I’ve been overseas long enough to know that the media doesn’t always give an accurate portrayal of what life is really like in certain parts of the world.
For ten years I lived in Seoul, Korea and every time North Korea came to the forefront of media coverage, I would get a flurry of questions: “You guys all right over there?” or “Korea is so dangerous. I can’t believe you live there.”
Every time, my answer was the same: “Life carries on as normal. You would never know North Korea is stepping up its antics yet again.” In reality, although you would never guess it from media coverage, even with the North Korean border only thirty-five miles away, we were much safer in Seoul than we would have been in the USA. You could lose a wallet on the subway in Seoul and would get it in the mail a week later with the money and credit cards still inside. Instances like this, in which Koreans won’t even pick up dropped money from the street, don’t surprise me at all. But those kinds of realities don’t get media attention.
I understand that media coverage can distort our concept of what it would be like to live in a certain country, so it was hard for my husband and I to anticipate what the reality of living in Beijing would be. What we, like most others, knew of Beijing was what the media chose to tell us, and the only thing the media liked to talk about when it came to Beijing was the air quality. I remember watching this video and sharing it with a friend while my husband was interviewing for his position.
Recognizing that news coverage can skew reality, I searched online to try to figure out what the air quality in Beijing was really like. I found chat boards where families who were considering a move posted a question asking whether moving there was worth the health risk. Answers were as individual and varied our experiences and preferences for anything else in life.
And so now, after having been here for almost eight months, I’ll answer the question I so badly wanted to know before our move:
What’s the air in Beijing really like?
The Short Answer
It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. When we were considering the move, I wondered if my son, who had finally outgrown his croupy tendencies, would develop breathing problems again. I pictured us needing to wear masks almost every day and not being able to play outside. Running and fitness is an important part of my life, and I imagined being chained to a treadmill and not being able to run outside until we decided to move again.
I was so wrong.
Yes, the nasty days can be really nasty. But there can also be days like this.
I’m sitting here writing this on yet another beautiful day. The weather is getting warmer, and I’m looking out my window at clear blue skies. Today, it’s easy for me to sit here and say it’s not nearly as bad as I imagined. If I had written this post during the winter, when the AQI tends to be higher on a daily basis, my response may have been different.
The air quality really determines my mood. When the sky is blue, Beijing is gorgeous, and I feel like I could stay for years. When the air is especially bad, I question how many toxins we’re inhaling or how it’s affecting my children’s tiny bodies, and I feel an urgency to leave.
But since we’ve been here, it feels like the good days have far outnumbered the bad. The people who have lived here for several years, tell me that the air quality is getting better with time. That is something to celebrate.
The Long (and Very Descriptive) Answer
There are different systems of measuring and reporting the pollution in the air. The United States, China, and many other countries measure and report the air quality using The Air Quality Index (AQI). It’s hard to talk to my friends and family who live in the United States about AQI because they have no idea what it all means. My USA friends don’t ever wake up and check the air quality to see if they can carry on with their plans or if they need to modify them or cancel them altogether. We do that here. We talk about AQI forecasts more than we talk about weather forecasts. My son’s field trips at school have never been canceled because of weather. He’s had about three field trips canceled because of a high AQI.
Let me try to explain what the numbers mean.
This website explains how AQI has six levels of concern, ranging from good to hazardous. The table gives the number range for each level of concern and describes who would experience adverse reactions at each level.
Since we arrived in Beijing in late July of 2015, the AQI has gotten all the way down to four (4) and all the way up to about 500. In the warmer months, the level in Beijing hovers around eighty or ninety. During the cold months it tends to hover around 150 or so.
Since that still might not mean anything to you. I tried to capture the very bad and the decent days with a camera. I’m not a photographer, and I can’t quite figure out how to take a picture that really captures the smog, but here are my attempts to show what the different AQIs look like.
I took the first few photos when the AQI was reading 420. These pictures were taken on March 4 at about 8:30 in the morning. I’m not sure if you can tell how much smog is in the air. In the picture on the left, you might think it looks like a cloudy or foggy day. It’s not. It’s a smoggy day. Find the little dot above one of the houses. That’s the sun trying to peak through.
For comparison’s sake, a few days later I took these pictures at the same time of day (around 8:30 am). The AQI in these pictures is about 80.
On a good note, it doesn’t get up to 420 very often. March 4 was the first day in months that we had had an AQI that high. The last time it reached the 400s was (I think) back in December when my family was (thankfully) not in the country, when Beijing had about four or so days in a row where it was in the 400s.
What causes a high AQI in Beijing?
In mid-September, after having been in China for about two months, I found this article. It made it seem so simple. It gives the impression that for a couple weeks leading up to a big parade, Beijing had extra regulations in place to limit the number of cars on the road and that after the parade, the restrictions were lifted and the very next day disgusting smog descended on the city. And that’s simply not what happened. Taking care of the air pollution is much more complex than a few people deciding to take public transportation like the article suggests. And in reality, the AQI did not sky-rocket immediately like the article claims. It was at least a week after the restrictions were lifted that we had an AQI reading close to 200.
I wish I could go into the the complexities of why Beijing has a poor air quality. We could talk about the coal burning factories or the automobiles. We could talk about people burning coal during the cold weather to heat homes. We could talk about poor city planning and crammed subway cars and highways turned into parking lots during rush hour. We could discuss temperature inversions or the mountains that prevent smog from blowing out of the city. We could talk about politics and environmental regulations. But I won’t bore you with all of that.
