We must have looked pretty silly when we landed on that ice cold and grey December morning in 2015. With three children, 15 suitcases and a very unhappy cat. We had barely left the aircraft before we put on our masks. We had checked our newly acquired air quality app and knew that Beijing was going to welcome us with a good deal of smog. And the numbers did not lie. But more about them in a minute.
Before leaving for Beijing, many friends and family members had asked us how we could even consider settling down there? And with children? Beijing of all places. Had we not read about the air quality problems? I believe we mumbled something about how we had to think about the positive aspects and the amazing opportunity to live in China for four to five years. Without actually knowing any of those positive aspects yet.
AQI: green a good. Purple is rubbish
The Air quality is measured in the density of the tiny PM 2.5 particles. On the day we landed, the density of PM 2.5 was approximately 300 micrograms per cubic meter. It is six times the value the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
Being a simple Danish girl with no influence, I cannot do anything about the air pollution in Beijing. I can complain about it, look at it from our living room window, shake my head. And then have faith in Chinese authorities because after all, they are trying to do something about it. If you drive a scooter within the city's fourth ring road (there are six of them in total) it must be electric. Diesel cars are banned in Beijing and the government's target for 2017 is to cut the use of coal by 30 percent. At the same time, 500 of the most polluting plants will be shut down and 2500 factories will be upgraded.
Authorities have also begun to deal with garbage incineration and the burning of wood. This means, among other things, that outdoor barbecue restaurants are being shut down.
But while we're waiting for a significant improvement, smog is still a reality in Beijing and as residents, we have some tools we can use to address the problem in our everyday lives. Both concrete and mental tools.
We have six air purifiers in our apartment. They are machines (in our case of the Swedish make "Blue Air") that filter the harmful particles and ensure a better indoor climate. When the pollution is at its worst, all six air purifiers run at highest speed. And boy are they noisy!
Air quality app
There are tons of them on the market. Apps that tell us what today’s Air Quality Index is. The app we use is called "Air Visual". In the beginning, we checked it constantly, but our seventh floor living room window has gradually become our new scale: If we can see the big crane among the skyscrapers in the Central Business District clearly – then the air quality is probably between 50 and 100. If the top of it is covered by smog, we are approaching the 200 mark and if the crane is invisible, it’s time to grab those masks.
Despite the fact that new and advanced models are constantly being made available (such as tight silicone masks and masks with changeable filters), it is difficult to know just how effective they are. In our family, we had strict rules about the use of masks when we first moved to Beijing. In fact, I demanded that the children use them when the AQI was 100 or above. Today we’re lucky if even one of us remembers to wear a mask when the AQI is 200. I believe we need to address that sloppy attitude as soon as possible.
Whatever happens: Do not open the windows before you’ve checked your app.
We wait for blue skies and clean air before we open the windows in our apartment. Daily ventilation is a thing of the past.
Meet the little gadget that measures the indoor air quality. Far from all Beijing residents invest in an "egg" but in expat circles it is in high demand.
I would lie if I said that the air pollution does not affect my mood. Especially when it’s the fourth or fifth day in a row with grey and thick air. I tend to arrange an excursion or a mini break when it’s too much. You do not have to go far to find cleaner air so whether it’s for a weekend in a different province or a day trip to the mountains just north of Beijing, day trips are by far my most used mental tool. Directly followed by a huge burger from “Blue Frog” in Sanlitun.
Cheer up – it’s below 50 tomorrow
Smog is part of our everyday life in Beijing. It is like a heavy cloud in the back of our minds - and on the roof tops of the city. But even when it's at its worst, life's goes on. We cycle, we go out and the kids go to school (luckily, they have very advanced air filters and the AQI is zero to one). Shops are open, the elderly meet in the parks for taiqi and folk dance, friends gather (indoors or outdoors) and nothing is canceled. Well except from the training sessions of my husband's running club. They have set the limit for outdoor training at AQI 200.
In our family we have accepted that bad air is something we have to live with. But some people give up and go back to their home countries earlier than planned.
So far, I have luckily succeeded in letting the positive and unique experiences in China outweigh the poor air quality. I may well be going crazy but sometimes it's as if I can hear Beijing whisper to me: "Lise, I know, you're feeling blue today. Thank you for your patience and here is most beautiful blue sky and an air quality of 30 for you. Go ahead and open those windows".