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.