Imagethief realizes that he and much of the journalistic and blogging community have been doing a grave disservice to our readers who don’t live in Beijing. We beg your forgiveness. Living in Beijing is such an all-consuming experience that we sometimes forget there is a world beyond the fifth ring road. Although we are, of course, tangentially reminded of this world every time we go to our beloved import supermarkets, which thrive on the business of bringing us Doritos, Haagen Dazs and other nibblicious, western treats from beyond the Great Barrier.
The disservice we have perpetrated is to groan on at length about Beijing’s shabby, noxious air while never giving you, the reader abroad, the chance to understand for yourself what we really mean. Beijing in August is not best experienced as some kind of abstract mental construct based on the fulminations of bloggers, or the moralizing of the mainstream media. It is a physical experience, and has to be experienced viscerally and immediately. After all, reading about a rock band simply isn’t the same as standing in the mosh pit in front of the stacks, with the thump of the bass separating the cartilage from your bones and slow-cooking the fluid in your eyes.
Part of the reason why Imagethief thinks that first-hand experience is valuable is that it provides perspective when one reads the dissembling of official apologists who are doing their best to insist that the air is not really as bad as it looks, tastes or feels in our eyes. In fairness, it has been much better the last couple of days than it was the past week, thanks to a welcome breeze and a touch of rain. But the mandarins have passed much of the last few days demonstrating that they are either disconnected from reality as the rest of us understand it, or that they have a less than satisfactory understanding of the meaning of the word “good” as it is commonly employed in English.
It is hard to know which of these two situations is correct. Imagethief suspects that faulty dictionaries may be the problem, since the word “moderate” is used in SEPA reports to describe air quality that Imagethief would label “hopelessly toxic”, “depressing” or “squalid”. Adjectival nuance can be tricky, especially in a language as eccentric and irregular as English.
It may also be that the authorities are simply trying to be “hip with the times”, and have noted the tendency of English-speaking youth to use negative adjectives as endorsements, e.g. “sick*” (what we who went to high school in the ’80s used to call “cool”, “awesome” or, in the most rarefied of circumstances, “radical”). If this is the case, then the fault is ours and when the authorities say “good” they actually mean “screwed”. Athletes are overwhelmingly young, so this is perhaps a forgivable error in these Olympic times. If SEPA, or its ministerial successor, refers to one of our rare blue-sky days as “sick”, then this theory may gain credence.
The shame of this situation is that Beijing is in many ways a great city. It’s interesting and fun enough that many of us live here despite the often crummy air, which is really saying something. And when, every now and then, the air is truly clear, Beijing verges on beautiful. Colors pop out. The hills are visible to the north and west. The gorgeous parks and temples beckon. These clear days cluster in the brief spring and autumn, when temperatures and winds are favorable (although spring also gets dust storms). By any standard, however, they are rare. An enveloping, noxious fug is far more typical.
Which brings me back to the point. I want to help you, the reader abroad, understand exactly what we’re talking about when we refer to Beijing’s poor air quality. After long experimentation at Imagethief Laboratories SA, I am pleased to report that we have developed a method of simulating Beijing’s typical August atmosphere with nothing more than a few easily obtainable ingredients and a common household appliance.
Here is what you will need:
- A serving plate.
- Large bowl that can be used to cover the serving plate.
- A bucket of water.
- A Yorkshire terrier, Pekingese or similar small dog (at a pinch, a dog pelt can be used, but a whole dog is more reliable). Important: If the dog is wearing a metallic collar or tags, remove them.
- A packet of bad cigarettes. Ideally, Chinese Red Pagodas. But at a pinch, Gitanes or Parliaments will do.
- A non-metallic ashtray.
- A turd.
- A microwave oven.
- Soak the dog in the bucket until wet to the skin.
- Place the wet dog on the serving plate with the turd and the ashtray.
- Place three lit cigarettes in the ashtray.
- Cover the serving plate and all ingredients with the bowl.
- Microwave on “high” for sixty seconds.
Congratulations. What’s under the bowl is a close recreation of typical August Beijing air. Use a fork or butter knife to carefully lift the edge of the bowl (it’s hot!) and have a sniff. Now you’ll have something to visualize (or “olfactorize”) when you read the inevitable thousands of stories still to come on Beijing’s Olympic air quality. If you’re daring, you may want to get a garden hose, have a few of the frat brothers over and challenge each other to do “hits” of Beijing. You may need more than one dog**.
I am Beijing’s decadent man-bitch (December, 2005)
*Probably already hopelessly out of date.
**Imagethief does not actually condone microwaving yappy dogs, although he does sometimes fantasize about it.