Imagine a white, freezing, and hazy Beijing covered in thick smog, as it was when I went back to my city last December.
People like me – those dwelling in a densely polluted city – get into the habit of checking the pollution index every morning. After the government launched an environmental assessment program estimating the pollution level 24/7, we could easily gain access to the result via apps on our smartphones. Every moment was scaled from zero to 500 and people adapted more and more to heavy numbers as the situation worsened. One hundred to 200 is ‘what a nice day’, 200 to 300 is ‘grab a mask and it’s fine’, 300 to 400 is ‘better skip breakfast at that outdoor pancake cart’, and when the figure soars above 400, you pine for a car. 99 is ‘Incredible! Can’t believe it! Perfect timing for hiking!’ Zero is Sydney.
All windows are tightly shut. The view over my neighbourhood is a dramatic scene – secluded, chilly and eternally sluggish.
Two of my foreign friends, Indonesian sisters, planned to visit me at home. One week before they arrived around 4am I woke up struggling to breathe. I was stunned when I found the pollution scale had climbed to exactly 500 on the meter.
Rumours started to accumulate and flow over the city. Some claimed the index was actually above 2000 and, when a similar figure was reached by London in 1952, 4000 citizens died. I was desperately stressed out, wondering whether to ask my friends to cancel their flights.
They landed on a gloomy morning, leaving their sunny island behind and stayed for nine days. We were out for the eight of them. In retrospect, the entire thing was a bit crazy, dragging two souls without any resistance to smog around my old, beloved city.
In smog, cultures clashed. We were in the subway entrance and caught sight of a Chinese guy tying shoelaces for his girlfriend. We jumped into a debate about feminism. It seemed like they couldn’t help being frightened by the Chinese tone since it sounds like quarreling to them. We argued about politeness.
One day we fought because I wanted to take them to the Summer Palace when they insisted on using a precious sunny day to buy fried jackfruit. I called them philistines and lazy. They called me cynical and pretentious.
I am sentimental for those days when my friends and I traded our health to venture into my polluted city, but I secretly hold onto that one sunny day where the glamor of my old city forgave all modern mistakes.