Beijing is a city of concentric circles. Ring Roads, they’re called. 人民 University lies directly on the Third Ring and is my home for the next four months. I publish on a weekly basis, with the latest post below! 好久不见！
I had plans on Thursday to explore the Summer Palace, plans that have been set aside for the time being due to circumstances unique to Beijing. Every morning for the past ten days, I have awoken to noxious smog. Beijing’s air pollution is infamous, and yet everything about the realities of air contamination was a surprise to me- from the permeating nature of the smog on your skin to its effect on street fashion (more on this in a moment). I’ve realized, Beijingers have cultivated a true ethos in the face of this modern obstacle.
To anyone who has lived in an urban area, I’m sure you’re familiar with air pollution. Having lived in Tokyo and Hong Kong for eight years, I certainly am. But I posit that the effects of extreme air pollution do not merely compromise your physical health, but your psychological wellbeing as well. Your outdoor interactions change once its clear the air that surrounds you teems with grit and dust and ash . You feel as if you have silt lining the inside of your jeans. Your long sleeves are rolled up to your elbows because you’re convinced your forearm is covered in a gray film. All of a sudden, you’re walking down the sidewalk itching and shuddering-a categorically different person than the one who left your house in the morning.
But despite my dramatic interpretations, the people who live here have taken this phenomenon in stride. As I sit here in a university coffee shop- a business with four walls and a door- I am struck by the number of students sitting here sipping coffee with their masks on. They wear them when it’s raining, when its sunny, in class, or on a date. It seems the surgical mask has transcended its original utilitarian goal. It’s a bonafide fashion statement. To my knowledge, this has gone widely unreported in the Western community. Should you find yourself searching “anti-contamination masks; fashion” on any search engine, the most you’ll find are Lifestyle articles that reference “£160”specially engineered fashion masks to abate the effects of city pollution. That is not what I’m talking about in this post. The fashion does not come across despite the mask. It is because of the mask. Plain black surgical masks are seen on every street corner and paired with the trendiest outfits, regardless of whether there is a need for them.
This look has crossed the oceans to Korea and Japan and pictures of celebrities wearing the mask show up on every magazine stand (apparently they’re also very good for hiding identities). All that I ask is that you call me in five years when Armani debuts their Spring collection in Milan and all the models walk out with their two dollar masks.
There are so many more quirks I could touch on regarding this issue, starting with the fact that while the entire youth culture of Beijing is changing to adapt to life with chronic air pollution- there is no contamination conversation. The only people who run around in circles with their hands in the air are the foreign students. We are severely freaked out, but no one else bats an eye. I’ve seen people unironically walk out of a 7/11 with a facemask that looks like a prop from the movie Alien.
The joke last year was that Chinese people were starting to buy “bottled air” from Canada. It is 2017 and oxygen is now a luxury commodity. The government has addressed this issue numerous times and has been candid in admitting there is a crisis. Increased use of “uber style” shared bicycles has been encouraged (fodder for a separate post) in order to decrease carbon emissions. The systemic use of coal is also coming into question. However, this issue is far from resolved. As far as I’m concerned, a couple of months in the city will do me no damage and I have no right to complain. If anything, it’s difficult not to think of the countless individuals living in Beijing who either have no home to retreat to, or due to their job are forced to remain outside even during the most heinous weather conditions.
As someone with the privilege of coming from a city where air pollution is not a pressing concern, it is easy to label this as a centralized issue that will cease to affect me the moment I fly back home. But the world is moving fast. This is not a China issue. This is not an India issue. I’m beating a dead horse here, I know, but then again, a news alert popped up on my phone today to the tune of “President Trump will sign an executive order to curb federal regulations combating climate change”. Well, at least I’ve already bought my mask.