Friday, December 27, 2013

Smoke signals

When I began to love Nanjing, two years ago, Christmas, it was the echoes from the past that first found their way to me. Not exactly ghosts from the past—though it’s easy to imagine haunting specters from this city’s tragic history—but some kind of residual spirit left by my might-have-been-neighbors now receding in time. They are easy to imagine, these people. The material evidence of their having been here is within reach of our concrete apartment on campus. Right outside my window are the broad boulevards lined with sturdy sycamores planted by urban planners a century ago. They widened the roads for the funerary route that would bring Sun Yat-sen to rest in his mausoleum on Purple Mountain.  When I walk atop the ancient city wall near my home, I can reach further back—to the 14th century. Running my fingers along the bricks of the old Ming wall, I like to feel the engravings carved into the stone by the craftsmen, some local, some distant, who were commissioned to fire bricks that would endure. Beneath my fingers lie their signatures, distinctive trails leading back to them should they need to be found by someone with questions about the quality of their product. A crack in one’s brick could mean a chink in the wall’s foundation, and this crack could have ultimately spelled the loss of the craftsman’s life. There was much at stake in this molding and firing, but they pulled it off, these early masons. They mixed their mud, they stoked their fires, they carved their signatures and here I am, walking on a wall that survived.

In all the hyper-urbanization that is going on throughout China, there are places in Nanjing, here in my neighborhood, where time slows down for me. There has been something thoroughly grounding about feeling the spark of human ingenuity in the very foundations of the places I’m walking. This was my discovery of Christmas 2011, when I made my new home in Nanjing: that I could somehow fold myself into time differently here than in other places.

Now it’s Christmas 2013, and the past few weeks have been sobering for me. I’m feeling less in touch with a foundational past and more troubled by a future that hangs, thick, in the air. In Nanjing, and throughout most of urban China, we have seen historic levels of air pollution over the past six weeks. I feel less like a historian and more like the captain of an amateur HazMat team. Our home is stocked with face masks, air purifiers, replacement filters, and brightly colored fruits and vegetables packed with antioxidants. It's become a habit now, every morning, to look out the window for a visibility check upon awakening: Forget about trying to glimpse the past. Can we spot a silhouette of Purple Mountain—just 3 miles away—against today’s lightening dawn? I then check the Air Quality Index (AQI) before confirming my plans for the most immediate future:

View towards Purple Mountain, from our living room window.
The AQI (空气质量指数 kōngqì zhìliàng zhǐshù)is a relatively recent addition to our vocabulary, and to the lexicon of many Nanjing locals as well. The index assigns a numerical value to the quality of the day’s air based on the presence of pollutants that float around us in the form of particulate matter and are known to cause ill health effects. The numerical values refer to the number of particles found per cubic meter of air, 0-50 being “good air” and 301-500 being “hazardous.” We especially pay attention to the rankings for small-sized particulate matter, measured in micrometers (PM 2.5 and PM 10) which can lodge deep in the lungs. For most of the past few weeks the PM 2.5 values have been in the red zone at disturbingly high numbers close to 200 (“very unhealthy”— where everyone, not just the “sensitive,” may experience health effects). We’ve had several days over 300 (maroon) when Nanjing public schools were closed, and even a few days over 400.

Sometimes my younger daughter, ZZ, age 10, beats me to the laptop. “Momma, I’m checking the air!,” she’ll holler, and this morning she exclaims, “Oh no! It’s already 193!” I grab my running gear for the treadmill at school and FF, age 12,  grabs shorts for indoor P.E.—no outdoor recreation for any of us today. ZZ dons her face mask for the commute to school.

The sad irony is that because we’re running late, we snag a cab for the five-minute ride to the subway instead of waiting for bus 13, adding to our complicity in today’s air crisis. The cab runs on natural gas, but still, there are emissions. Sitting in the front seat I fasten my seat belt and contemplate whether or not to take off my mask—the driver isn't wearing one and I feel uncomfortable talking with him with my face covered. I pull off the mask and shove it in my pocket. Looking out the window at commuters on scooters I notice that fewer people seem to be wearing masks today. Is this because the numbers have dipped below 200? I shake my head at the imprecise “measures” we are all bringing to this. We have no idea what we’re doing. We don’t even know whose numbers to trust. The China Air Quality app on my iPad consistently gives me lower numbers than the website I check that uses U.S. embassy readings. Today, in contrast to the 193 number from the embassy-sourced website, the China AQ app gave the number as 96 (PM 2.5) , 143 (PM 10 ) and advice on health: “Masks not needed. Suitable for outdoor activities. Harmless to low resistance groups.” Yeah, right.

When I ask Nanjing locals, “Why is the air so bad this winter?” I generally get the same answers: “The farmers are burning crops outside the city”, or, “There are too many cars on the road.” Ultimately, I trust my nose more than anything and my nose tells me there is more to the story. When I step outdoors there is usually a distinctive smell to the air, not just organic burning or exhaust: something more chemical, a hint of plastic, a whiff of coal.  


