A week ago, an old colleague from my Japan days (another story for another time) came to Beijing with a group of students from Fukuoka prefecture. In typical Japanese fashion, every hour of the schedule was filled with meals, site seeing, cultural experiences and more meals. With hardly time to sleep, let alone free time, the only time she had to meet with me was during the allotted time for shopping at Wang Fu Jing. Fortunately for my friend, the group had arrived in Beijing during the few days when the air pollution was not horrendous. The skies were blue and from my office window in Wangjing, I could see clear down to the CBD.
After the initial exchange of pleasantries, one of the first things she said to me was, “I don’t know how you can tolerate living here with such bad air pollution.” I let her comment sink in as I gazed up at the surprisingly blue sky. She went on to add that in the mornings she could smell the pollution; reminding me that not all pollution is visible. Still, for this mega-metropolis, it was a beautiful day.
Even after parting ways and returning to the safety of my air-filtered domicile, her comments replayed in my mind. I’m from southern Oregon (motto: Air Pollution is for Californians) where the air is fresh, the Milky Way is visible at night and the green grass is safe to walk on. No really, it’s okay for you to walk on the grass. What am I doing living in an environment like Beijing?
In our home, we know firsthand how bad the air quality is inside and out in Beijing because our flat was used in a university air quality study conducted by American and Chinese grad students. The research compared particulate matter indoors and outdoors, with our filters running and turned off. The researchers even noted changes like doors opening, cooking in the kitchen and running the vacuum. I’m happy to report that we had the best indoor air quality in the study, but the outside air was so thick you could serve it up in a bowl (season to taste).
So on Saturday, I found myself looking out the same office window towards an invisible CBD. Instead of seeing for miles and miles, I could barely see past three blocks. It’s not exactly the kind of environment I envisioned Reina growing up in. Actually, Beijing was the farthest thing from the environment I had in mind; I suppose Antarctica is slightly farther, but only for the want of decent schools. I said to myself, “Self, if the rain or wind doesn’t get this crud out of here by tomorrow, I’m out of here. I can’t take it anymore!”
And then it rained. And the wind blew. And I said to Savvy, “Hey look, we can see the CBD from here. What a view!”