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April 2, 2014 / windlessly

China Chronicles 4.1- The Smog is Real

No, but actually. It’s one of those things that you can’t truly understand until you experience it for yourself. Lots of foreigners learn about the pollution levels in Beijing and then either dismiss it as exaggeration, or become paranoid about lung cancer. But what’s really fascinating to me is that it’s totally become a part of the culture here. Beijingers are aware of it too- but jokes about lung cancer aside, it’s more just another aspect of the weather for them. Back in the states we would say, “oh, it’s party cloudy with a 20% chance of rain.” Here it’s more like “oh, it’s not so windy today with a pollution level of 234.”

Don’t believe me? Check out this pollution app aptly named “China Air Quality Index.” 

             iPhone Screenshot 1            iPhone Screenshot 2

But that’s mostly for foreigners I suspect. Beijingers probably have this innate ability to just “feel” what the pollution level is- depending on whether or not it’s rained recently (really helps to dissipate smog), how windy it is, and how blue the sky is. They don’t need some silly app to let them know- that’d be as if Californians needed to regularly check their apps for sunniness levels instead of just looking outside. 

The masks are real, though. I still haven’t grasped just how concerned Beijingers are with breathing in the air on a daily basis. I suspect the threshold level varies per person. You walk around campus on a day where you can see blue sky, and there really aren’t that many masks to be seen. The number increases as the sky becomes more and more bleak with smog. One of my PKU friends claims that he never wears a mask- eating black fungi (aka “wood ear fungus” aka “mu-er” aka “木耳” whooo look at my Chinese go) is enough to “clean his lungs.” So I’m not sure what the concern level is. The only parallel I could maybe draw is that if the sun’s UV rays got particularly intense just on the state of California, some people would bother to put on sunscreen because they know the threat is real, but others would just go about their day.

I’m still getting used to the mask. It’s pretty stuffy and uncomfortable, and it feels like I have a gigantic beak sometimes that prevents me from eating or drinking food normally, but I suppose I’ll get more and more used to it. It’s akin to wearing a helmet. I’m trying to wear it as much as I can now since I’ve been feeling symptoms of sore throat/cold/fever/headache the past few days and I can’t tell if it’s because of the adjustment to Beijing air or a minor flu. 

ImageIt’s a really fun sensation in a way, to prepare to go outside and automatically put on your mask. Like I’m preparing to go out into an apocalyptic world or something. Actually, I was thinking about one Miyazaki film in particular, “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind,” which tells a tale of environmental harmony, ecosystem-to-human synergy, and of course badassery princess skills, all enveloped in classic Miyazaki fantasticality and wonder. Princess Nausicaa is a charming and peace-loving princess (who happens to also be a skillful fighter pilot) who is able to communicate with the giant insects in the “Sea of Decay,” the name for the mutated, poisonous forest that has spread throughout earth as a result of the “Seven Days of Fire” (an apocalyptic event 1,000 years ago that destroyed most of the earth and reduced human civilization to feudal-like scattered settlements). Yeah, not your typical chick-flick entertainment. But it’s a really thought provoking film- humans are fighting each other because they disagree on how to deal with the toxic jungle that is spreading lethal spores everywhere, Nausicaa is the only courageous and sane character around (oh yeah they throw a boy into the story at some point too), there’s this mystical old sensei guy named Yupa, and SPOILER ALERT: in the end, massive armored insectoids the size of buildings rage and stampede through everything. Go watch it, it’s great. 

Yeah, those are people on the bottom left corner. And even the steed (kinda like a Tauntaun from Star Wars) is wearing a gas mask, which is what I was writing about originally. The film spoke to me a lot about environmental awareness in this fanatical way that is probably way more fun to watch than “An Inconvenient Truth” or something. Beijing is this rapidly industrializing city, and so it’s sort of an exception, but what if the rest of the world never learned to fully use renewable energy and we end up with a polluted earth in the future where EVERYONE is forced to wear masks for their own health?

It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to think about. For me, anyway. Putting on the mask was like becoming Princess Nausicaa:



Go watch the film and experience what I’m going through (not really). Beijing is much more beautiful and historic than a polluted mutated poisonous forest-gone-bad. Also no giant insects flying around (yet). 




Leave a Comment
  1. shiroikiwi / Apr 2 2014 2:05 am

    Nice! The Nausicaa comparison is priceless.

    When I was doing an internship in Beijing, there was one day I thought my vision had gotten better. Then I realized that it had rained and I could actually see the skyline….

    • windlessly / Apr 2 2014 12:11 pm

      Haha yeah most of the time it’s gray with just a touch of blue =]

  2. textangel / Apr 22 2014 3:50 am

    Yep same. Love your miyazaki references zheng

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