We’re walking around Florence. About an hour's drive from our lovely hotel in the Tuscan hills. It’s hot and sunny, the ice creams are yummy and we’re sharing a bottle of prosecco at lunch to celebrate this beautiful city (any excuse works, innit?). Next (and last) stop on this seven-week European summer holiday is Rome. Rome where our two sons were born and where we lived until 2002. I am, of course, over the moon about this exciting opportunity to show the kids around and relive wonderful memories from back then. Yet I catch myself thinking that I would actually rather drive to the nearest airport and fly back to Beijing. Than be in ROME for three days.
I think I owe you an explanation
The kids and I left Beijing on 19 June and my husband joined us later. Our tour d’Europe has taken us to our 3 home countries: Denmark, Belgium and Italy. We have enjoyed bright, Scandinavian summer nights, hygge with the family, two days on my brother’s sailing boat, mussels in Brussels, catching up with friends, one beautiful Sardinian beach after the other, family lunches by the seaside with piglets roasting on the fire, food, food and more food – and last but not least the time to bond as a family!
But travelling is also tiring and seven weeks of living out of a suitcase have almost come to an end. This normally puts me in a reflective mood. Exactly like one year ago today when I wrote about going back to Beijing after the summer. This time, I realise that a year makes a huge difference and that my love for Beijing has grown fonder.
We know the city better now. While bikes are still our most used mean of transportation, the car we bought last September has given us a bit more liberty and allowed us to explore the beautiful areas around Beijing. Although the language barrier is still very much present, we understand a bit more Chinese now. I’ve made new friends and as for the friends I made in the very beginning, I have slowly opened up to them – and they to me. I have enjoyed being part of the party planning committee at our compound “Park Apartments” and I thrive on that sense of community.
But two particular events are nominated for “the-best-thing-that's-happened-since-last-summer-award”:
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities we're given in China, I will go back to Beijing with a sense of happiness and serenity. Reassured that our friends and relatives in Europe are doing well and ever so pleased that I have friends who are waiting for me in China. Just like last year, I am ready to get into everyday life again and the excitement about new projects makes me extra eager to get on that plane.
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".
Our bags are packed and the anticipation is high. The plane leaves at 3 pm today and we're off for 7 weeks of family, fun and sun (most likely mixed with Danish and Belgian showers). This will be our second summer holiday in Europe since we moved to China and it would be fair to say that we've done a "copy paste" of last year's plan! First Denmark for 3 weeks and then we're off to Brussels, Belgium. Our home for 13 years and home to the majority of our closest friends. Next stop is my husband's native island of Sardinia. Then one week to Tuscany and we'll end with 3 days in Rome where both our sons were born.
Getting ready and organised in Beijing
On Friday I sat down with our fantastic Ayi (househelp) in an attempt to explain the "timeline" of our holidays. It was complicated. Not only because it had to be done in Chinese but also because I could hardly remember the details of our plans - let alone explain them to the poor woman!
Our talk went something like this: "We leave on the 19th ["6th month, 19th day" in Mandarin] - or rather only the kids and I leave that day. My husband stays 2 weeks longer! There will be painters in the house and there'll be a lot of ...erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* dust. Do as much as you can but don't worry if you have to skip some hours. As long as you remember to feed the cat those 3 weekends - ah no wait! not that weekend because our neighbour's son will do that...I think...let me just double check *typing message on WeChat*. And when you have time, please....erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* vacuum clean the airconditioning.....erm duì buqĭ *fumbling with the translation app* filters."
Yes we're privileged to have someone to look after the apartment and our cat Pumba. We can leave with peace of mind.
Bring on the koldskål!
Life in China is good but there are, inevitably, things we miss in Europe. Number one of course being family and friends! But here is list of what the different members of our family miss at home. Home being 3 different countries in our case.
When the seven weeks are up, I will, like last year, write a post about what we miss and look forward to coming back to Beijing for.
Off we go. Thank you readers and I'll be in touch over the summer Xx
(Published on Beijing Parents + Kids June/July 2017. All rights belong to City Weekend)
Morning after morning, as I blearily regain consciousness my right arm independently reaches for the nightstand where my phone has been charging. My face is lit not by the warm touch of sunshine but the artifcial blue glare of WeChat and Facebook as I scroll through my messages and newsfeed.
Social media is especially important to me as an expat mom, giving me the chance to share my life in Beijing and proudly document the confidence with which my children have taken to this foreign land. However, as a self-confessed Facebook addict, the perils and positives of smartphone use and etiquette have floated at the periphery of my mind for years.
