Tag Archives: Beijing

Here Comes the Sun

In the last year I’ve been conducting an involuntary experiment: finding the effects of pollution on my brain. Beijing has provided the perfect setting for this, giving me plenty of opportunities to observe the nuances of having enough pm 2.5 particles roaming around in my lungs. If you don’t know what pm 2.5 particles are then you probably live in a beautiful fantasy world where you can see the sky on a clear day and buildings are not shrouded in mist half of the time, and by “fantasy world” I mean anywhere but China. Sometimes I have trouble believing I ever lived in such a place.

The last three months have been particularly enlightening. We have had an air quality index (aqi) of 200 for weeks on end: just so you get an idea, frequent exposure to anything above 20 is considered harmful and has long-term effects on your health. I haven’t seen a blue sky since, well, I really don’t remember. But it was long ago. This doesn’t mean it was cloudy or foggy: most days it was bloody hot. It was just smoggy.

People in Beijing say that pollution accumulates when there’s not enough wind or when it doesn’t rain. Surprisingly, though, these last months we’ve had plenty of wind and thunderstorms, which haven’t lowered the pollution index one bit. I work in a school and our students aren’t allowed to go out if the index is above 180. We’ve had them in almost every day for the last 2 months. Of course, the children are going wild. So are the adults.

Serious air pollution

Serious air pollution (Photo credit: Andrew.T@NN)

Today, though, things are different. The pollution index is only 60 and I can see the sky. It is exhilarating. It almost reminds me of what it was like to have a life, to be able to enjoy a walk in the park or just an evening in an outdoor restaurant. Unfortunately, the blue sky only lasted for 2 hours and now it’s gray again, though this time it’s clouds. At least I can see the buildings in front of me without the haze, which is kind of nice.

Anyway, the effects on my brain. First, I need to say I’m a light weight, which means stockier people will probably not be as affected. I’ve also had plenty of stomach problems caused by the amazing variety of bacteria and protozoa present in the city’s restaurants’ food, which has contributed to weakening my immune system and probably lowered my IQ a good 20 points since I came to live here. I am not joking: sometimes when I see stuff I wrote, say, 5 years ago, I can barely understand it, let alone produce something of the same quality. My brain is perpetually shrouded in mist.

Mist or not, I have observed a correlation between high pollution at night and not sleeping well. With the same number of hours, sleeping when the air is bad will usually lead to restless dreams and a pretty bad morning. It will also cause frequent headaches and dry eyes. When exercising in pollution, you can expect to experience mental fog for the rest of the day. I have checked this by biking to work with and without a mask on days where the AQI was over 200. The difference was spectacular and would go from waking up fresh to spending the rest of the day unable to write anything or focus on the simplest tasks.

Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hote...

Beijing smog as seen from the China World Hotel, March 2003, during the SARS outbreak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the pollution is extremely high (around 300 or more; this year we got to 700, which was literally off the charts) its effects are noticeable even indoors. When it’s only 200, spending 5 hours outside will make your lungs feel like you smoked a packet of cigarettes; there is a funny, ticklish feeling when you take a deep breath.

The pollution can be smelled and touched. It has a burnt metal tinge to it though, after a while, it becomes hard to notice. You only realize how bad it is if you wear a mask and then you take it off. This sometimes happens even at home: the smog gets in despite the filters and the fact that our windows are always closed. Of course, the inability to ventilate inside causes a build-up of CO2 and an absence of oxygen, which in turn will make everyone dizzy and sleepy in almost any interior setting. But the alternative is worse.

When I say pollution can be touched I mean that, after around 20 seconds outside, you’ll start noticing a layer of dust has deposited on your hands and your face. In fact, rubbing your eyes will very likely cause a persistent itch that will only fade when adding water and soap. Pollution and dust will gather on any device, which makes computers extremely short-lived. Bikes need constant maintenance, especially if parked outside.

The pollution doesn’t live only in the air. There is plenty of lead to go around, as it and other heavy metals can be found in spades in your vegetables. Even western brands such as Lipton lower their standards for the Chinese market, where their tea was found last year to contain high amounts of pesticides, some of which were neurotoxins. You can also find plenty of lead in yoghurts and pills, since they’re made with gelatin. Apparently, using industrial gelatin (made with old shoes, for instance) is cheaper. A study last year found more than 50% percent of all capsules for medicine to be made with the latter. The same applied to ice-cream, yoghurt and soft drinks.