Instead, I’ll keep it simple and say if you are a Beijing mom trying to predict the AQI as you look ahead at the weekend and make plans for your family, look at the wind forecast. The article that I linked above—the one that said smog descended on the city as soon as the restrictions were lifted—well, the reality was the smog built up when the weather changed and the winds stopped being favorable. Beijing needs a strong wind coming from the north to clean the air. Back in the USA, I never paid attention to wind forecasts. In Beijing, I have to.
The AQI in Beijing can change very suddenly. There have been times when I go to bed when the reading is at 300 and in the morning I wake up and, since the winds changed during the night, the AQI is nine.
Is living in Beijing worth the risk it poses to your health?
This was a question my husband and I asked ourselves before we moved here. And the message boards I browsed before moving showed that I was not the only mom asking the question.
In everything we do in life, we weigh potential risk with potential benefit. This was so much simpler for me as a twenty year old, when the effects of my decisions (I thought) wouldn’t affect anyone but myself. Now that I have a husband and two children who depend on me, weighing risks and benefits becomes much more complicated.
As with so many of the other expatriate families I know here, transferring to Beijing meant a professional move that would open up a whole slew of opportunities for the entire family. It was a critical step on a career path that we couldn’t turn down. Now that we are here, even apart from those future career opportunities this has given us, I look at the school my children attend and their development of Mandarin Chinese and I can give a hearty, “Yes. Absolutely. It has definitely been worth it.”
We’ve also come to realize since we’ve been here that the media skewed our perception of China. The media loves to showcase Beijing’s low air quality, but there are a number of cities in the world where the pollution is actually worse. I am not complaining about all the media attention. If nothing else, the bad publicity has put pressure on China to put policies in place to improve the air quality. But in reality, the most polluted cities are in India, not China. Here and here are two articles that list the most heavily polluted cities in the world.
Life is a balancing act of deciding which risks are worthwhile and which are not. Everything is a gamble. I have no idea what the air quality is doing to our bodies, but I do know that my two children have not missed a day of school this year because of sickness. I know that when we decide to move next time, we could very likely end up in a city with worse air quality than Beijing. And I know that with the insane driving habits here, the most pressing worry on my mind is an injury in a car accident, not the long-term effects of the air quality.
Everything is relative.
As a newbie, I asked a lot of people when I first got here what to expect in regard to the air quality. Answers were varied. Some said things like, “My first year here, it was so bad we were sure we would leave as soon as we could, but it keeps getting better. If that’s the case, we’ll continue to stay.” Others said it didn’t really affect their lives at all. Others said, “You know, it’s all relative. I grew up in L.A. in the 70s. The air was just like it is here now.”
Wherever we are, we take the characteristics of a place and learn how to manage our lives around them (or in spite of them). We learn to deal with all of it—the risks, the benefits, the frustrations, and the perks—and adjust our attitudes and live accordingly.
I remember when I first got here, we were very careful about wearing masks. One day when I was catching a ride to Bible study with one of my friends at the beginning of the year, the AQI wasn’t the greatest, so I put on a mask before I left. When my friend saw me, she smiled a knowing smile. “You newbies and your masks,” she said, “You crack me up.”
I still wear a mask, and I have my children wear a mask when the AQI is very high. But I have come to understand why she found my mask so comical. Not everyone pays attention to the AQI, especially people who have been in Beijing a long time or who have grown up here. On a really bad AQI day in December (AQI 300), I took my daughter to ballet class and made sure all of us had a mask on before we left. We walked to class, I took her mask off, put her ballet clothes on, and sent her to her classroom. I sat in the waiting area reading a book and, looking around, noticed that the windows were wide open. What good does it do to wear a mask outside when most buildings don’t have a filtration system and the air inside is just as bad as it is outside?
You learn to live with the problems and risks wherever you are.
Perhaps the difference it makes is minimal, but if the AQI is especially high, we still wear masks when we go out, but for the most part, if it’s too high, we just stay home. When the kids are in school, their school has a very effective filtration system (hospital quality) and the kids don’t have outside recess when the AQI is above 150.
As most expat families here, we purchased air filters for our home. We use the Blue Air filters and have one in every room. They are not as effective as the filtration systems in the schools, but it definitely takes the edge off and improves the quality of the indoor air. We have Laser Eggs that give an AQI reading inside our home, so we can know how effectively our filters are keeping up. When the AQI is 400 outside, our indoor AQI is anywhere from 150 to 200 downstairs, and the upstairs reading on those days is usually between 80 and 90. On an average day in Beijing, when the outdoor AQI is 120, the indoor AQI will be below 50 downstairs and in the single digits in the bedrooms upstairs.
Our air purifiers aren’t perfect, but they help. We need to change the filters every six months. Take a look at the picture to see what they look like at the end of that time. All I could think about when we changed the filters that first time was, “Good God, I hope this isn’t what our lungs look like now.”
But again . . . My family is benefiting in many ways from being in Beijing. I hope that in the end, the benefits will be worth more than the harm.
What about you? What risks have you taken in order to give yourself or your family new opportunities? Was it worth it in the end? Tell me in the comments section below.