We all have our routines. Some people check the weather first thing in the morning before heading out of the door for work, others check their email communication with family, friends and colleagues. But our morning routine lately is quite different. Oftentimes my children report the air quality index (AQI) number when I am barely out of the shower. It has become their habit to check the day’s air quality, something they’ve watched and learned from me doing every morning. We want to know how polluted our city is, and what kind of air we are breathing in our lungs. Is it Moderate, Unhealthy or Very Unhealthy or worse? With that information, we can then decide the day’s activities, if or not we can go out for some air – I hesitate to use “fresh” here, or we’ll be stuck inside.
Learning about the AQI is a recent thing for all of us. Both the Chinese government (The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection) and the US Consulate monitor the air quality, and both have developed a color coded system to keep people informed. Particles in the air are measured at different times of the day, then a number from 0-500 is assigned as the overall air quality of the day, or the period measured. Since it is measured several times a day, the numbers are different depending on the time it’s being checked. For example, at 8 in the morning the reading is 180, but that number may go down to 100 at 3 in the afternoon. The air is categorized to be Good (0-50), Moderate (51-100), Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150), Unhealthy (151-200), Very Unhealthy
(201-300), and Hazardous (301-500). Good is green. Moderate is yellow. Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups is orange. Unhealthy is red. Very Healthy is purple. Hazardous is brown (which makes perfect sense!). While green and yellow are appealing to the senses, purple and brown are heavy, thickening and sickening. Visually disturbing.
This color coded number system is certainly informative, but what is lacking is which part of the city is sampled for the actual measurement. If some Puxi neighborhood is measured, does it mean Pudong has the same air quality, therefore the same reading? I often doubt that. Puxi is a lot more densely populated than Pudong in terms of housing and traffic. But I shouldn’t be too concerned about it, because looking out of my window will give me the exact information I need, an idea if a big gulp of the outside air will refreshen or choke me.
Life as expats in Shanghai is not easy these days, especially for old timers like us. The “Let’s do this.” and “Let’s see that” kind of excitement is mostly, if not completely worn off. We’ve seen Shanghai, the good, bad, wonderful, weird, absurd and all. Now with this smog, not only are our lungs suffering, our mood goes down the drain, too.
Call me melodramatic or boring. After all, who wants to read or write about pollution these days when there are so many popular topics out there? But things are not looking up after a whole month of living in a smog ville. If tomorrow will be better, then I am definitely making too much fuss, but it’s not like that. We are really killing ourselves in the name of economic growth.
I read an article recently about how Beijing, an infamously more polluted city is less polluted these days. The author said Beijing had been shrouded all year around by the thick smog because the city is surrounded by pollutants inducing provinces, where steel and cement making is the main money making industry. Since Beijing’s air quality is so closely tied to these provinces, the central government has decided to shut down these plants and move them to the southern provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang which are far from Beijing, but are actually close to Shanghai. Too bad for Shanghai, isn’t it?No wonder a joke is going around in the country saying Shanghai is catching up with Beijing, even in terms of air quality!
That’s one of the reasons Shanghai got its pollution. Good to know, sad, too! Why does it have to be that way? One city enjoys better fresher air by spacing itself from these plants, and the other one has to inhale the thick smog only because these plants are dropped next to it? These man-made rules are totally unfair. Or a rush of wind came and dispersed the polluted air from Beijing to Shanghai?
So here is the problem. When Beijing’s air quality is improved, Shanghai’s is deteriorated. I can see that from the reading. Very often, when Beijing’s AQI reading is coded yellow, Shanghai’s is always red, or vice versa. The two cities’ reading is like a yo-yo, one is up, the other one down. We can’t be happy as long as the bad air is dispersed from our front door, can we? Things are not right this way, the temporary good air can change in a split second by a different atmospheric pattern.
It all boils down to one thing, we are all connected. Global village is not just a saying, it is a reality. We can’t even pick up and move to a different place, because there is nowhere to hide. Who knows? Maybe the city you are moving to is just the city that air pollution will be dispersed to. Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul. We are not immediately next to each other, but the bad air can find us. Our actions have consequences, a concept we teach our children.
China has one of the fastest growing economies, and we can see the result it brings. People drive their own cars and take pride in it. There are more factory owners in a room than we have enough fingers to count. The wealth is shown in the latest hi-tech gadgets, the branded cars, shoes, clothes, accessories they are wearing, the astronomical amount they are willing to spend on their children’s education. That’s all great! But at what cost? Clean air, clean water and healthier lungs? Our beautiful skyscrapers which are supposed to showcase the creativity of our mind are disappearing right in front of us. We all sigh that it would be nice if we could progress without putting our lives in danger and destroying our environment.
Almost every morning for the past month I wake up to the vivid reminder that I have to keep my children home for another day because of the heavily polluted air. A Shanghai Daily article dated Jan. 6, 2014 says that the city had only 8 days of good air in December of 2013. That means a majority of the time the city was heavily polluted. Dec. 6 2013 becomes a day everyone remembers here, when the AQI reading was off the chart!
However, the problem is, even with the sad reminder outside my window, my habits are not changing much. Recycle? Take public transportation? That’s for other people. I admit that I recycle the bare minimum. I try to use a little less paper towel in my daily living. But the fact remains I can’t even give up the convenience of taxis, it’s cheap and convenient and available, and best of all I don’t have to share my space with other riders. I know this sounds selfish. Another sad fact remains that you can find people like me everywhere. Watch how much waste going to the bin next time when you fly. Think about air travel, and all the cute little paper cups. Plastic cups. The silverware inside a plastic bag. The individually packaged salt and pepper packets. Untouched meals, etc., etc. Every meal service involves a phenomenal waste. Every time I fly, I have the guilt conscience that my family and I are contributing to this waste.
When I feel powerless as a speck of dust, I remind myself of this Chinese proverb, “Dripping water can pierce a stone”. It means a small but consistent effort can have a powerful impact. Even though I am just one individual, the collective force toward the making of a better environment can be very powerful. If we all recycle, reduce, willing to use public transportation, the world will indeed be a better place.
“Awareness without action is worthless.” I forgot who said that but I’ve heard of it from somewhere and I like it. In the spirit of the right action, this year I want to live a more environmentally friendly life. I am going to turn off the tab while I brush my teeth in the morning and at night. I am going to cut down the use of paper towels and napkins. I am already using public transportation more than before and I am going to keep that up, even though it means I will be pushed and shoved on the metro train. I am using a reusable bag for my grocery so that I no longer need plastic ones. I am not going to use any paper plates, plastic cups and silverware for the kids’ birthdays. Giving up the clothes dryer would have been hard, but mine broke and seems beyond repair at the moment, so opting to clotheslines is a natural (pun intended) choice. Anyway I think these goals are attainable, so if they are not attained, I will be truly disappointed at myself.
I am only a drop of water, totally insignificant, but together we can form an ocean. I am going to be mindful next time when I use earth’s precious resource. One drop of water matters, literally and figuratively.
This long winded rambling gives me hope of a clear blue sky so we can all go out and play! Maybe very soon checking the air quality would be a thing in the past. That day can’t come soon enough!