Air Appreciation Society
How we British love to moan about the rain. I'm sure once upon a time, I probably moaned about rain, too. Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I did. With my frizzy hair, a light spattering of water can ruin an hours worth of straightening efforts. But now, how I cherish the odd occasion when rain falls on the arid city of Beijing. You see, rain not only waters the plants and keeps things lusciously green; it also clears the air - adding that wonderful moisture that makes each breath feel like an invigorating flush through your body. It's like Colgate-flavoured oxygen. I miss it. In fact, it's one of the things I look forward to most about going home. After a 12-20 hour flight home, standing outside in the 'fresh' English air is a feeling I cherish
So at this time of the year, while you lucky people back home eagerly await spring time walks in the park and that sort of weather when it's too warm to wear a coat, but too cold to wash the car in your shorts, here in Beijing we are also being treated to a glimpse of springtime. The cherry and plum blossom seasons are upon us, sprinkling blossom onto the streets of the city like confetti. However, with the beautiful and the good, comes the bad and the ugly, as we were reminded last week when Beijing was hit with the first sandstorm of 2013.
I awoke last Thursday morning to see that Beijing had turned sepia overnight. The bleak, yellow-tinged air looked like one of those futuristic movie sets, where man and his love for money had destroyed mother earth, and the remaining humans were going to have to find a new planet to inhabit (and undoubtedly also destroy).
I put my 'overactive' imagination on the back-burner as I did what I'm sure every other foreigner in Beijing did before brushing their teeth that morning - reach for their smartphone and open the Air Quality Index App. Unsurprisingly, the reading was off the charts. With levels of PM 2.5 microns - the stuff that's so small that when breathed it sticks inside your lungs and causes lasting damage, was also dangerously high. So, for this first time since the last Foot & Mouth outbreak, I reached for my facemask. I had the thin, flimsy surgical mask on 5 seconds before I decided that there was no way it was going to make any difference, and pulled my scarf up over my head instead.
By the end of the day, Beijing had also been hit with its first sandstorm of the year. I returned home gasping from lack of oxygen to find my apartment blanketed in a thin sheet of yellow dust - despite having been sure to keep all my windows closed. Its days like these I wonder what I'm doing here.
But as the old saying goes, 'when the world hands you lemons, make lemonade', and I'm guessing that's what the rest of the Beijingers (and their clever designers) were thinking as this latest trend sweeps our polluted city. Love them or hate them, we may have to come to accept that facemasks will become a way of life for us - at least until the Chinese Government manages to bring the pollution issue under control. And so, just because you're wearing a facemask, it doesn't mean you can't be trendy at the same time. Here are just a few of my favourite designs.
But then, just as I'd selected a range of fashionable and fun facemasks to match every outfit and situation, Beijing gave us what may have been the clearest and least polluted day of the year. The very next day after we were ravaged with sandstorms, and lung-bursting air particles, we awoke to an Air Quality reading of 24. Yes, 24! (The previous day the reading had been over 500 - considered very harmful). As I stepped out of my apartment and filled my lungs with what might as well have been air laced with ecstasy, all was forgiven. I love Beijing. I love fresh air too. But then, I suppose nothing and nobody's perfect.