Before the thick blanket of smog choking Beijing lifted in early February, it had been more than three weeks since I'd seen the sun and even longer since I felt safe enough to walk outside without a surgical mask covering my nose and mouth.
My husband and I have lived in Beijing since 2007 and suffered through bouts of pollution many times before, but this most recent, month-long stretch is the worst either of us can remember, made infinitely harder by the fact that we have a baby.
Before Deirdre was born, we hardly ever checked the American Embassy's pollution readings, which rate the city's air quality on a scale that maxes out at 500 ('beyond index') and is often above 150 ('unhealthy'). Yes, we knew Beijing's air was consistently and depressingly bad, but China afforded us exciting opportunities for cultural and linguistic immersion and career advancement that just weren't available to us back home. Over the past six years, we traveled extensively, learned to speak Chinese fluently and made friends with locals.
As soon as we became parents, however, everything changed. Beijing transformed from a dynamic place to live into a dangerous place to raise our kid.
Suddenly the sliver of haze on the horizon of an otherwise blue sky day wasn't barely noticeable, but glaringly obvious: a sign that even Beijing's best days were deemed 'unhealthy for sensitive groups,' like our 7-month-old daughter.
During this most recent bout of record-breaking pollution, we insulated her as best we could -- turning our air purifier on full blast, taping over air vents that were pumping outdoor air into our apartment and keeping her inside for almost a month. At night, I danced with her to upbeat James Taylor, soothing Norah Jones and inspirational Bruce Springsteen tunes, but no amount of feel-good music could rid me of the sense that I was being a bad parent, needlessly exposing her to an apocalyptic soup of various toxins and coal dust. The knowledge that I was choosing to raise my child in what amounts to a giant smoker's lounge felt even worse than my burning eyes and lungs.
And because we are lucky enough to have an alternative, we are moving home; this December, we'll celebrate Christmas with our family in the U.S.
While my husband and I are ready to move home for many reasons aside from the appalling air quality, there's no question that the health of our child is a paramount concern. We will miss this city and the wonderful people we've befriended, many of whom are now parents themselves, but we've had enough of local weather reports that forecast 'smoke' instead of sunshine or rain.
I wonder, however, how to explain our decision to those fellow parents, like the ones whose baby's date of birth coincided with the onset of the worst bout of pollution in the city's history. How can we say that China's air isn't good enough for our daughter to breathe, but will just have to do for theirs?
Some parents rationalize the pollution, like our friend who has convinced himself that the air in the Beijing suburbs is "as clean as that in New Jersey," my much-loved home state, but not a place readily associated with fresh, revitalizing air (outside of China, anyway). He insists that if we move outside of the city, our daughter -- like his -- won't be exposed to the pollution.
So while I agree that the Chinese government's willingness to allow its journalists to openly report the extent of the country's pollution problem is a baby step in the right direction, I can't help but wonder about the implications for Chinese parents who have no alternative, like our local friends. They can no longer deny that the air their children breathe is poison, (not just an unusually stubborn, foul-tasting 'fog,') but tragically there's very little, if anything, they can do about it. China is their home -- they can't escape abroad -- and certainly can't afford imported air purifiers that now cost upwards of 2,000 USD in a city with an average household income of about 10,500 USD.
Commentators often emphasize the differences that separate American and Chinese culture, but I've found we're surprisingly similar in many ways, especially when it comes to wanting the very best for our children. And Chinese parents envy what we simply take for granted: fresh air, clean water, public parks.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to live here, but it's time to go. Just as surely as I know the pollution will return -- maybe tomorrow, maybe not until next week if we're really lucky -- I know that I, too, will be back to the city where I transformed from a college student to a wife and a mother. Just not with my daughter.