There are some days when the air here has the same density as a Flintstones’ chewable vitamin.
There are days when outside there is a lazy grey fug slapped languidly across the buildings and the trees. Days when the wind smells like sawdust and plastic. Days when the sky is a hazy smear, the colour of the bottom of your shoe when you’ve been walking for too long. There are days when I can’t really see down the street and I must spend a few minutes considering whether my eyesight is bad or whether I’ll need a machete to cut through the atmosphere for my evening constitutional.
Sometimes I will wake, emerge from my bed and peer cautiously between my curtains, curious as to what condition I will find the sky above me. My vision darts around, as though searching out phantom particulates, as though they are folklore tricksters who sneak and hide and try to cheat their way into your lungs through riddles or games of chance. When the sky seems to loom too close, when the buildings in the distance become indistinguishable fog figures, a gooey water-colour wash of a steampunk London, I close up shop. Sometimes I just can’t fathom going outside, and thus the curtains are re-drawn, and I pretend that the scary air from outside has no ability to slip within the confines of my sacred, holy apartment. I erect a mental barrier around my home, through which no carcinogenic winds can blow.
Never has the quality of the air around me occupied such a wide berth of my mental real estate. I spend hours of the day considering the breathableness of the air both outside and in, the relative levels of PM2.5 and PM10, the distance visibility I can see from my balcony. The chances that I will suck in wads of tar, that I might accidentally walk directly into a telephone pole or swallow a hummingbird for lack of sight, the decision on whether or not to hang my clothes outside to dry lest they come back smelling like the inside of the Samsung factory.
In Korea every spring we would see “yellow dust” season, which was sands from the Gobi desert, blended with a hearty mixture of industrial waste from China’s factory zones. The cloud of megacrud would appear suddenly one day above Incheon and Seoul, raining sludge down upon cars and windows and making the streets unnavigable and petrifying. And then in a few weeks the slurm of toxic goop would be wiped away, carried on a fragrant breeze, replaced by cherry blossoms which tinkled their way to the ground and sprayed the world in a hail of pink.
On the road, pollution has always been a minor irritant, a fledgling danger to be scampered from and recorded in a journal. After exploring the glorious weirdness of the White Temple outside of Chiang Mai, we stood along a verdant roadside waiting to catch a bus. Off in the distance a great plume began to form, as though the locals were summoning the smoke monster from Lost. The venomous cloud from the garbage fire began slowly to tumble and waft towards us, seeping across the field, then the high way, until we were briefly immersed in the scent of burnt chrome and seared rubber. The innercity bus suddenly appeared and we hurried on, the swath of toxin clutching at our wake.
In India or Vietnam, the exhaust from thousands of cars, thousands of motorbikes began to choke and to annoy, but the solutions were always simple. Was the taste of New Delhi growing too acrid, too difficult? Simply shuttle off to the footfills of the Himalayas, where mountain gusts blast away the poison and the only thing in the air is the scent of wildflowers and goats. Hanoi scooters got you down? Run as fast as you can to Halong or Hue and bask in the open sun and inhale the smell of the ocean for as long as you can.
What a privileged luxury, then, to simply run away. The run-off of all the factories and the cheap labour and the cheap travel I am afforded is easily evadable. How bourgeoisie: I arrive in a town, sniff the air cautiously, and if I don’t like what tickles the inside of my nostrils I roll up the windows and demand to be taken to another, prettier, fresher location.
It also makes me realize how greatly I took the air of my homeland for granted. That I could simply exit my house, filled with products from distant industrial zones, and breathe as deeply as I wanted. That I was surrounded by forests and trees and rivers. That our summers, which we deemed horrendously smoggy and horrifying, were a dilettante’s pollution. A mere foray into hazy, goopy weather.
There are days here when the sky isn’t a colour I recognize, when I can feel the air slipping through my lungs.
And then there are days when it is not. When the sky is a roaring blue, and the air crisp and decent and unnoticeable. When clouds peel away and the sun glares down, and the water of the lake laps at the nearby pier. When the walking street teems with people who sit by the canals, who drink at open-air cafes and wear heavy sunglasses in the afternoon light. When the gardens tremble under a fall wind, and grow quiet even as leaves tumble to the ground.
Every place has its ups and downs, its positives and its negatives. I think, in some ways, I have never been confronted so regularly and so obviously with the cons, never had the contrast with the pro been so stark. But when the best and the worst of a place is flowing directly into your lungs every second, it always stays on your mind.