It’s a new day now, and I woke this morning at 5:30 and immediately checked the AQI. I have a day trip planned to Shanghai. Will I need to bring my mask? Should I run by the lake this morning, or on the track when I return this evening? PM 10 is 240. I groan and delay my run, hoping the index will read lower by the time I return to Nanjing.

Late in the afternoon, on the bullet train heading back from Shanghai I marvel at how modern and efficient this commute feels. "No smoking in any car of the train," scrolls the announcement banner in both English and Chinese along with our current speed: 270 km/hr and rising, 274, 280. The outdoor temperature is also displayed—9.2 degrees Celsius—but not the AQI.

I look out the window and all I see leaving Wuxi 无锡 and heading to Changzhou 常州 is a thick yellow haze obscuring concrete apartment complexes and endless construction projects. There seems to be no shortage of smoke: a factory here, a smoldering trash heap there. Passing through a small town I see both a kiln with its black smoke spewing above a pile of bricks and the more fanciful curls of white smoke rising from a small temple in a park. Not five seconds pass between smoke sightings as the train speeds ahead.

We slow as we approach Nanjing—133 km/hr—and I see a patch of blue in the sky above and feel hopeful about my prospects for a run. But when I exit the train all hope is dashed. The air smells like chemicals, and I can almost feel a film of grit forming against my lips and teeth. I head to the exits, then catch my breath as I realize I'm about to enter a toxic cloud—smokers are lighting up on the platform and as I weave past them I see embers from cigarettes farther ahead, glowing orange in the dark underpass.

Given my recent obsession with avoiding toxic clouds, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I actually love smoke and many of its associations. We are relocating to the San Francisco Bay area next summer, and while searching for Berkeley rentals my imagination is sparked by a photo of a home with a wood-burning fireplace. I see coppery flames and myself there near them: legs curled on a sofa, a book in hand, a cat on my lap, a steaming mug within easy reach. San Francisco has some of the best air days in the country, yet when SF has “spare the air” days in the winter, the largest single-source contributors are wood-burning romantics like me.

Last night at dinner, ZZ, feeling festive, set the table “like a banquet.” Inspired, I opened a bottle of wine and lit some candles. When I blew out the match—poof— there was the smoke, and I was instantly transported: to bonfires at the beach, warm toes sifting through cool, damp sand; to Shabbat dinners with dear friends, as candles illuminate the faces of our children, dancing around us with challah held high; to the sensual warmth of our candlelit bedroom, silhouettes cast on flickering walls. “I love that smell!” I exclaim as the smoke dissipates and I set the match down. I don’t elaborate, but my daughters sigh, dreamy with their own remembrances.


Today is a high-stakes air day. I have a long run planned at the lake, and I don’t want to settle for a slog on the treadmill. Soon after awakening I do a happy dance: I can see Purple Mountain, partially shrouded in a delicate mist. A peek into the laptop confirms that it is indeed a good-enough air day: AQI 123 and dropping. Category orange: “Unhealthy for sensitive groups,” but passable for a run. The roads below are wet and bobbing with umbrellas as festive as balloons—yellow, pink, green and blue—shielding unmasked faces from the cold, fresh drizzle.

On my warm-up jog en route to the lake, it takes all my focus to dodge other hazards of development: the barricades and the unannounced detours, the bulldozers moving in and out of construction sites, the steaming tar and the trucks that haul the rubble, the jackhammers that open and invade the earth. But once I enter the lake area through the ancient city wall, all is clear. I run for two hours, inhaling little more than the cool dampness of the rain. AQI: 93. Category yellow: “Moderate” and still improving.

As I exit the lake area, plumes of incense rise from Jiming Temple (鸡鸣寺 jīmíngsì) outside the city wall as they have since the Third Century: trails of hope, offerings of thanksgiving, tools used by people perhaps not so unlike myself, living in their moment, needing ways to beacon and bargain, their offerings carried in ascending smoke. Not too distant in this city’s past, a dark wintery day such as this might have been alight with fires of all kinds: stove fires, refuse fires, cremation fires, kiln fires. Fires for signals, and fires for sacrifice. We occupy a place within a long lineage of fire-builders—all of us are the tenders of emissions. Surely there were others who, for the purposes of their time, found a cadence with which to run and navigate the obstacles that altered these roads and the smoke that obscured their brick-laid paths. Breathing deeply, because today I can, sweet oxygen and endorphins course through my veins, and so does the incense and all its particles that command my attention.

I love that smell, this smell of smoke, and the many layers of human experience that it conjures and carries, its power to waft spirits into our present. I hope we can find a way to live with smoke, even if it means choosing ways, and days, to live without it.