Monday, June 27, 2011

The Flood

During the subway trek back from Chaoyang last weekend, I read a great short story by Kobo Abe about a philosopher who spots a man melt into liquid before his eyes, and rightfully predicts that people will keep melting until the world is consumed by a great flood. Little did I know that while I was reading it I should have been predicting Beijing's own flood to come later that week.

The air in Beijing is really bad. My first week in Beijing I got a headache every time I went outside. Sometimes you can barely see down the block, and on really bad days buildings across the street even look hazy. In New Haven I was happy to see the blue sky, but here I'm pretty content with just seeing an actual cloud. Any cloud will do. One of my classmates says that at her old school an English student once asked her, "What color is the sky in your country?" I've heard rumors of an American track and field athlete who came to Beijing, kept running outside everyday, and after just one year got black lung. After being in Beijing for a couple of weeks, that doesn't seem like such a crazy story.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection tracks the pollution in the air over Beijing, but for a number of reasons I've been avoiding their readings and looking mostly at the feed from the monitoring station above the U.S. Embassy. I check it all the time I'm at my computer. It's my new home page. And for most of the time I've been here those reading have vacillated between "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups," "Unhealthy," and "Very Unhealthy." The worst day so far was this past Wednesday, when particulate matter readings went up to a "Hazardous" 459. That's on an index that only goes up to 500. The Chinese index, by the way, rated that Wednesday as only "Slightly Polluted." Their reading always seem range from "Excellent" to "Good" to "Slightly Polluted." Though to give the Chinese monitoring agency some credit, it seems as though they are indeed trying to update their pollution measurement index.

As if to punish the city for its emission sins, the day after that "Hazardous" reading a huge evening downpour fell upon Beijing the likes of which, apparently, it had never seen before. My campus was flooded, streets outside campus were flooded, and water even managed to flood some subway lines. Those who didn't take hours upon hours to go back home from work or school ended up swimming back. The upside though, is that the rain seemed to wash all the gunk out of the sky, and we were blessed with a beautiful blue sky weekend perfect for picnics in the park and my very fist morning run around campus. But since that weekend, the air pollution readings have expectedly been creeping back up.

The saddest part about this whole story is that none of the Chinese here actually seem to mind the air quality all that much. Any foreigner around would gladly moan about the air at the drop of a hat, but Chinese people seem much more inclined to complain about traffic or crowds or real estate prices before mentioning air, if at all. I met an American PhD student working at a lab in Tsinghua who said none of her student labmates seemed to notice that there was anything wrong with the air, or think that it affected them. Tsinghua is supposed to be the top science and engineering school in the country, by the way. "Haziness" generally seems to be accepted as if it were a natural phenomenon, beyond the control of mere humans. The New York Times reports, with tongue in cheek, of locals trying to deal with the pollution by eating more vegetables, putting on more makeup, or fanning themselves with paper. Meanwhile, about three quarters of China's population live in areas that don't meet WHO air quality standards, air pollution causes at least 300,000 premature deaths annually, and cancer--most commonly lung cancer--is now the leading cause of death in China.

My best guess is that the good majority of people that check the U.S. Embassy's air quality twitter feed are expats living in the city. Twitter is banned in China and you have to sneak around the internet censors to see it. The Embassy might be all the more effective if it posted the air quality stats on Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter that every Chinese and their mother seems to be on. Weibo isn't banned. And once more people start to realize that the haze isn't just that thing that blocks the sun's rays and means you can keep your parasol at home, then maybe Beijingers will no longer have to be drowning in a flood of air.


  1. Jon thanks so much for writing! I have been curious to hear the details of living in China and am so enjoying your way of relaying! Entertaining and Educational- o happy day! Also- the post below is amazing. "Essense of Kangaroo"- wowza!

    In Johannesburg we went into a Muti store (medicine supply store for Zulu medicine people)- and one item I was slightly grossed to discover were shrunken baboon heads. That was only mildly surprising in comparison to the raw foodist from Maine that came to our house with a jar of pickled bear testicles. He offered a slice to us saying- "killed him myself and removed them while he was still warm." Wasn't there some kind of Greek festival that involved lots of Bull testicles? I don't know! Getting carried away- excited to read your entries- yay Jon!

  2. Yeah, I am a bit guy shy now that I caught a respiratory infection while visiting Beijing last summer. I'm sure I was just unlucky?

  3. Hmm, I've heard of plenty of people getting respiratory infections here (unfortunately) so no need to be shy about it!

    And glad to hear about your adventures, Shannon! I still haven't found shrunken baboon heads here, but maybe I'm just not looking hard enough.