A Few Days in Smog

Anita Pan

Some flee from the city. Young parents send their children to the moist south. Many lock themselves in their own house. More travel between workplace and home without an alternative. They travel by crowded public transportation, serving each other as air purifiers. Alert! PM2.5 values have gone beyond the measurable scope. Keep your mask on. When PM2.5 values drop below 300: alert lifted. PM2.5 to 100: while somewhere in the world people are panicking and their public transportation are made free as a compensation for smog, we take our masks off; it is worthy of celebration, huh.

*

It was the 7th day we lived in smog, or in the resistance of smog, to be precise. The condition was about to change, but we did not know and could not sense that yet. Dinner with a group of friends was planned regardless of the depressing air. We needed to talk such days away, about how we fight against the smog, about its causes, and about those parts of our life unrelated to the smog, too.

I was ready to step outside again, fully armed with my scarf and my gauze mask. I took the elevator to go downstairs. In the elevator there are ads on the wall, protected by transparent acrylic sheets. They are reflective. I looked into one of them as the elevator descended to see my face, and faked a smile. For a moment the days when I was in middle school came back to my mind, when Beijing was suffering sand-dust storms and free from smog. Every morning as I arrived at school after an hour’s trip, I had to first go rinse my mouth. The sky and the air were then so yellow that the light given out by fluorescent lamps looked bluish.

“At least I don’t have to rinse my mouth now,” I thought to myself, “The filthy has turned into the toxic, the apparent into the concealed; all that used to be exterior has now been internalized.” With this in my mind, I pushed open the front door of the building when I found: it was raining. After an entire week in smog, finally: the pleasant, timely rain.

*

Smog uniformizes all. To survey outwards from indoor spaces: it is heated butter melting over our heads and greasing all that stands below the heaven. To investigate the other way round: it is a net that does not wrap around but instead penetrates the skin of this city and its citizens, and affects inwards. It is no longer possible to escape from (this net of toxic particles) or escape into (the inside of spaces), because where smog occupies, there is no inside and outside, and because smog does not possess that essential quality to be grasped or rid of: a shape.



*

Now Beijing had been deep in smog for almost 6 days. We visited at dusk a deserted ruin near the place we live. One of us, Luka, had proposed during the Spring Festival that we should set off fireworks together in the ruin sometime. So this seemed to be a good time: when the smog was so resolute on its throne and when we became tired of locking ourselves in the house. We believed that it would go on like this. So there we were, standing on a site where no one could distinguish the inside from the outside (although we might describe with convenience that we did it “indoors”), among those poisonous particles which were indifferent to the inside/outside dichotomy.

It was dark enough to be startled by firelight, so we lit different kinds of fireworks in sequence. The milder ones lasted longer and the vigorous ones bloomed wildly with joy. We were completely in a celebrating mood, content with the dazzling light.

The smoke “inside” the place was a bit choking, so we stepped “out” for some fresh air – We thought that in comparison with the firework smoke, the air “out” there would be easier to breathe. But we were wrong; the smog “out” there was just equally intense since it had grown heavier – such a master of blurring boundaries.

Only one option was left to us: Smoking was encouraged these days, since it was said that one single breath of the smoggy air would equal the smoking of four or five cigarettes. Therefore we took out cigarettes from our pockets, lit them, and smoked.

*

Unlike its twin brother, mist, a timid carrier of poetic and dreamy implications, smog is usually linked to the unpleasant and perhaps the political. One is moist and tender, the other dry and harsh. One drops hints of glamorous, desirable scenes behind the veil, the other holds ill omens in suspension. There are qualities shared by the two though: vagueness, in-between-ness, signs of revelation, and so on. It is in this grey zone that mysteries, rumours, stories are brewed and lurking.

*

(Although I am writing in the past tense, what happened then might still be happening now.)

Day 4 in smog. Now that the smog had blocked us from outdoor activities, we focused more than ever on our screens. There was always more information springing from the screens than we could digest. A piece of news emerged this morning, leaving us all shocked and still haunted: innocent people were killed or injured by a group of uniformly dressed knife attackers.

I was digesting the terror and sadness in the news when my doorbell rang. A postman stood at the door and delivered me several books that I previously ordered online, one of which happened to be Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories, The October Country. I opened it expecting the routine page before title page: praise from press, a brief introduction to the author, acknowledgment or something similar. I would in no way expect what I found: a delicately written passage titled “The Grim Reaper”. I took a picture of that page and sent it to some friends; all of them were dumbfounded at this allegorical version of the news:

“…he rose above the grain and hewed to left and right over and over and over! He sliced out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, swearing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling with a singing whistle!…The blade sang, crimson wet…The grain wept in a green rain, falling…And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.”

It was simply a coincidence between the literary text and the actual incident. Yet a coincidence like this hints that there is always a chance that things are oddly connected in an unexplainable way.

(Now this even more haunting news about a missing airplane with over 200 people on board. There are riddles enveloped with enigmas; there is information to be claimed as misinformation – and probably later as information again; there are clues that no one could tell for certain whether are helpful or misleading; there are speculations that might be translated into narratives.)


Bottled oxygen being sold in China's Zhejiang Province

*

I have faith.

I have faith in my body.

My body is strong enough to survive smog.

I have faith in my skin.

My skin is tightly woven with steel threads.

I have faith in the trees.

They are capable of absorbing the harmful and producing the favourable.

In fact, I have faith in smog.

It leaves a ray of hope: the possibility to unveil.

I have faith in gravity.

As a result of gravity, smog pulls us all to the internal.

I have faith in minute particles.

They are like innumerable ionic bonds floating in the air.

To unite. To draw intimacy.

I have faith in intimacy.

Which then brings about the need for distance.

I have faith in distance.

*

For the last 2 days, the smog had been enveloping the city of Beijing. This evening, I went to meet Nutter, a friend I knew in the Netherlands. Three months ago, Nutter moved to Beijing without a plan, only for a “change of air”. Before that we had not seen each other, not even in touch for almost two years.

Together we found this cosy, dim wine bar in downtown Beijing, the one he had recommended to me back in the lowlands. At the time, he gave me a name of this bar which he believed was perfectly correct. With that name and his description of the location, I never succeeded finding the place. Now here we were; it turned out that neither the name he named nor the location he described was  close to reality. Knowing this story is quite essential to knowing Nutter.

We were sitting in the bar, drinking red wine and talking. We talked about how modern selves are fragmented in modern life, and how information from all directions functions as a centrifugal force. It was all so natural, as if we were never apart or lost contact. We recalled the first time when we met: it was at a friend’s place (whom we both lost contact with); we were both bringing a book – he had with him a collection of poems by Chinese poet Haizi (who committed suicide), and I had Virginia Woolf with me (who also committed suicide); unintentionally we mentioned the word “suicide” many times, and intentionally he counted the number of times, it was 15. Our second meeting was before I left the Netherlands and came back to China. Then when we met the third time, he had already made himself here, in Beijing. It does not really matter why we were not in contact during the time in-between. What matters is that there is a bond between us; when we are close, it keeps us close and when we are not, it is gone so we are never bothered by the distance.

*

Smog befalls, jumping and dancing. Smog befalls with a colourless face. Smog is a temporary bill of amendment. Smog is named by us yet has far more in store for us. Smog does not name but smog redefines. Smog makes security conditioned with closure, and the ostensibly true nakedly in disguise. Smog blurs our vision, and yet smog sees the best. Smog visits uninvited but smog is invited by man’s conducts. Smog is here even when it is not. Smog is hard to dispel and smog can only grow worse. Smog rests in its reign until smog encounters some winds. Smog blurs our vision, and yet smog sees the best.