In Mandarin Chinese most nouns are made of two or three characters. Each character has its own meaning but when combined with another, a new word forms. 电脑 ‘electric brain’, is a computer. 小笼包 ‘little dragon pocket’, is a kind of dumpling. 空气 ‘hollow breath’, is air. But a deep breath in China is anything but hollow.
Air quality index (AQI) is measured by the average concentration of toxic particles per cubic metre. Small particles are harmless, but big ones penetrate human tissue. According to the World Health Organisation, healthy air should contain no more than 25 micrograms of toxic particles per cubic metre. At 100 micrograms the air is considered unhealthy. At 300 it is hazardous. Anything around 500 suggests a long-burning forest fire. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing measures the air quality every hour and publishes figures on its Twitter feed. Like thousands of other Western social media websites, the site is inaccessible from behind the Great Firewall.
On January 13th 2013 I was halfway through a month-long language exchange in Beijing. At 8pm that night, the air quality index of Beijing clocked in at 886 micrograms of toxic particles per cubic metre.
People said the air was like the inside of an airport smoking lounge. But if 500 is a forest fire, 886 seemed closer to the inside of a chain smoker’s black lungs. I pictured that charred, oblong-shaped thing from the video they showed us in health class at school. It looked like a hunk of volcanic rock, except wobbly and oozing inky black goo when they cut it open with the scalpel.
On the lamplit streets of Beijing’s university district at night, when the smog descended as low as eye level and seemed blacker and thicker than space itself, an airport smoking lounge didn’t sound half bad. I imagined that the murky fog was really made of ghosts passing silently through the skyscrapers and slums of the city. All the locals wear crisp white facemasks when they go outdoors. At first it was a ridiculous and disconcerting sight, as if they were all my surgeons and I was on the operating table. Three days later I kept a pack of fifty in my backpack.
The first reasonably clear day was January 20th. The sky wasn’t New Zealand blue but pallid and sickly, as if someone had spilled apple juice all over it. There are hardly ever any clouds on clear days in Beijing. Something eats them all up. When I ascended to street level from the subway station at the Temple of Heaven gate, I could only laugh. An avalanche of greyish brown fog seemed to have fallen in the last half hour. At midday when the sun ought to be at its highest peak, my eyes had to adjust to this burnt-out twilight. Wanting to believe it couldn’t be so bad, we soldiered on into ashen air. Ten minutes later I could taste the grit and feel it coating my teeth. It got under my fingernails, up my nose, in my tear ducts, and in the creases of my eyelids. My eyes stung and began to water. Washing it off was like washing off mascara after a long night out. Even weeks after I’d got back to New Zealand I couldn’t get rid of the black dust. It stuck to the back of my throat, scratching words into whispers.
The stuff that suffocates Beijing is mainly coal dust mixed with sand blowing across from Mongolia. Winters are so dry that just about anything that blows through dissipates into toxic dust made of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and more. Beijing is at once being paralysed and flung forward in a modern industrial revolution. Millions of migrant workers from all over China commute every day, putting pressure on main lines of transport. They freeze up these main arteries in and out of the city. They overload its lungs with steam and vehicle fumes. But they also pump blood to the heart of Beijing. They keep its skyscraper fingers flexing to the high heavens.
In the quiet Xicheng District where I lived for a month, away from where the city splutters out high-end fashion designers and investment bankers, every morning old people gather in the park to do tai chi and play mah-jong. Little yappy dogs sit yawning beside their owners in the snow. At -11 degrees the air is so cold it almost feels fresh. I try to take short breaths in, long breaths out. My gloves are already coated in a very fine film of dust. I think about Beijing and its glowing nervous system, sparks flying at the tops of steel buildings where nerves touch. I think about my own body and how the city has left me coughing all night. I know I’ll never take breathing for granted again. But here in the park, where these friendly people laugh over games of Chinese chess every morning, it’s not so simple. Chemical compounds whose Chinese names I’ll never know spill into their lungs constantly, weakening and smothering the body, damaging the eyes, but this is where the community retains its life in its own space. A great watery sun rises into the sulphur.