Friday, March 16, 2012

Just Breathe

Beijing is notorious for its horrible air quality, and any expat here spends a good portion of the time monitoring the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed on air quality, talking about the air with friends, and debating the health effects of air that can be seen, smelled, tasted, and actually felt. The only sense I can’t use is sound – I can’t hear the air pollution.

As a result, I’ve developed a system that goes beyond what the Embassy describes in its reading of fine particulates. Who needs to sign on to the VPN and check Twitter when our own bodies can give us a reading? Here’s my scale:

Good: Going outside on a good air day is like going outside anywhere. The sun is usually shining and you take deep breaths of air. You look at the sky with an appreciation that you’ve never had before. If you are chatting with a friend, you stand in the sun. Life is good.

Moderate: The air still looks about the same, but stepping outside the door of the apartment makes your eyes water a little. Something is a little off but you can’t quite say what is wrong. You get annoyed by cars that nearly run you down.

Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups: There’s a faint smell in the air when you step outside the door, and you find yourself sneezing a lot more than usual. There’s gunk in your nose and if the wind blows, you start to seep more water from your eyes. More and more people are wearing face masks. You start to mumble threats to the cars that appear to want to turn right into your torso.

Unhealthy: You step outside and have a metallic taste in your mouth. Buildings 50 feet away appear in a haze as if air-brushed, and the sun may be out and round in the sky, but filtered through the smog. You clear your throat a lot as if you’ve been laughing. But you’re not laughing. Oh, you’re not laughing.

Hazardous: You taste the air inside your apartment the minute you wake up in the morning. Your cat’s fur smells funny. Outside, the world seems muffled and the tickle in your throat doesn’t go away. In fact, it extends down into your lungs and rests there like a tiny gremlin. Your eyes burn and your skin feels coated with grime. At night, the world seems blue, as the lights from apartment buildings peek through the darkness. You start to plan trips out of here: Japan, D.C., the moon maybe?