I knew I was back in Beijing, after a few weeks of much needed vacationing at home, not by the number of Chinese people around me or the Chinese characters on every sign but by the thick cloud of smog hovering in the air.
"Welcome back Brandon," I thought to myself. The depressing haze made me want to jump on the first plane bound State-side for another few weeks of vacation and blue skies.
Pollution is a serious problem in Beijing, but when you have millions of cars jamming the streets and outdated industrial complexes pumping God knows what into the air, a hazy mist is the least of your worries. The United Nations ranks the city as having some of the worst pollution in the world.
The day after I returned to China, the pollution level in the capital city went "beyond measurable pollution levels," according the U.S. Embassy which tracks these levels daily. Chinese officials warned people, especially the elderly, to stay indoors. I wanted to do the same, but, alas, three weeks of vacation meant I would be missed at work.
Luckily, most of my commute to work was underground - a subway took me across the city where I caught a bus to the Beijing Review compound. The time spent above ground was depressing with visibility limited to a few hundred yards and the sky a disgusting brownish orange. People covered their mouths and nostrils with medical masks, scarves, newspapers or whatever they could get their hands on. You would have thought SARS or swine flu had broken out again.
Currently, there are almost 5 million cars roaming the busy streets of Beijing. Other cities along China's east coastal areas suffer similar problems. Last year, China overtook the United States as the largest auto market in the world. The Chinese love cars, mostly small ones but more and more so on the larger SUV side. I've even seen a few out of place Hummers parked around the city.
The Chinese are also big fans of coal and burn it in large quantities to fuel their growing need for power. While the United States has the largest coal reserves, China is the largest consumer of the black rock that produces energy for industry and thick clouds of soot. The coal-burning issue is a big one in China, now industrializing in much the same way that the United States and Europe did in the mid 1800s, and the Asian nation hasn't taken too well to chastisement from the West for its heavy pollution.
Although the West, too, experienced heavy levels of pollution in the air and waterways - much still going on - we've learned from our mistakes and encourage China not to suffer a similar fate. But with few other resources and lacking the state of the art technology of the United States and Europe, China has few alternatives but to stick to its "burn-baby-burn" mentality, polluting the air while providing its population of 1.3 billion with electricity.
As far as health risks go, the smog hasn't been directly related to any deaths, although I'm sure long-term exposure can result in a variety of ailments. When I was home for three weeks earlier this year, the cough I'd developed while living in Beijing - which I just assumed was because of my weak immune system, allergies or inability to adapt to city life - vanished. Two days after returning to Beijing, that cough was back along with acute pains in my chest. It must be my foreign lungs, since most of my Chinese colleagues and friends seem immune to the pollution, or are much better at faking health.
These smoggy skies are the most depressing and annoying part about living in Beijing. At times, it feels like I'm living through the Apocalypse, sans mushroom clouds and radioactive wastelands. I'm 24 and when the sky is brown, I get short-winded walking up six flights of stairs to my apartment. That's not because I'm overweight or out of shape. I actually live a relatively healthy lifestyle due to a lack of fried foods, donuts and other delicacies of the Coal Region. It's because of the air. So maybe I'll need another vacation, this time to an island in the South Pacific, maybe sooner than I expected.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/ . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .