I probably overdid it a bit this morning. I was so excited by today’s good weather that I laced up my sneakers and headed out for a walk. A really long walk. Every time I thought about turning at the next intersection and looping back to my apartment, I decided to go just a little bit farther and enjoy the (relatively) clean air and blue sky. I wound up walking over three miles, and by the end my legs had that jelly-like feeling they get after being pushed just a little too far.
But if you’re in China, or if you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past few weeks, you’ll understand my desire to be outside and stretch my now-sore legs. The air quality here, which is generally not great to begin with, took a nosedive about two weeks ago. Journalists in Beijing spoke of the “Airpocalypse,” as they inhaled air so clogged with contaminants that the U.S. Embassy’s Beijing Air Twitter feed classified it as “Beyond Index,” unable to be measured by the embassy’s monitoring instruments. People wandered the streets wearing face masks, though that didn’t prevent many from landing in hospital emergency rooms with respiratory problems. Even Jon Stewart noticed, running a Daily Show segment titled “Things May Be Bad, But at Least We Can’t Chew Our Air.”
(On the bright side—I guess?—this smog has led to what may be my favorite coinage ever: in a blog post for the New Yorker, Evan Osnos talks about the “airenfreude” felt by those who aren’t in China. Brilliant.)
Even at its worst over the past few weeks, Shanghai’s air was never as bad as Beijing’s (and there were other places in China, like Xi’an, where the air was even more polluted than the capital’s). For one thing, it wasn’t as cold in Shanghai, so people weren’t blasting their heaters and thus increasing the amount of coal burned to produce electricity. As in Beijing, the U.S. Consulate here also has an air quality monitoring station and Twitter feed; though the readings ventured into the “Hazardous” zone at times, mostly they stayed in “Unhealthy” or “Very Unhealthy.” That’s certainly not great, but at least we didn’t rise—or descend—into “Beyond Index” territory. Still, I grew weirdly accustomed to waking up in the very early morning and watching the sky lighten from black to white, rather than blue. I tried to limit the amount of time I spent outside and took the subway more often, instead of walking, like I usually do. Practically every time I saw someone, whether other expat friends or Chinese professors at the library where I’ve been doing research, our conversation turned to lamenting the air quality. All of us agreed that we felt cooped up by the need to stay indoors.
People often ask me if I think I might ever live in China permanently. While I love spending long periods of time here and have chosen to do so again and again over the past decade, my answer is always no, I can’t envision moving to China for good. There are a few reasons for this, but my concerns about the environment are definitely somewhere near the top of the list. The constantly increasing number of cars on the road and the continued burning of coal for fuel mean that China’s air issues aren’t going away anytime soon, no matter how much I (and almost everyone I know) wish they would. I was thrilled to see a clear blue sky this morning, but it was a thrill tempered by the recognition that I never used to get so excited over a nice day, or the ability to go outside and walk down the street without worrying that I was doing long-term damage to my health. And though my legs are now protesting my over-eagerness to take advantage of the clear skies, I know I’d rather have sore legs than aching lungs.