air quality monitors revealed unhealthy numbers far above international guidelines. The government launched a series of half-hearted attempts to reduce the problem. Odd-even license plate driving initiatives for a few days at a time. Street cleaning programmes. Schools created air pollution protocols around student outdoor activity. Pollution masks should be worn if children want outdoor recess time when the air quality index (AQI) hit certain numbers. No wait! AQI numbers suddenly spiked exceeding those thresholds, schools would declare – no outdoor time at all! Dinner party talk no longer buzzed about local gossip and cultural events, but what to do – stay inside all weekend? Leave town every holiday for clean air breaks? Football games, on or off? Air pollution masks, home filters and car air filters became such coveted, must have items they were perpetually sold out. It was worrying and exhausting.

When we had the opportunity to relocate to Bangkok by 2016, we were thrilled. After years of a dance that toggled between denial, awareness and advocacy, plus makeshift coping measures, we relocated from arguably the world’s worst ranked city for air pollution to another Asian mega-city. Of course, Bangkok’s air, along with much of Thailand, is far from ideal, especially during the months of December to February when meteorological conditions curtail the dispersion of air pollutants. A Lancet report found that people in 90% of the world’s cities breathe polluted air that is toxic to their cardiovascular and respiratory health. In 2016, seven million people died from diseases caused by air pollution – 600,000 of them were children. Seven million people: That’s three times the number of people who die each year from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Boy from the back black and white

Bangkok, and Thailand in general, fall above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levels for exposure to particulate matter (PM) air pollution deemed safe. PM refers to tiny solid and liquid particles – 1/300th the size of a human hair. They come from many sources vehicular exhaust, industrial, biomass burning and others. The smaller they are, the more dangerous to human health. These invisible pollution particles don’t just settle to the ground, they can travel hundreds of miles from pollution sources first. They enter our respiratory system and have long and short-term health impact affecting the body in nearly every area. Bangkok’s air exceeds the “safe” levels set by the WHO, and sadly we are not alone as we see high levels of air pollution in nearly every corner of the globe. Yet, the burden of air pollution is not shared equally by everyone around the world. Developing and industrialising Asian countries are impacted the most by particulate pollution. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) produced by the Energy Policy Institute by the University of Chicago converts air pollution concentrations into their impact on life expectancy. AQLI notes that 347 million people in Asia would live 5-7 years longer on average if WHO air pollution guidelines on particulate matter (PM 2.5) were met. Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago states, “Particulate air pollution shortens lives globally, even more than cigarettes. There is no greater risk to human health.”

A recent air pollution forum hosted by the esteemed International School of Bangkok featured an expert speaker who stated, “This year air pollution is not worse, it’s better than last year.” Ordinary residents of Bangkok might disagree. It feels worse. It looks worse. For the first time in known history, the government shuttered more than 400 schools for several days across greater Bangkok in late January. Airplanes were sent into the sky to make artificial rain, streets were cleaned around construction sites, citizens were encouraged to spray water guns on city streets to in an attempt to bring particulate matter to the ground. No matter that spraying water has little to no effect, as the tiny pollution particles won’t adhere to the quickly evaporating water droplets.

Even gorgeous Chiang Mai’s reputation suffered recently as the northern province was featured on the global “worst air” list in mid-February. It was ranked as having the third most polluted air in the world after Delhi and Lahore when PM 2.5 spiked over 100 microns per cubic metre.

So, what is going on with Bangkok’s air?
The cooler months from December to late February aggravate the situation. Cooler temperatures and changing meteorological conditions “trap” air pollution preventing easier dispersal. But what is causing the unhealthy air conditions? Particulate matter, specifically PM 2.5, in Bangkok come from a few sources. The two largest contributors: Emissions and the open burning of biomass. According figures provided by Dr Supat Wangwongwatana of Thammasat University vehicle emissions account for an estimated 36% of PM 2.5. With more than 10 million registered vehicles on the 1,600kms of Bangkok roads – and over 37 million vehicles across the country – fuel matters. Currently, vehicles in Thailand use Euro IV fuel, rather than the far less polluting Euro VI which debuted in Europe in 2014. This in conjunction with the lack of diesel particulate filters in the most exhaust pipes, along with regular city traffic congestion, and ever more cars on the road year of year, create a troubling situation. Biomass burning is attributed as the other major generator of PM 2.5 in Bangkok at an 29%. Air pollution from open biomass burning comes from the burning of solid waste and agricultural activities, such as crop burning (rice, sugar cane, maize), and forest fires.

