Saturday, 1 March 2014

Holding My Breath

Zhi is a nice young man with a friendly smile and a refreshingly honest way of speaking. He isn't a student of mine, but we got to know each other through a university club and instantly bonded over a shared liking of cats, travel, and the fact that we both come from cities known for their air pollution. Zhi is from an industrial center in the north of China, and I am from Riverside, in Southern California's infamous smog belt. We are comparing notes on our respective hometowns right now, and so far Zhi is winning, if you can call it that.

"We're famous for our particulate matter," Zhi tells me. "Most cities have high particulate matter in their air, but ours is the very small kind that is most dangerous. You can't see it."

"You could see ours," I tell him, embarrassed that I can't remember our town's exact air quality index. Zhi remembers the air quality index of his city and can quote it on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. This week it's 489, which is more than 20 times over the acceptable WHO maximum standard of 20. On days when people set off fireworks, it reaches a level that is right off the charts.

"What kind of particulate matter does your hometown have?" Zhi wants to know. He is a science student, and these things matter to him.

I am a rather unscientific person and this question makes me squirm. "I'm not sure. But it was very bad."

Zhi nods. "My city has small particulate matter--" He frowns and picks up a pen and starts writing a complicated equation that goes on and on (< 2.5µ is all I can remember).

"Very small," Zhi adds superfluously.

I feel irritated with myself for not being able to describe the consistency and composition of Riverside's smog, as if I'm letting our side down somehow. "I don't know if our particulate matter was that small, but because of our smog, you couldn't see much of anything," I explain, pointing to a building close by. "For instance, that building would be hard to see if we were in my hometown."

Zhi wrinkles his forehead. "That building would be impossible to see in my hometown."

"When we were kids, we couldn't run on bad days," I say. "They made us stay inside because the air was so bad. One boy even died after running half a mile on a smoggy day."

Zhi nods. "Some people die in my school too."

"You mean this happened in your school recently?" Zhi's tenses are a little shaky sometimes.

"Yes--recently, also before."

My own face mask is hanging over the arm of my chair. Zhi points to it now, a look of astonishment on his face.

"Why do you have this? Do you need it?"

"I brought it just in case," I say, feeling like an utter wimp. Today the air quality index in our city is only 65, just over three times the maximum limit.

Zhi picks my mask up and examines it. He does not look impressed.

"My mother, father have disposable respirator, N-95 and P-100, change filter every day, wear every day."  He regards mine with amusement. "This one like scarf. Not good."  

At this, I give up. Zhi's hometown has worse air pollution than Riverside ever did. We spend the rest of our time discussing effective clean air filters and alternative energy.  



Charles Gramlich said...

A rather scary conversation in many ways.

Mirka Breen said...

What you share, oh dear. Ye' never know, do ye'.