“The air is actually brown.”
“I thought you couldn’t see air.”
“You can see this air. It’s brown.”
“You can’t see the shops over the road though.”
The boys stare out, faces pressed up against the glass like Dickensian orphans at a cake shop window. Finally, Noah utters the dread words:
“Dad, I’m bored.”
Our usual response to this would be a unanimous chorus of “Go outside and play!” But the AQI is over 500, and we are trapped in an apartment with two boisterous children.
“Then go and read a book,” I say.
Noah, a ten-year-old extrovert, treats this suggestion with the contempt it deserves, and comes back with his usual opening gambit.
“Can we play on the Playstation?”
“No. You played it for three hours this morning.”
“Can we watch television?”
“No. You’ve been watching for two hours already. I could actually see your brain turning to mush.”
“You can’t see my brain!”
“Yes I can. I have Daddyvision.”
From these initial skirmishes we segue seamlessly into a familiar routine, in which they attempt to negotiate access to anything with a screen, in decreasing order of size.
“Can we play on the laptop? Can we play on the iPad? Can we play on the tablet? Can we play on your phone?”
“Because I don’t want you spending all your time hunched over a screen.”
“Well, that’s what you do.”
“I’m working,” I say, quickly closing Facebook.
But it is a palpable hit, and I am struck by a twinge of guilt. Perhaps we are being mean. I don’t remember anyone policing my screen time when I was their age. But then there was only one screen in the house, and it only showed three channels, and children’s programs were limited to an hour after school and three hours on Saturday morning.
I think back to Sunday afternoons in England in the 1970s. Everything was closed, and anything fun was frowned upon. Television was an endless procession of old people singing hymns and wittering on about antiques and knitwear, as beige as the Beijing air.
And boredom forced us to fall back on our imaginations. We raced toy cars, traveled in space, led mythical kingdoms to war. Children now are so bombarded with stimuli, able to access a stream of entertainment at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, that they never have time to get bored, to learn how to entertain themselves. Boredom, I decide, like the crotchety old man I have become, is good for them.
“No. No more screens. Why don’t you play with your Lego?”
“Lego?” comes the incredulous response.
“Yes, Lego. It’s like Minecraft. Only, you know, real.”
“We know what Lego is, Dad.”
But they stomp off and get it out. And twenty minutes later, Yoda is battling with a ninja in a wrestling ring on the moon.
Peace reigns. The boys are absorbed in imaginative play, my inner curmudgeon is vindicated. I return to my work, but stifle a yawn. This is getting boring. Time for a quick game of Angry Birds…
This article originally appeared on page 45 of the beijingkids March 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org