Those PM2.5 air particles can make or break my day
By Emily Ford
It is two o'clock in the morning and I am checking to see how the air is doing. Over the past fortnight I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the US consulate's air quality monitor, which has just been given its own Twitter feed.
I am a little embarrassed to admit this. When my Beijing friends first showed me their mobile phone apps for checking the state of the air, I thought they needed to get a life. I even felt a little defensive on China's behalf. "We all know the air's not great here," I thought.
"If you want nice air, go to Switzerland."
But ever since the US consulate started posting its updates every two hours in May, I've become so fixated with it that carbon milligrams have the power to make or break my day. When the air is good, I feel all right about things. Often, though, it is not.
Fixating on monitor
When I wake up the next day I have a quick look to see how the air is doing.
"Moderate," the monitor tweets. "At 24-hour exposure at this level."
"Moderate is OK," I think. "I can live with moderate."
I manage to go for an entire day without checking the air. Then I crack and have a look. The news is not good.
"Unhealthy," the monitor shrieks. "At 24-hour exposure at this level." This is the worst it has been since the posts started. I feel my bronchioles begin to shrivel up in horror.
"But only this morning the air was moderate," I think, looking accusingly out at the fume-gray sky. "How can it go from moderate to unhealthy in just a few hours?"
After a few days I am not only still obsessed with the monitor, I have also developed a weird competitive streak with the one in Beijing. When I first started checking the air, I used to look at Beijing's to reassure myself that however bad ours was, theirs would be worse. But while Shanghai is firmly stuck on "moderate," Beijing has been smugly posting "good" for several days now.
This seems unfair. When it comes to culture and imperial palaces, the capital justly trumps its naughty little sister on the coast. Now it wants to have superior air quality too.
"But air was one of the things we were supposed to be better at," I think, annoyed. "Along with partying and hairy crabs."
The Beijing monitor has something of a history, having behaved itself until one particularly toxic day when it decided to go rogue and started tweeting that the air was "crazy bad," to the embarrassment of just about everyone.
"At that point it's probably not even air any more," I think. "Just pollution with bits of oxygen mixed in."
I secretly hope that ours might say something even more entertaining. "Frankly, today is just disgusting." I imagine it telling its followers authoritatively. "Stay indoors and avoid breathing where possible."
After a week the air monitor appears to have entered a kind of depression, having been "unhealthy" for five days in a row. I check constantly for signs of a turnaround, but the patient will not rally.
"Still unhealthy," I think miserably every two hours. "At 24-hour exposure at this level."
That night I turn my air-conditioning up high until I am taking big gulps of chilled recycled dust. I imagine dreaming of Austrian mountains and blue skies.
Before I go to bed, I take one final look at the monitor. I have decided to stop following it altogether. "Moderate," it says, perkily. "At 24-hour exposure at this level."