By the time this blog is posted I will have returned from almost a week in Beijing. I am writing this while still there, attending, among other events, the annual PhD (recruitment) Workshop sponsored in part by the Canadian Embassy. The images above are taken from my hotel room on the 16th floor of the massive Swiss Hotel. Can you guess which one was taken on a weekday, when there are more cars on the road than people in Newfoundland? That’s not fog you see in the image on the left. It’s smog–thick, smelly, ugly, dirty smog. It blankets everything and coats your lungs. You can smell it as soon as you land. The air is so thick with it you can’t see the tarmac as you are coming down. Then you smell it as soon as you leave the plane–an acrid chemical smell, unnatural and unpleasant.
Living in Newfoundland we understand fog and know it when we see it. This is different. Fog is practically pure and sweet by comparison. Any sensible resident of Beijing wears a medical mask. People walk around breathing through those masks while texting on their cell phones. What is natural to Chinese youngsters looks like a tableau of science fiction to an older westerner. It’s a pretty disturbing image of the future, except it’s all happening right in the here and now. No wonder the Chinese recently agreed to reduce coal-burning emissions, the biggest source of grey air. We’ll see how sincere they are, sure, but it must be difficult to accept such daily dangerous smog levels as normal. All the Chinese we’ve met here joke about how blue the skies were just a short while ago during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, dubbing the effect ‘APEC blue.’ A friend advised me to download an app indicating local air quality.
Everyday the levels worsened during the week until Friday they registered in the severe/extreme category. On the weekend, as you can see from the image on the right, the levels suddenly turned to ‘excellent.’ For the first time in a week I could see the stretch of the city and the surrounding hills where the Great Wall winds around the country. Traffic was reduced, manufacturing ceased, and the medical masks disappeared. I wonder if the Chinese have a phrase equivalent to TGIF. The expression would take on special significance here, to be sure.
This is my fifth trip to China and I have never seen anything like it. If you don’t have asthma before coming here you’ll need a puffer by the end of it.
But, still, I love coming here. Observing the astonishing urban growth is a lesson in human potential. The people are warm and welcoming and the food is fabulous. And I love having my Western assumptions shaken to the core each and every time. The meetings I attend with university officials underscore the extreme value the Chinese place in education. It’s no accident they are a superpower. Participating in the PhD Workshop is humbling. Almost all of the hundreds of students we interview are brilliant, fluent, hip, ambitious and accomplished. Of course, we are looking at the cream of the crop, the stars of anise. The young women are dressed to kill, with the coolest gear. I stare in awe, if not envy.
The other night our delegation hosted our annual alumni dinner for graduates of Memorial who are now in the Beijing workplace, transferring their skills over into industry and start-ups. They miss Newfoundland, of course. They miss the people, friends they made, the ease of traffic, local dialect, and especially the air quality. During the course of the meal, I discovered they had almost all watched my favourite HBO and specialty series: Homeland, The Newsroom, House of Cards, and so on. How was this possible? I can’t tweet or access Facebook here. Not surprisingly, they know how to get around all the firewalls and can watch anything they want–under and over the table. Talking to them about the perils of CIA operative Carrie Mathison was a bit surreal. They were more up to date than most of my friends.
We interviewed students interested in pursuing education, business, engineering, linguistics, computer sciences, ecology, environmental policy and sciences, and ethnomusicology. I would have accepted each and every one of them on the spot. I have always believed in fully diversifying our student body–and our programs. But all we could do is encourage the hopefuls, by processing their applications and in turn passing these along to the relevant units where they will be further assessed. On paper they might all just look Chinese. But there’s way more to them than that. My special plea, therefore, is to take the applications seriously. We can all learn from these students. And if we don’t accept them you can bet the University of Alberta or Waterloo will, and that would be our loss.
Besides, it would be an act of charity just to liberate them from the life-reducing skies of Beijing, a truly noble gesture.