Why it matters – the impact on our health

Clean air is essential for our health and longevity. PM 2.5 puts our entire bodies at risk of major health issues. When these tiny particles are inhaled through the nose or mouth they enter the respiratory system and bloodstream. The smaller the particle, the farther into the body they penetrate. Given PM 2.5 particles are only a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, they are invisible to the eye and capable of being small enough to pass through the hairs of the nose. The adverse effects of air pollution can be seen quickly or over many years from extended exposure: shortness of breath, asthma, throat irritation, pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, lung disease, cancer and more. Studies even link air pollutions impact on cognitive function, brain development, and the list goes on. According to Unicef, early exposure to toxic air has lifelong consequences. Children are especially vulnerable given small body size and their developing lungs and brains. Children breathe more air per kilo of bodyweight, that means more harmful particles wreaking havoc. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) translates long-term exposure to particulate pollution into life expectancy and finds that sustained exposure to just an additional 10 micrograms per cubic metre of PM 2.5 reduces life expectancy by 0.98 years.

What can you do on a day-to-day basis to lessen exposure?

Can we even protect our family’s health from the most ubiquitous of elements – air? It is possible to take several measures to reduce exposure, especially on the bad air days. First recognising the problem is a major positive step. This enables us to look at the options, at ways to mitigate the damage unhealthy air can have on our family. A combination of lifestyle changes and protective intervention measures can make a big difference.

(1) Monitor and be aware!
Check air quality apps to see current pollution levels via sites like AirVisual on a daily basis. Many Bangkok schools also have recently installed their own air quality monitor systems with data available online. Be aware, however, most of these type of monitors – low cost monitors that use light-scattering technology to estimate PM 2.5 numbers – can best be thought of as “detectors” of air pollution. Readings may not be 100% accurate especially when machines are not maintained and calibrated correctly, but they still give a range of data on pollution hot spots or “peaks” in unhealthy air.

(2) Reduce exposure on “bad” air days and at peak times.
For example, rush hour rides in tuk tuks and long walks along Sukhumvit are best avoided, if possible, during days of high pollution. Curb side pollution, thanks to close proximity to vehicular emissions, can be 2-3 times higher than current readings from city monitors. Rethink routines for outside time and sports to avoid direct exposure to air pollution during “peak” hours. And avoid outdoor aerobic activity during rush hours.

(3) Talk to your child’s school.
The parents of many Bangkok city schools have voiced alarm about air pollution, petitioned for air monitoring systems on campus and asked about what can be done to improve conditions. Parents can ask their schools to monitor air quality both inside the classroom and the outside facilities. They can encourage coaches to adjust outdoor sports and activity timing to help limit exposure during peak unhealthy air times. This may mean reduced aerobic activities during early morning and evening times, especially during the winter months. Ask schools to work on creating “idle-free zones” on the streets outside the school gates to reduce “pollution hot spots” in the places where the children walk and wait on a daily basis.

(4) Make your home a “clean air” sanctuary.
Indoor air can be as unhealthy as outdoor air. Exterior air pollution combined with indoor pollution sources from furniture varnish, paint, carpets, home printers and more can result in shockingly poor indoor air quality. To improve conditions, evaluate doors and windows to reduce drafts and leakage. Consider investing in air filtration machines for the home. Be sure to invest in only those that have True HEPA filters as only they can remove PM 2.5 particles from the air. These units can be costly, so start with the bedrooms. By using a high quality air filtration system in the bedroom, you can ensure 8-10 hours of sleeping time with cleaner air. There are a range of brands on the market and even DIY methods using HEPA filters and a common household fan.

(5) Consider an anti-pollution mask, with caution.
To mask or not to mask? Filtering the air you breathe would seem to decrease exposure, yet a mask must fit properly to be effective at all. Masks need to be NIOSH approved, as in 3M masks, and worn correctly. The fit must be snug, no gaps. Any gaps would negate the positive benefit and protection from the mask by allowing pollution particles back in. Masks for children are really not ideal or recommended, since they do not fit well.

Air pollution is bad for the environment, bad for our health and a drain on economic development. I wonder when we will take more substantive measures to tackle the problem. Let’s change that. If not for our own health, for the children.

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