By Jason Bigman
Shanghai, China

My nose and mouth covered, I disconnect from the space around me as I ride my bike through phoenix tree tunnels and past colonial ephemera. I suck in the insipid late autumn air through the layers of cloth and purported filter, but am only left with a struggling sense of remove from the surrounding world of uncovered faces, lungs free to reach out beyond the somatic. I go home, errands un-run.

Compared to other issues that beset this dynamically morphing nation, bad air quality is more visibly confronted on a daily basis. Much of the West endlessly focuses on the lack of a transition to participatory governance in China as the most pressing ill facing its populous. It is true that direct political empowerment is likely desirable to many if not most Chinese, but at this point, such a prospect seems so unattainable as to instill a sense of powerlessness in the majority of individuals. Yet when childhoods of clean air lived but 20 years ago butt up against skyrocketing cancer rates and a disappearing winter sun, actions taken to preserve the health of loved ones take on a surmountable sense of urgency. And since the state apparatus finally began in 2012 to openly discuss and measure the quality of the skies, this urgency has become sanctioned.

Pollution in the heavily-urbanized Eastern half of China is daily truth. It means waking up to a gray soup of pm2.5, cancer-causing microscopic particulate matter, on days the forecast insists is sunny – “fog” as state media likes to euphemise. It means an hourly check of an air quality app, not allowing the blue-ish skies to beguile you into thinking that color denotes reality. It means investing hundreds of dollars into an air purification machine for the apartment and ordering specialized air pollution masks from Hong Kong. And for most, who choose to live a life unfettered by worries of future health, it means nothing.

It is true that outward manifestations of this concern are still nascent in many; the poor and aspirant middle class are too occupied with reaping most of the country's stratospheric economic rise to worry about non-immediate issues. Yet there is a growing trend among Chinese of means, of which there are now many, of leaving the metropolises for less congested cities or sending children to boarding schools in New Zealand or Canada for health as well as academic reasons. All the while, foreigners of means are flowing into the country in droves. Prioritizing advancement over health, they leave behind addled economies back home for a place of very real, though slowly decelerating, opportunity. Excitedly engaged in a frenzied grab at being a part of the modern “making” of Beijing, Shanghai or any other number of cities, many chose to ignore the detrimental health effects of living in Eastern China as they swap places with Chinese millionaires who use the EB-5 program to buy into American Green Cards. This duality of trade winds is emblematic of a place at times at odds with itself, electric and exhilarating in its sprint forward when not hobbling due to the thorny path that has been taken.

The pollution in Shanghai, my current home, is not as schizophrenic as the hourly oscillations in the air above Beijing, but it proves to be equally oppressive. A recent short period of distressingly metallic-smelling “fog” galvanized me to buy my first pollution mask. For those few days, I felt a halting distress. The ever-present gray imbuing the world with a sense of lifelessness, covering my face with a mask made this beautiful city feel like a dystopian vision of industrial futures past. I grappled with my deliberate choice to pervert Maslow's hierarchy of needs and yearned for the pure blue skies of my childhood hometown – having a “China day” as the problematic foreigner parlance goes. Holed up in my apartment floating 23 stories high, I anxiously waited for it to pass.

Eventually, it does, and life returns to normal. Masks off, windows opened, and evening strolls recommenced, the elegant luster of this pearl of a city is polished anew. Mounting my bicycle, I slip through the crowded streets with my nose, mouth, and self fully-actualized. The air is not putrid as it entered into me, but it's also not fresh, as even on good days it is soured with industry. Nevertheless, I scurry from place to place in a performance of daily normalcy, lest the mask cautiously stowed in my pocket prevent me from doing otherwise.

Jason Bigman is an American living and working in Shanghai. He likes dumplings, Debussy, and dry climates.