An American reflects on what it was like to adjust to China's smoggy air—and how outsiders learn to ignore it
A man stands in front of a Chinese coal-fired power plant. Jason Lee/Reuters
Waking up each morning while we lived in China, I found it tempting to play a little game before I looked out the window. I tried to guess what the outside air would look like, based on how much my chest hurt. After about two years, I got to be pretty good at guessing the look of the air. It was a sad game, because most mornings, my chest hurt and there were murky skies.
My guesses didn't necessarily correlate with the most important health dangers of the pollution. There is the pollution you see and the pollution you don't. Particulate matter that is classified as "pm10" (10 micrometers in size) makes the air visibly "dusty." But it is not as dangerous as the smaller, invisible "pm2.5" (2.5 micrometer) particulate matter, which passes unfiltered deep into the lungs. In the U.S. and Europe, there are real-time pm2.5 meters all over the country. It's not officially measured in China at all, which explains the popularity of an unauthorized monitor on top of the U.S. Embassy, which sends out its usually alarming readings in a Twitter stream.
We groused about friends who came to visit us in China during the rare blue-sky days. They would say, "The air seems just fine here!" "Just stay a few more days," we would reply.
Then there is the psycho-emotional part. Many long-term visitors to China report adjustments to the pollution similar to mine. First comes astonishment: How can this be! How can people live this way? That is replaced by a kind of desperate anxiety: What is this doing to us? Then follows resignation: We can't keep obsessing about the pollution. By the end of our three years, we'd reached that stage—and we knew we would eventually go home.
Some days were depressing, the way the weeks of rain and cloudy skies became depressing to me when we lived in Seattle. But other days, I took it in stride. Days without pollution—they came and went unpredictably with the wind, or more predictably with the pre-Olympic shutdown of factories—were simply glorious.
It's always tricky to talk about negative traits of a country where you're a guest rather than a native. When I'm home in the U.S., I find myself surprisingly nationalistic and defensive when visitors criticize something about this country: How fat are your Americans! How dangerous are your cities! So I was sensitive complaining about pollution when I was in China. If I didn't like it, I could always leave, right? And most of the Chinese could not.
My conversation-opener in Beijing on any murky day with the man who ironed shirts at the neighborhood laundry, my favorite vegetable vendor at the market, the taxi drivers, or the guys selling baked sweet potatoes on the sidewalk went pretty much like this: Tianqi bu hao! ("Bad weather!") This worked as an all-purpose greeting, and it was a euphemism for "Wow, the air is really polluted today!"
We all knew what I meant. The Chinese are well aware of their pollution; how could they not be? Even in 2008, the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported that three-quarters of Chinese surveyed considered air pollution a big problem. The older people remember days of clear-aired yore. (Though even before China's modern boom many cities had a pall of soot from charcoal briquettes used for heat.) Chinese who travel know it is different elsewhere.
There is an official word, wuran, which means pollution, but it always felt like a very strong statement to invoke this word in conversation. Part of my word choice tianqi bu hao was about being nice, but it was also about some traits of the Chinese language itself. Linguists often describe Chinese as a language that goes heavy on verbs. Here's an example: My Chinese teacher devoted an entire day's lesson to forms of the verb "to carry." It depends on exactly how something is carried: ti means to carry in your hand, with your arm down (like how you'd carry a bucket); bei means to carry on your back (like piggyback); duan means to carry level in your hands (like a plate); na means to carry in your hand or arm (like an armload of books), and na is also a more general default choice for "to carry."
On the other hand, Chinese sometimes goes light on really common adjectives. My favorite is hao chi, which means "delicious" (literally "good eat"). We had long conversations with friends about how to describe a good meal or dish, looking for ways to say tasty, yummy, appetizing, delectable, scrumptious, palatable, and on and on. But finally, we seemed to wear out the Chinese. They would often admit: "We really just like to say hao chi, or sometimes Feichang hao chi." Very delicious!
I found something similar in talking about pollution. The English conversations in China covered lots of degrees of air quality: cloudy, misty, hazy, foggy, and then drifting slightly negative to thick, grey, heavy, and sometimes plummeting further to murky, dusty, and finally, smoggy. We analyzed the air in detail, describing how it was a single texture, without individual clouds, movement, or variation across the whole of the sky. (And we groused about friends who came to visit us in China during the rare blue-sky days. They would say, "The air seems just fine here!" "Just stay a few more days," we would reply.)
In Chinese, just like with hao chi for delicious, we usually just ended up with the generic "bu hao," literally "not good," in tianqi bu hao, to describe the air.
The final stage of pollution adjustment, I think, is to overlook it—like we overlook another eight inches of snow in Buffalo or the humidity during Washington's dog days of summer. One summer day, I was walking with one of my Chinese friends on a pedestrian bridge over eight busy lanes of traffic in downtown Beijing. Looking into the distance, I was suddenly shocked anew; the air was so bad that I inadvertently let down my guard and blurted out to my friend "This pollution is awful. How can you stand it!"
She said she didn't notice the pollution anymore. I asked for her secret, and she said, "I'm just always so busy. I only have time to pay attention to what is right in front of my eyes." Her answer seemed entirely plausible. China is a busy place, and focusing on what is right in front of you keeps bigger demons at bay.