Lately here in Shanghai we have had quite a few days where the air quality has been labeled “red.” We look at the AQI, the Air Quality Index, to see if the air is too dangerous to breathe. Red means it is “unhealthy” and the recommendation is to keep kids and the elderly inside. If you have “sensitivities” or heart or lung disease then you should plan to stay inside too. This means that on red air days I get an email from Henry’s school informing me that there will be no outside recess. The same usually goes for the older kids even though their school is closer to the ocean and allegedly has “better air.” You hear that here constantly. Pudong has “fresher” air than Puxi because of the trees. When the Chinese go on vacation they comment on the quality of the air and the “freshness” of the breezes. This seemed strange to me at first, but now I can see why. When you live with pollution constantly, clear skies can be shocking. You gape at fluffy clouds and stars at night. You forget what they look like after you live without them for a while.
When we first arrived, I had no idea that the air quality was a big deal. I thought of the AQI the same way I think of that terror threat scale in the United States. It is good to know that it is around, but I never pay any attention to it. It stayed at red for so long that red ceased to mean anything at all. For me the air quality idea was the same. Does it ever get to purple? Or to that brownish color that indicates we should all stay inside and remain perfectly still? Once when one of Lucas’ friends didn’t come over on his bike as planned, we were all surprised to learn that his mother had refused to let him out of the house due to the air quality. What? It had been a lovely day—one of the few with blue skies and mild temperatures—and I had let my kids run around outside all afternoon. Parenting fail, apparently. I knew Shanghai had pollution, but I had been expecting something like those cartoon factories with black smoke billowing for everyone to see. I hadn’t realized that a beautiful day could still be a heavily polluted one.
The past few days, however, you can really see the pollution. My brain still tricks me into thinking it is just fog, or that it might rain, but really it is just pollution. Pollution so thick that you can’t see through it sometimes. Inexplicably, my Chinese teacher prefers the pollution to rain. He would rather have the gray hazy pollution than drizzle. I counter that at least the rain washes the place clean, but he disagrees. Then the pollution is just in the water and the soil, he says, but that is the price for Chinese development. Just wait, he says, the factories are slowly moving. They are going to Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Soon tourists will stop talking about their beautiful blue skies and their fresh, clean air. Then they will pay the price for developing and China can clean up a little bit. But for now, the haze continues and China’s progress marches on.