Saturday, March 5, 2011

Smog On, Smog Off

I knew I was back in Beijing, after a few weeks of much needed vacationing at home, not by the number of Chinese people around me or the Chinese characters on every sign but by the thick cloud of smog hovering in the air.

“Welcome back Brandon,” I thought to myself. The depressing haze made me want to jump on the first plane bound State-side for another few weeks of vacation and blue skies.

Pollution is a serious problem in Beijing, but when you have millions of cars jamming the streets, what can you expect?

The day after I returned to China, the pollution level in the capital city went “beyond measurable pollution levels,” according the U.S. embassy which tracks these levels daily. Chinese officials warned people, especially the elderly, to stay indoors. I wanted to do the same, but, alas, three weeks of vacation meant I would be missed at work.

Luckily, most of my commute to work was underground – a subway took me across the city where I caught a bus to the Beijing Review compound. The time spent aboveground was depressing with visibility limited to a few hundred yards, the sky a disgusting brownish orange. People covered their mouths and nostrils with medical masks, scarves, newspapers or whatever they could get their hands on. You would have thought SARS or swine flu had broken out again.

As far as health risks go, the smog hasn’t been directly related to any deaths (that I know of or was able to find in online research), although I’m sure long-term exposure can result in a variety of ailments. When I was home from January to February the cough I’d developed while living in Beijing -- which I just assumed was because of my weak immune system, allergies or inability to adapt to city life -- vanished. Two days after returning to Beijing, that cough was back along with acute pains in my chest. It must be my foreign lungs, since most of my Chinese colleagues and friends seem immune to the pollution, or are much better at faking health.

These smoggy skies are the most depressing and annoying part about living in Beijing. At times it feels like living through the apocalypse, sans mushroom clouds and radioactive wastelands. I’m 24 and when the sky is brown I get short-winded walking up six flights of stairs to my apartment. That’s not because I’m overweight or out of shape -- I actually live a relatively healthy lifestyle due to a lack of fried foods, donuts and other delicacies of the Coal Region -- it’s because of the air. So maybe I’ll need another vacation, this time to an island in the south Pacific, sooner than I expected.

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