Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fun With Face Masks

The recent wave of Beijing's air pollution has been in the news. Right now, for instance, the reading of PM 2.5, which are the smallest particulate matter, the kind that lodge in your lungs and bloodstream, is at 541, a number the U.S. Embassy on its website calls "beyond index." The Beijing government says the number is just 491, and calls it "severely polluted."

Whatever it is, that -- along with a sore throat, headache, and stomach troubles -- caused me to skip the regular Wednesday hike. The weekly hike is one of the things that makes me happy in China, so now we're looking at a lose-lose situation. I was stuck in the apartment; spending any time outdoors was downright dangerous. The Embassy noted: "Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects, please avoid physical exertion and outdoor activities." Besides the comma splice, this is worrying news because they don't say what the "more serious health effects" might be. But I sure don't need to be told twice to avoid physical exertion.

My intrepid hiking buddies, meanwhile, set off this morning for a hike. "The better air is coming," one person wrote on our group WeChat. It's "now already in Huailai and Yanqing," so the group has a better chance of decent air by driving in that direction for a hike. I'm waiting to see how they fared.

And Bob is heading off to a business trip near Shanghai. This is what he looked like when he set off this morning, having disabled his more high-powered Totobobo face mask by unhooking the strap that is supposed to make it wrap tightly around your head. He chose a backup mask, and headed out, hoping for better air in the south. (I just checked: it's 35 in Changzhou! That's practically Alps-quality for China. Lucky Bob.)
Protection in the form of a face mask and a Yankees cap.

As for me, I made plans to watch a movie here in the apartment with a friend. The only slight glitch is that I was seriously out of food, so I made plans to head to the expat grocery store, a ten-minute walk away.

I got out my mask and followed instructions for trimming some of the edge off so that the mask would fit my face better. After I trimmed about a quarter inch from the edge, it definitely covered less face space, but I wasn't sure the clear plastic was making a full seal. Several experts have warned that if the mask doesn't completely fit against the skin, the bad air gets in, rendering the mask "useless." Not my words.

So I tried to make the headband part as tight as possible on my face.
Snap. The headband came off just like Bob's did this morning. I muttered something not in Chinese and spend 20 minutes figuring out how to thread it back onto the mask and around my head.

On the first try, the band slid down, pushing my ears out and creating a Dumbo effect that would make it hard to fit a hat on my head.
This can't be right.
Finally, I got the straps around the back of my head and the mask was firmly in place.
Flattering, right?
The cat seemed ever so slightly unnerved by my new look.
Anyway, I set off the for the grocery store, adding a hat, a heavy coat, and gloves but no makeup. I mean, why bother? So it felt as if I was incognito, just another hyper-sensitive laowei going off to buy her Raisin Bran. In fact, with this new look, I might be able to rob banks.
As I walked to the store, I saw a woman from the neighborhood. She was wearing an identitical Totobobo mask. We glanced at each other but didn't bother to extend greetings. I think the mask forced my mouth into a slight Mona Lisa smile, but I'm not sure. The plastic created a little greenhouse effect and my nose started to run.

When I got home, I took off the mask, and noticed that the lines from the clear plastic edging continued to line my face. After about a half-hour, the lines were starting to fade a bit but were still visible. I realized I may have to choose between vanity and protected lungs. For the sake of the greater good of all, let's hope the air clears soon.

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