A: Hi, how’s it going?
B: Good, yeah. Smog’s bad today.
A: I know, 230 last time I checked.
B: Oh, it’s gone up since I last looked, do you have the app?
A: Yeah, and a smog mask.
B: Ah, need to get one of those..
This is a fairly typical morning exchange. In England, we talk about the weather, make a comment about the rain, or the ( lack of ) British summer. In Beijing, the social function of weather-speak is replaced with “smog-talk”.
One of the things most people know about Beijing is the bad air quality. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first arrived. It might have been one of those things that we in the West think about China but doesn’t have much grounding. Such as the fact that eating dog isn’t common practice ( I gather it’s very specific to certain regions, certainly haven’t found any dog to eat in Beijing anyway ). The first three days in Beijing were clear blue skies. I’d been told that when people come back the thing they notice is that the sky is blue again, and I was thinking, “What a load of rubbish, I’ve never seen so much blue and tasted sweet eastern air.”
Turns out there were some national parades in Beijing to commemorate the end of the Second World War, so most of the factories were shut off and the authorities fired some chemical into the sky to make it rain and clear the air ( on a similar note, I heard that they let monkeys out in Tiananmen Square to kill all the pigeons, but haven’t verified this ). Safe to say that smog is a regular part of Beijing life. I have the US embassy’s Air Quality Index ( AQI ) as my internet homepage ( partly because Google is blocked ). It tells you how much pollutant is in the air and suggests if you should “remain indoors” and limit your exposure. You notice the good days and you suffer on the bad days.
And oh do you suffer. Many develop the “Beijing cough” which they can’t seem to shake, even if they’re healthy enough otherwise. I notice it in my eyes, which get itchy especially if I’ve cycled a lot in the day. On the worst days I’ve experienced, your clothes acquire a cold clamminess like a limp handshake.
I check the AQI most mornings, and also judge the smog by how far I can see out of my window. Even some of the near buildings have been obscured by a milky curtain. Just looking across the street everything has a washed-out mistiness about it. In the day you can look straight at the sun ( if you can find it up there ). In the early evening the low sun has a copper burn, a beautiful reminder that the air is full of pollutant.
Of all the aspects of life in Beijing, this is probably the least enjoyable and one of the most characteristic. The Chinese don’t really seem to know what to do about it either. Some people wear masks every day, and not everyone wears them on bad days. In class, we have the windows wide open even when the AQI has been 200+ ( Very Unhealthy ). And I’ve heard that air quality inside is no different inside than out.
It’s not bad everyday. At the moment the skies are blue ( I think the factories are shut because we’re on another national holiday ) and you wouldn’t even know Beijing had a smog problem. There’s no escaping the smog when it comes, though. Just have to get on with eating duck kebabs, learning characters, and breathing when it’s safe.
Screenshot: courtesy Facebook, taken without approval, ah well.