During the day (and night) my smartphone is very rarely out of reach. If I forget my phone at home I feel anxious. I’m convinced someone is trying to get hold of me or that something has happened with my kids at school. I return to get it — to find silence. Only the number of red dots from WeChat notifcations have increased drastically during the 15 minutes my phone and I were separated.
I decide to switch off for a week; to discover what effect a smartphone-free life would have on my family and myself. The rules are simple — I can only use my phone to make and receive calls, all
other functions (and 4G) are out of bounds.
While much of the handwringing over excessive smartphone use focuses on the amount of screen
time our kids are getting, we, as parents, need to consider the effect our own digital lives have on
our children. Studies show that when we stare at our phones in front of the kids, we make them feel
unimportant. A little girl interviewed for Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair's book The Big Disconnect said “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring to my dad because he will take any call, any text, any time. Even on the ski lift.” We’ve all experienced that stab of insecurity when a friend surreptitiously glances at their phone during what you thought was an amusing anecdote — imagine that gnawing feeling of inadequacy stemming not from your friends but your parents, your family.
We moved to China with the noble intention of strengthening our family ties and spending more time together. It worked out well during the first few weeks in Beijing when we supported each other through the challenges of relocation. But as the time flew by, we settled in, our lives got busy and the card games, daily episodes of The Office and Chinese character quizzes were replaced by evenings spent in our own rooms, wrapped up in our individual digital lives. A device-free dinner is the only rule we’ve (sort of) managed to implement.
Although I like to think of myself as a conscientious smartphone user, switching off fully for a week allows me to give my undivided attention to my family. On the fourth day my daughter and I make candles together while we chat and listen to music. I can tell she enjoys the activity and attention, and without the distracting bleeps of WeChat or interruptive compulsion to take photographs, I also feel at peace.
On the morning of my seventh and last day of smartphone detox, I am on my way to interview
Dr. Nicole Bush at Oasis International Hospital. I get completely lost. With sweaty palms, already 15 minutes late and having called twice to ask for directions, I start to realise that I might have to give in and switch on 4G so I can receive a location pin by WeChat. But by a small miracle, I notice the hospital further down the road. It is a close call.
Dr. Nicole Bush has 13 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist and a chat with her reveals that children’s excessive use of electronic devices can affect not only their emotional balance but also their social interaction with others. Children tend to isolate themselves when on their devices and in small children, excessive exposure to devices can also increase the frequency of melt-downs and tantrums. The quality of sleep is often compromised when children get too much screen time and from a physical point of view, looking down at a device several hours a day can have a long-term effect on your child’s posture. As a common-sense tip for parents, Dr. Bush suggests that we treat any device in the same way as the treat cupboard in the kitchen. If you wouldn’t give your kids access to that cupboard at any time of the day for as long as they want, then don’t give them free access to electronic devices.
A phone free future?
While I did not get my family on board for a smartphone detox, they supported me throughout the week — even when I failed to transfer pocket money or had to deny access to my Taobao app. Through my experience — especially my almost-missed meeting with Dr. Bush — and discussions with friends and family, I have come to the conclusion that living without a smartphone, particularly in China, as a parent and someone who depends on social outlets, is simply not realistic. But a detox is still something I would recommend to anyone. I have accomplished much more in this week, from the flow of my writing to getting all my Chinese homework done. Best of all, my family had my undivided attention and it was liberating to enjoy quality moments with them without the distraction of my phone buzzing. It turns out I might not be suffering from nomophobia (no-mobile-pho-
bia) after all.
Lise Floris henwestare at our phones, we make our kidsfeel unimportant
You may have seen horror pictures of the sky over Beijing the past two days? The air quality was almost 900! The highest it's ever been since we moved to Beijing 18 months ago!! If you don't live in China (or India) I don't expect you to know the index by heart so here is a reminder :-)
So yes! We were beyond the index, Beyond hazardous.
We woke up Thursday morning to WeChat messages from some of the class chats at the kids' school! There was confusion about whether the school was closed or not. BUT the rules are quite clear: the school will only close if there are 3 days in a row of 250 or above. We are very lucky that the Western Academy of Beijing has a state-of-the-art air purifying system and even on a day like Thursday with extreme levels of pollution, the air quality at school was 1!!
What caused this airpocalypse?
The horrible air quality was caused by a combination of "normal" pollution and a sandstorm from the Gobi dessert! For this reason, most readings were shown in PM10! A tiny inhalable particle - different from the PM 2.5 particles (the bad guys we normally refer to when talking about air pollution) but still very damaging to our health!
So did it affect our daily life?
That's it. We are used to polluted days. Life goes on.