Smoglife is a series of vignettes relating to various things that happen when the air in China gets mad murky.
The smog in Suzhou had settled like an unruly houseguest, and was eating all of the good chips and cookies and never making the bed. The air began to taste sulphurous and metallic, always with the tinge of carcinogen and burning computer parts. People would squint to make out objects in the middle distance and try to not think about the weeks and years slowly being peeled off the end of their lives with a China-shaped paring knife.
One of the side-effects of this acidic haze was the necessity for indoor play. Much as throwing children directly into a volcano or a sewage pipe would be seen as inadvisable to their health, it was deemed inappropriate to allow our various charges to careen about in the toxic slurry that we were all conspiring to call air. Their tiny, fragile lungs being susceptible as they are to incredibly hazardous levels of choking coal smoke and industrial chemicals, it was thought that for their safety, the children should stay inside on a smoggy day.
At first all was well. A day of indoor play is an excuse to unearth old toys, different parts of the classroom and the school left unexplored. It is reason to connect with new friends, with old chums, with new games and with creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention; boundary is the foundation of innovation.
But in time, the confines proved too constricting. In time, indoor play drove the children to extremes.
Day 1: The children file in from snack time and enter the classrooms, asking why they are in doors. There appears to be no rain in the sky, and we explain that the air is not at frolic-quality levels. They accept this, and shuffle away to the lego, to the bin toys, to the drama centres and the paper and the scissors.
All is well. Crafts are crafted, songs are sung. Children pretend they are dogs or rocks or doctors or ninja spies. They find the limitation invigorating, and invitation to think sideways.
Day 2: A grumble. The air is still bad? they ask. Yes, but let’s go exploring all of the puzzles that I had previously forgotten to take out of the shrink wrap! And get a load of this bin of Mobilo toys. Doesn’t it look likely exactly 35-40ish minutes of quiet fun?
The brief turmoil is forgotten, and the children return to play, but something has gotten into their blood. Here and there they twitch. They are hungry.
Day 3: “Again?” they cry. One or two stomps off towards the bathrooms or back to the canteen, trying to find ways to vent their fulminating frustration. Perhaps if they smash a hotel pan full of fried spring rolls their rage will be sated, but perhaps not.
A few manage to engage in some parallel play, others simply stare at walls or out the window. The hazy sky gurgles caustically above us, refuses to budge or drift. The children experience the first bitter pangs of nostalgia. Single, enigmatic tears drip down their cheeks. It is the last human emotion they will experience in some time.
Day 4: A darkness looms. The children don’t talk to me as they return, and cast their sallow eyes over the landscape of our classroom. They see not the childish colours, the delightfully arrayed toys and pencil crayons, the computer games I have placed upon this sacrificial altar. They see only a prison. They see me as their warden, grim and unforgiving. They see the world outside – grey and pallid and dreary and Victorian – and wonder why it has forsaken them. Why have the trees and the rocks and the playground abandoned them to this inside hellscape?
They move as though in high-gravity, as though their limbs have suddenly doubled in heft. Some simply drag their shambling forms across the ground like withering earthworms desperate for the dark. One has eaten an entire pencil sharpener. Every so often I hear deep Gregorian chanting around a corner, but surely this is impossible. Surely. Surely.
Day 5: The blood has turned in some: they have gone wild and enraged, thrashing about each of the four grade one classrooms in turn, shrieking and pulsating and screaming and destroying. They are Shiva, destroyers of worlds.
We retreat to an ESL classroom to celebrate my birthday, but also to bar the doors and hold the beasts at bay. Some stare across the threshold as they pass by, eyeing our food, our devious adult selves. They consider what a tenuous hold we have over them, how obviously we are outnumbered. They wonder what human flesh tastes like, and if they can assume our power, Highlander style. Teacher McLeod of the Clan McLeod.
Day 6: A weekend has not blown away the pollution, and we now enter week 2 of our internment. Some have begun penning melancholy poetry about their imprisonment, and will one day go on to be poet laureates. Others have simply devolved to cannibalism, to caterwauling, to twitching down the hallways like sickly sea monsters. We turn calming music on in one room, play Disney films in another, and try to soothe their beastly forms.
It does not work.
Somewhere nearby, a child has brought a harmonica. He has no idea how to play it, but it still sounds like the blues.
Day 7: A prevailing wind issues through the land, and the sky clears as much as it ever will for central China. Grey becomes blue, and below it, hundreds of miles below it, the grass sways in a breeze.
The children emerge from the doorways like wounded bat-things, like blinded cave creatures unused to light. Their dark times have been an eternity. They are unprepared for the world, for freedom. They forgot long ago what it was to be free.
But somewhere in the field, one child puts one foot before the other and begins to run. Primordial instinct takes over. Others laugh. Others whoop. They become children again.
And somewhere, far away in their classrooms, dozens of teachers sigh in relief.