It was a strange couple of days. I literally came walking out of my home to run into a wall of gray. This wall of gray was composed of all the little dirt, dust and other good stuff particles – none of them kind on the human body. It also goes by the name of smog. The really strange thing was: the very next day (literally ten hours later) the smog had lifted and given way to the most beautiful blue day. It was as if a veil of darkness had been lifted over the course of an evening. Now, I am no meteorologist but I know when things work in odd ways – this was definitely one of those occasions. It was as if you cheer for some losing football team just to wake up the next morning and find that you are now cheering for the Patriots.
Is there a city here somewhere?
The most interesting thing is: not even the Chinese government can control the weather. Quite possibly the only thing they cannot control. And it is not for a lack of trying: apparently, the Chinese government has invested many billions of USD in climate research but has still not been able to make sense of it all. What they can do is to shift good days and bad days around a little bit so that you definitely have blue skies when it matters, such as on Chinese National Day or during the now long ago Olympics. But they have not yet found a solution to make it all nice 365 days a year.
The infamous Darth Vader smog mask
As usual, one person’s misery is another person’s opportunity. It starts with the people selling face masks, of which the most popular seems to be the 3M version that makes you look a little like a white version of Darth Vader around the mouth region. Then there are those companies selling these small units that look a little like an air conditioner or mobile heating but are air purifiers. The most cunning in my opinion, however, are the services that enable people to just stay at home, such as food delivery services and couriers and the companies selling the stuff being delivered. But the "entrepreneur" taking the cake is an artist running around Beijing with an industrial vacuum sucking up the smog. The smog is then pressed into a brick of pollution which the artist hopes to sell for a profit.
Making art from smog
Truth be told, economic growth still out-trumps most other considerations. Therefore, the factories have to continue churning, the cars have to continue rolling and the people have to continue consuming. But voices in the public are indeed getting louder demanding for the government to finally do something about the air quality. As mentioned above, this is perhaps one of the only things that the Chinese government does not yet have total control over (next to the stock markets), therefore it is likely also one of the things that causes Chinese leaders most of the headache. Most empires fell over lost battles of war - how ironic would it be if Beijing fell over something as trivial as smog.
A couple of words you will have to know in respect to Beijing smog:
meaning "pollution"; the word works like its English equivalent and can be used in reference to pollution of water, air, ground etc.
- 雾霾 wu4mai2
meaning "haze"; referring to those days when you can hardly see the hands in front of your eyes. Commonly the adjective 严重 yan2zhong4 meaning "serious" comes with雾霾 wu4mai2.
- 天气预报 tian1qi4 yu4bao4
meaning "weather forecast"; used in exactly the same way as in English.
- PM 2.5 pronounced PM er2 dian3 wu3
According to Wikipedia these are "fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less"; Chinese have made this term their own and use the Chinese pronunciation to refer to the contamination of the air, e.g. 今天PM 2.5是五百以上。jin1tian1 PM er4 dian3 wu3 shi4 wu3bai2 yi3shang4 meaning "Today there are more than 500 of those PM 2.5 particles in the air per cubic meter."
- 口罩 kou3zhao4
meaning "face mask"; in the pollution context usually applied to those normally white masks to keep out those PM 2.5 particles. Anything 罩 zhao4 refers to a "cover", like a cover for your sofa, your car or air condition unit.
- 空气 kong1qi4
meaning air; what you may take for granted if you are from a place with nice clean air will quickly change as soon as you get to China.
- 空气净化器 kong1qi4 jing4hua4qi4
meaning "air purifier" Little machines that supposedly purify the air at home. Never seen them where I am from in Western Europe. Perhaps Beijing should just install bigger versions of them in strategic positions.
- 沙尘暴 sha1chen2bao4
meaning "sandstorm"; the sandstorm annoying Beijing residents once a year between March and May.