As an expat living in Beijing, I’ve recently been barraged with emails and messages from friends and family in the U.S. who are curious or concerned about the blanket of smog that has descended on the city. Apparently U.S. media coverage has been extensive and paints an ugly picture of the situation, so folks want to know if it’s really as bad as it looks on TV.
The problem is — as we all know — the media inevitably goes for the greatest dramatic effect possible, relying as much on hyperbole as fact. So, to answer the question that everyone keeps asking me: No, it’s not as bad as it looks on TV back home.
I get CNN here. I’ve seen the stand-ups with their local correspondent posing in front of a dismal-looking Beijing skyline, buildings just barely visible through the "Blade Runner"-esque haze. In reality, though, looking out at the Beijing skyline, the buildings are completely obscured to the naked eye when the smog is at its worst. Total white-out conditions — well ... grey-out. On a bad day, visibility’s not much more than 100 meters. Looking out the windows of my midtown apartment, you’d have no idea that I live a stone’s throw from a series of skyscrapers and the city’s iconic CCTV tower. So, yeah, it’s bad. Or as the U.S. Embassy once infamously called it: “Crazy bad.”
Inevitably, the follow-up question is “How do you live in that gunk?” The answer is that I — like pretty much everyone else living here — adapt.
The air can be described as … well … “chewy.” It's thick, and you feel it in your lungs with some actual heft. And it has a flavor — metallic, with hints of charcoal and just a touch of grit, it’s long on the palate. Every day I walk my fiancée to her office about a mile away. On a clear day, it’s an easy walk that I enjoy, taking in the hustle-and-bustle of one of the planet’s most vibrant cities. On a bad day – well, it’s kind of like running a marathon. Your lungs burn, your eyes sting, and you push through it to get to the finish line. We both wear masks – the industrial-grade kind that filter out very fine particulate matter. You’ve probably seen them before in the U.S. — in construction sites, or hospitals or asbestos-removal projects. Now, imagine that about half the people you encounter, everywhere you go, are wearing them all of the time. That’s Beijing. Well, Beijing, or a scene from “Outbreak.”
The funny thing is, I’ve grown really accustomed to my mask. It fits snugly and has a soft lining, keeping my face warm against the bitter winter cold. It looks kind of cool in a Darth Vadery way. And there’s something comforting about the hiss-click sound the filter makes as I inhale and exhale while cutting my way through the pea-soup haze. I’m going to miss it when I inevitably return to the U.S., and I often picture myself wearing it in Atlanta traffic and wonder if I’ll be able to pull that off.
Apparently I’m not alone in liking the mask either. As mentioned, at least half of the folks these days are wearing them, and being the hottest fashion accessory, many people have taken to accessorizing accordingly. This morning’s walk revealed several themes, from Hello Kitty, panda, to kitten and puppy masks. I even saw a young woman wearing a cotton “Juicy Couture” mask. I was tempted to stop her and let her know that not only was the cotton mask virtually useless in filtering out the dangerous particulates in the air, but it was painfully out of vogue as well.
Mask or not, most folks I know have cut their outdoor time to a minimum. You go where you have to go and head back home. Restaurants seem less crowded, cafes are nearly deserted, and the parks are practically empty as people bunker down and wait for a rare clear-air day. I pity the poor restaurant delivery guys who are especially busy these days. Chinese culture eschews the notion of tipping, which is a shame, as most of these guys should probably be saving up for the inevitable lung transplant.
For folks staying at home, especially China’s rising middle and wealthy classes, home air purifier/filtration systems have become a must-have. I read this morning that all of the local stores (as well as the online retailers) are completely sold out, with month or longer backlogs on orders. The units are quite pricey — selling for $1,000 for even basic models, putting them well out of reach of folks who probably need them most, and further defining the gap between China’s have and have-nots. I don’t own one, so I can’t comment on their effectiveness. At that price, I’m in the have-not category. Plus, I’ll take any excuse to wear my mask, even indoors …
In social circles, as well as online, The Smog ™ has become the go-to subject for much of our interaction. Kind of the way you might discuss sports or weather back home, we discuss the Air Quality Index level. “Whew — looks like we’re off the charts again today. Broke 700 for the third straight day – woo!!” (We say it with a combination of nausea and hometown pride … we may be slowly suffocating, but at least we’re breaking records!)
Behind all the joking and cynicism, though, lies genuine concern, and a burgeoning appreciation for just how bad things have become. The apathy of the past is melting away, and people are starting to ask tough questions in public forums. Even the state-controlled media is overtly discussing the matter, and demands for action are starting to form. It remains to be seen if the momentum will continue to grow and manifest itself as actual change, or peter out like a lot of reform does in China, but its heartening to see the growth in awareness and the realization that something has to be done. Even the most cynical Chinese citizen (and Chinese can be wonderfully cynical) realizes that for all the half-jokes about the damage our lungs are sustaining, there’s half-truth married to it. The zen approach of calming down, taking a deep breath, and relaxing isn’t going to work — if for no other reason than because taking a deep breath hurts.
Charlie Flint, the former general manager of HSW (HowStuffWorks) International, is a five-year resident of Beijing.