China pollution: Airpocalypse and the expat parenting dilemma

China pollution – aka airpocalypse – creates an expat parenting a dilemma: Do the pluses (a language and cultural education) outweigh the minuses (not being able to breathe) for kids?

Associated Press
Pollution in China: Airpocalypse reached worrying levels for expatriate parents raising young children there. Here, smoke is emitted from chimneys of a cement plant in Binzhou city, in eastern China's Shandong province.

Much of the world has heard about China’s recent run of horrendous air pollution levels. Some reports listed the PM 2.5 – the measure of the finest particulates in the air – at a whopping 993 milligrams per cubic meter. After ABC anchor Diane Sawyer called it “air-pocalypse” on the evening news, the worried emails from home started popping up in my inbox.

For some perspective, any number over 300 is considered “hazardous” by the US Embassy’s monitoring system, which has been measuring air quality for about four years.

Parents in Beijing – not even the most polluted city in China – have been agonizing over the fact that they’re exposing their children to unhealthy particulates.

I have older children – although they both happen, somewhat miraculously, to live in China. My son Daniel called us Saturday from Guangzhou (which is in the south: Guangzhou is to Beijing as Miami is to New York) to ask how we were faring. What could we say? Most expats spent the day indoors. New York Times correspondent Edward Wong tweeted: “Holing up with books and movies and an air filter.”

But I couldn’t do that – I had invited eight for dinner that night, and decided to venture a 30-minute walk to Sanyuanli, the local wet market, where I could buy high-quality salmon, vegetables and even a baozi (steamed bun) snack to fuel my shopping. I also walked back, dragging behind me my little-old-lady shopping cart packed with salmon for the main course, celery and onions and zucchini for minestrone, and Brussels sprouts, potatoes, and cauliflower for side dishes.

On Sunday morning, after a lively and delicious party (if I do say so myself) I woke up with a throat so sore I could barely swallow and pollution levels still soaring into the 600s, 700s, and 800s. The sky still looked like a storm was approaching, the sun hidden behind a gray screen. The air smelled as if six dozen cars had caught fire.

The parents of young children stayed inside for the most part, although one mom on the Beijing Mamas listserv wrote that she was venturing out for one activity that her daughter loved. But to get to that they were wearing face masks.

The air, in fact, generated a round of hand-wringing on the various listservs, e-mail chains, and blogs that Beijing expats follow. One London mother wrote to Beijing Mamas that she was pregnant and about to move to Beijing: “I am freaking out about the pollution in Beijing and how it will affect our lives and our health,” she wrote. “I am scared I will feel trapped indoors too afraid to take baby out or find the pollution depressing.”

The mothers responded generously, welcoming her to what some call “Gray-jing” and telling her about the Chinese love of Western babies, the wonderful ayis who take care of children, not to mention perks like inexpensive manicures.

Beijing parents did fret, of course. Bill Bishop, who runs a popular news-aggregating e-mail called Sinocism, wrote, “I have to say, the last couple of days have me seriously questioning why I have chosen to force my kids to breathe this air.” He added by e-mail that although he and his family put on masks, he was surprised that when he picked up his children from school few were wearing masks.

Trevor Marshallsea, an Australian-born expat dad who writes a blog called “The Tiger Father,” posted this: “Here we also talk about which brand of face mask is safest. We regularly check our iPad pollution apps and our Twitter air quality feeds (provided you can get around Chinese Internet controls). Children are kept indoors in schools on bad pollution days, and most of us invest in expensive – but quite necessary – air filters for the home.”

New filters can set you back about $3,000, while a three-year-old, used filter advertised on a listserv for 6800 RMB (or $1,094) was gone in seconds. Face masks range from the utterly useless fashion statements decorated with flowers and panda faces (popular with the Chinese) to contraptions that make a wearer look like Darth Vader (popular with expats who ride bikes around the city).

Earlier this year I bought a desk chair and some plants from a British woman who was leaving Beijing with her husband and two children. Why was she moving back to London? “I couldn’t stand the pollution any longer,” she admitted.

Expats here value the benefits the city confers on their children. Many of them are cared for by ayis who speak only Mandarin, so they grow up knowing at least two languages. These children are very much citizens of the world who have friends from every continent and can work their way through a falafel sandwich just as easily as a mouth-burning Sichuan dish. They tend to travel often, seeing parts of the world many can only imagine.

But they also might be playing a game of Russian roulette. One jokester wrote recently that a new tourism slogan should be: “The city that never breathes.” It’s almost funny.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Debra Bruno blogs at Not by Occident.

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