The Smog Ate My Homework

09/12/2015 5:06 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
SUZHOU, CHINA - DECEMBER 07: (CHINA OUT) Cyclists wearing masks ride along a road in heavy smog on December 7, 2015 in Suzhou, China. China's National Meteorological Center (NMC) issued a yellow alert on Sunday as heavy smog will cover the country's northern regions in the following two days. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Living in Beijing has its advantages:

1. Home delivered beer.

2. Home delivered gelato.

3. Home delivered pretty much everything.

4. Because of a large population who all want work, you get to have a housemaid, for relatively little money, who'll do everything from darn your socks to teach your children Mandarin.

5. Because of the curvature of the earth, the English football comes on after the kids go to bed and the dads have gone to the pub.

With all that, you'd wonder why some people -- such as diplomats and journalists -- still get to call Beijing a "hardship posting", meaning they receive a little allowance to compensate.

With the current week Beijing is having, you come to understand why. If, like cyclones, catastrophic smog days were given names to identify them, an appropriate one for this week would be something like Motherf*cker Bob.

At the United States embassy there's an air quality testing device, the results of which are posted on the internet. Advice on how to interpret the numbers says that anything between 200-300 is "Very unhealthy: People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors. Everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion)."

As I have just left Beijing, I'm not sure what this week's smog registered. But on one occasion back in 2013 I remember it reading 755.







It was one of those Beijing days when you wake up and don't just smell the air -- you can taste it. For the uninitiated, it tastes like metal. Rusty, dirty old metal.

Every so often a combination of factors combines to cause bad pollution days. Beijing sits on a plain ringed by mountains to its north, west and south. When there's no wind, and a low pressure system overhead, and the factories to the north-west are burning coal and Beijing's roads are as clogged as usual, the smog can get heavy.

In 2010 a US embassy staffer got into trouble for posting a cheeky pollution rating on Twitter of "Crazy Bad". On that day, it was only just above 500.

The 755 was the highest reading recorded by the embassy since it installed its machine in 2008. In the subsequent years, the index caused some chaffing in China-US relations. Chinese authorities said it was "insulting" for the city's smoggy shortcomings to be harped upon so by a foreign embassy. Local authorities have since loosened up a little, posting their own air quality numbers.


Left: Non-windy day in 2008. Right: Windy day in 2008.

Picture: Paul Sutton

Still, while China seems to be growing more aware of the seriousness of the problem, I'm not sure how much comparing with the rest of the world is being done. That's if this conversation with our former housemaid Mrs Wang is any guide. She's a 55-year-old Beijinger, fairly well-read and well-educated, but she still reads the Chinese state-controlled media like everyone else.

ME: It's horrible outside!

MRS WANG: Oh yeah. It's a bit hazy.

ME: It's not 'hazy'. It's smoggy. It's pollution. It's above 700!

MW: Well, yes, but no one knows what those numbers really mean.

ME: No, um, they do actually.

MW: Well OK, but -- it happens. China's not the only place to have this. What about London?

ME: London?

MW: It's polluted, really smoggy. The River Thames is really polluted.

ME: That was a hundred years ago! Or the 1950s anyway.

MW: Well what about Sydney? What do you do there when you have days like this?

I had to try very hard to convince her that Sydney simply did not have days where you couldn't see past a few hundred metres, or anything remotely like it, and that whilst Beijing was showing 755, Sydney's rating rarely got worse than 50, or "good".

Which reminds me of a friend who once checked her air quality app on her iPad in Beijing. It showed a figure of 710, a rating of "GOOD", and a big smiley face! Clearly the thing had blown a gasket, since the numbers are only supposed to go up to 500.

Life in Beijing is certainly different from the west. There's the culture, for one thing. But most expats aren't from countries where the pollution level is a daily topic of discussion. In Beijing we also talk about which brand of face mask is safest. We regularly check our iPad pollution apps and our Twitter air quality feeds (provided you can get around Chinese internet controls). Children are kept indoors in schools on bad pollution days. Sometimes the schools are even closed. Most of us invest in expensive -- but quite necessary -- air filters for the home.

At least China is showing a slightly greater sense that this is an important issue. Trouble is, knowledge of the long-term effects of hanging about in this sort of smog is still limited. No one really knows what it's going to do to us. Let's hope it's not bad, eh?


View from my former 17th floor apartment on a blue-sky day. The Workers' Gymnasium is

the white building in the centre and is about 400 metres away.


On other days it's less lovely.


And on others... forget about it.

More On This Topic