Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Clearing the Air

Apr.-May, 2015

By Tom Fearon

 Toddlers can be easily flustered at spending consecutive days indoors due to poor air. Photo: Courtesy of That's Beijing.

Toddlers can be easily flustered at spending consecutive days indoors due to poor air. Photo: Courtesy of That's Beijing.

When former CCTV journalist Chai Jing traveled to the US to give birth to her daughter in October 2013, there was predictable outrage among Chinese netizens. Many branded her as an opportunistic “birth tourist” who put her newborn’s passport above her patriotic duty.

Last month we learned there was more to the story as revealed in Chai’s new documentary about a painfully familiar topic: air pollution. Under the Dome, a104-minute video that attracted more than 100 million views within 24 hours of being uploaded, opens with Chai’s anguished account of learning her unborn daughter had a tumor.

Shortly after birth, Chai’s daughter underwent an operation that removed the tumor. “I'd never felt afraid of pollution before, and never wore a mask no matter where. But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are all your responsibility, and then you feel the fear,” Chai tells a sullen studio audience in her documentary.

It’s a fear familiar to many parents in China concerned about the effect of pollution on their children. As parents, we can go to effective lengths to protect our children from certain hazards; we can hold their hand as they cross the road, we can intervene if they are bullied, and we can educate them about stranger danger. However, no amount of air purifiers or masks can diminish the sense of hopelessness when smog puts Beijing in a chokehold. 

One of the challenges our family deals with regularly is satisfying an inquisitive toddler easily frustrated at spending more than a day indoors. Her brain is wiring up and she wants to ride the slide, shake shoots of bamboo, say hello to dogs, and satisfy other sensory urges. Even succumbing to gangs of cheek-pinching grannies is preferably to staying indoors.

The concept of safety in numbers has put my mind at ease about most aspects of life in China after six years here. I cross busy roads in the mob of pedestrians fully aware that the glowing green man offers no protection from impatient motorists. I continued ordering my usual pre-work breakfast at McDonald’s when it was rocked by a food scandal in July last year, because I saw hordes of customers still lining up. I even sat through the entire CCTV Spring Festival Gala recently with my Chinese relatives, taking comfort knowing that at least I wouldn’t suffer alone in the hours before midnight fireworks.

The joy brought by “APEC Blue,” despite the ridiculous notion of taking pride in a week of livable conditions, revealed just how wonderful it is to be here when you can open your windows, throw away your mask, and take a deep gulp of fresh air.

While you can avoid crossing busy roads, eating fast-food, and watching TV, breathing isn’t optional. Now, I’m gradually abandoning any faith that safety in numbers applies to raising children in a polluted city.

When Miya was born I was predictably reminded by family that it was time to come home to Australia, where the average person thinks PM2.5 refers to the Prime Minister’s approval rating.

I parried their concerns about smog by pointing out that there were a lot of Chinese children growing up in the same situation, hoping that the “we’re-all-in-the-same-boat” logic would ease their minds.

It didn’t, of course, so I reminded them that London and Los Angeles had their own “airmageddons” while coping with rapid population and economic booms. Children in those cities grew up OK, didn’t’ they? Well, not quite. A 2004 study found polluted air in Southern California had left up to 10 percent of children with "clinically significant" reductions in their ability to breathe.

Now, I’m running out of excuses to stay here other than one that I know to be true. When the air is good, life is great in Beijing.

The joy brought by “APEC Blue,” despite the ridiculous notion of taking pride in a week of livable conditions, revealed just how wonderful it is to be here when you can open your windows, throw away your mask, and take a deep gulp of fresh air.

Like Chai, I use to give little thought to the perils of air pollution. I grew weary of reading stories about it in the media and, until now, resisted every urge to write about it. When people in Beijing panicked during the infamous “airpocalypse” in January 2013, I kept a close eye on my app that showed an air quality index of 700 against an ominous black cloud. I knew it was shocking, but I couldn’t shake my morbid curiosity: just how high can we go?

Now, my feeling on polluted days could hardly be more different. I might not have an app for it, but I find myself checking my own parent tolerance index that would show an angry emoji shrouded in haze if it could.


See the original article here.