Summarizing, I recommend anyone with a scientific attitude and a healthy dose of curiosity to come to Beijing and try these things out for themselves. They will find the city a rich source of information on the dangers of air, water and food pollution and will experience first-hand the advantages of de-regulation.

Me, I’m going to enjoy my day of clean air while it lasts and brace myself for the next two weeks of misery.

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On Acceptance and Desire

In the last few months I feel as if I have experienced more personal growth than in the last two years. The reason for that, believe it or not, has been the constant exchange of opinions between myself and some enlightened bloggers, who have forced me to revise much of what I believe or to devise new, creative ways of answering their objections. I am extremely grateful for that and I have decided I will include a “recommendations” page, with the aim of starting to build a little community. It will be a “top of my head” list, so please don’t be upset if your blog isn’t there yet.

This blog post comes from one of these exchanges. In fact, I see it as an extended comment on this post, which has forced me to rethink my reasons for getting angry and to explore my hidden motivations.

English: Beijing CBD 2008-6-9 Jianwai SOHO, Yi...

English: Beijing CBD 2008-6-9 Jianwai SOHO, Yitai Center, CCTV ‪中文(简体)‬: 北京中央商务区夜景(可见央视新址、建外SOHO等) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The whole discussion started when I mentioned I hate living in China. I have many powerful reasons for that, which you can read about in the comments section of the post I link to above. Suffice it to say Beijing is not a pleasant place to live, which happens because of the extreme dehumanization of Chinese society. It is this dehumanization that really, really, really pisses me off.

Now, after reading my comment, bloggingisaresponsibility replied: “What happens if you try to accept that this simply the way things are?”

This made me think.

The answer is, of course, that if I just accepted this is the way things are, I would be happier. I wouldn’t get as upset. It would probably improve my global well-being.

But then I thought more. Since my thoughts revolved around the notions of “acceptance” and “desire,” I will try to define them here and draw some implications. I must also point out I owe most of these definitions to the aforementioned blog. Just saying.

Desire means that an individual wants to change their state (whatever that is). I would argue that an individual with no desire has no motivation to act. Desires necessarily stem from a certain dissatisfaction: if we were satisfied, we would have no need to act.

Acceptance means acknowledging a certain state of affairs and assuming it is pointless to try to change it or have any emotional involvement in it. I will argue that acceptance, just as desire, involves inaction. If we are accepting of a situation, we have no reason to change it. If we are trying to change it, it means we don’t accept it.

An individual without desires will be necessarily accepting, but not necessarily the other way round. For example, an individual may not like a situation, but accept it nonetheless.


Acceptance (Photo credit: 1Sock)

Now I wish to contrast the happiness of an individual with the happiness of a society. For example, let’s focus on 18th century France. At that time, there were a great number of people who were unaccepting of the current state of affairs. That lack of acceptance and their desire for change led them to storm the royal palace and chop the king’s head off. That, in turn, lead to democracy, which we all enjoy today in some form or another (unless you’re reading this from China, of course).

In that case, those people who were unaccepting and desireful (if that’s a word) were probably much unhappier than they would have been if they had been accepting and desireless. However, the result of their actions is that, today, we are probably happier than we would be if they hadn’t performed them. That leads to a dilemma: is the happiness of one individual (you) preferable to the happiness of other individuals in the future? Doesn’t the world change precisely because of the actions of those who are not accepting?

Let’s focus on another example which may hit closer to home. Suppose I am gay and I have a partner. My partner and I are in love and would like to get married. Unfortunately, we live in a state where that is still not possible and may not be for the foreseeable future.

Now, we can choose to accept this is just the way things are and we will probably be happier than if we spend every waking hour complaining about it. But it is also true that it is precisely because thousands of people have been unaccepting and complaining for years that gay marriage has been approved in some countries or states.

My main point is that desire and the inability to accept the status quo is precisely what drives change and, arguably, progress. It is also what hinders our happiness and prevents us from reaching inner peace.

After analyzing my emotions for long enough, I have concluded that my writing this blog stems from a desire to be recognized and to meet new and interesting people. This must mean I am not satisfied with my current level of recognition and the amount of interesting people I know. If I could bring myself to accept my situation and not desire more, I would probably be happier. I would also probably stop writing.

What should I do?

What would you do?

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