Choking in China

I woke up this morning with a smoker’s cough. I don’t smoke. Though this might have had more to do with the fact that the bar I spent my evening in last night was a gas chamber of cigarette smoke, there being no smoking ban in China. Still, the pollution levels last night rose to nightmare levels; literally the stuff of my nightmares, confirming that all my fears before coming here were true.

Looking at my Beijing air quality app on my phone, the current AQI reading is 367, labelled, “Hazardous: emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected“. Yesterday evening upon leaving class I was horrified enough to see it had gone over 290, but the number just kept on rising throughout the evening. It can be seen clearly in the air itself. No longer is the foggy mist something one sees on the horizon, obstructing views of far-off buildings. Now it is simply a fog in the air at ground level, hanging right in front of your face.

It is kind of difficult trying to breathe as little as possible. Today a wise choice would be to stay indoors, and not do anything that will increase your respiratory rate. Which is fine for me, as I plan to stay in and study but what if I had fancied doing some sport? Or just, y’know, taking a walk? I wore my mask last night; yeah I wore it on a night out, and I ought to have kept it on in the bar though that might have been a bit too weird. My first instinct upon seeing the PM2.5 reading and smog was: I want to go back to the UK. Give me overcast London! At least we know that the grey sky there is genuinely due to the rubbish weather, not pollution, and the air is positively “fresh” compared to here.

Yet even as I wade through the smog and keep my mouth resolutely closed, I am surprised to see nobody at all around me wearing masks. The Chinese people just seem oblivious. Perhaps they are so used to it that they don’t notice it or feel the effects? Or perhaps there is just sadly nothing they can do about the air that they breathe, and they must simply get on with their lives.

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