China is Choking

THE BLUE light catches my eye, and I peer at the illuminated square in the middle of the little white plastic egg. The number is 59. I wait to see if it’ll tick over to 60. I hope it doesn’t.

Life in China is a numbers game, in many more ways than one. And the numbers that preoccupy me most are those on my Laser Egg: a small, anxiety-inducing device tracking the air quality inside my cavernous apartment.

This is no boast. This is a particularly first-world-meets-developing-world problem. In a country where breathing easily is true luxury, my 360 square metres and large balcony, complete with non-airtight doors, make me air-poor.

Our three air purifiers, working at full tilt day and night, are no match for the high ceilings and ample seating areas. And no matter how hard they work, these whirring white pillars simply can’t keep up with the unwanted draughts leaking through gaps under the balcony doors. In a windowless studio flat, I could probably get into the green – the Holy Grail of air quality, classed as “good”. But as we stand, I’ve got a solid yellow – “moderate” and in definite need of improvement.

In China, air quality is measured by an Air Quality Index number and colour-coded rating. The number relates to how many PM2.5 particles – the type that’ll get into your lungs and kill you – are in the air. The rating indicates what that means for your health. Below 50 is “good”, below 100 “moderate” – you can still go out and exercise. Above 100 and up to 150 is orange and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, before clicking over to an alarming red for above 150 and up to 200 – “unhealthy”.

And then there’s purple. We don’t like to talk about purple.
However, we mustn’t grumble. We arrived three weeks ago in Tianjin, a northern China port city with a population of 16 million.  Since then, good air days have way outnumbered the bad. We were warned that after November 15 we could say goodbye to our 22nd floor views of this megacity that nobody’s ever heard of.

The public heating would be switched on for Tianjin’s inhabitants, the winter smog would descend and that’d be it until spring. But we have been graced with many glorious “blue sky” days, made all the sweeter by the knowledge of their inevitable disappearance, to be replaced by the insidious grey pollution clouds, clouding windows, moods and lungs.
Last weekend on a cold and refreshingly crisp night we met some new friends for dinner and drinks. A German acquaintance remarked upon how, when she wears her traditional Dirndl dress, she can’t breathe.

“But who needs to breathe in China anyway?” she quipped. We all laughed. But my laugh was hollow. I put my drink down on the table. And later that night I tried to take a picture of the stars from our problem balcony. Who knows when I might see them next?

In the China of my memory, heady party years in Shanghai, the air was much worse. Walking the dog on what I referred to as “chewy” days, with pollution so thick you could bite it, was a regular occurrence. But back then my only child had four legs and a mean snarl, and it didn’t seem to matter so much. Now that I have another child, this time with two legs and a quick smile, it really, really does.

Doors and windows are all shut tightly as I walk through my daughter’s infant school, face masks labelled in felt-tip pen with each child’s name are neatly laid in their respective cubby holes outside Reception class.

​​ But it’s a wall display in the senior school building that draws my attention. The older children have been studying Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”, as I did during my school days. Back then, it was one of my absolute favourites – an absorbingly dramatic and morbid piece, yet safe in the distance of its horror. But now I wonder: do the children analysing this poem here in China see themselves gasping for air in Porphyria’s burning cheek? The poor strangled girl, choked by a jealous lover. For those outside China have we become Porphyria herself, an object of gruesome, tragic fascination?

Back home, I study the air quality forecast. Tomorrow orange, Friday red and Saturday more of the same. Will it be a quiet weekend of pollution-dodging for us? Fortunately, the forecast – though always gloomy – has been wrong more often than not over the past few weeks.

The blue light catches my eye, and I peer at the illuminated square in the middle of the little white plastic egg. The number is 59. I wait to see if it’ll tick over to 60. I hope it doesn’t.

School uniform: The author’s daughter wearing her face mask against “chewy air”.

Rachel Silvestri

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