Running from the Smog — Global Scholars 2013 in China

Aug 19 2013 - 8:03am

Because I am a human alarm clock, I enjoy the color blue. I have the unfortunate habit of waking up at five in the morning regardless of what time I fall asleep. At Peking University in the northwestern corner of Beijing, I would wake up to run as the sun rose. Circling the campus lake called No Name and the small pathways through willow trees and monuments, I chased the sun as it turned the sky yellow and peach, settling on a vibrant blue. Then the smog set and all turned grey. Beijing's pollution won the battle every morning; when it robbed me of color, I declared my jog over.

The mornings were my time to observe quiet Chinese daily life, with just my huffing and Ke$ha's music as a backdrop.  The red haze of grit cast shadows on the teenage couples, the tourists taking photographs of campus statues, and the shirtless men playing basketball and tennis in the outdoor courts.  Some late mornings I could taste the grit as I ended my jog and circled back to my room.  The polluted red atmosphere seemed like a jab at a Communist agenda.

Every morning locals flocked to No Name Lake, a dark and dusty teal colored body of water separated into sections by three footbridges.  The lake had floating vegetation and swarms of insects, but the tranquil atmosphere attracted elderly tai chi practitioners, power walkers, fraught Peking University students taking a short library break, and even a film crew.  One man gestured dramatically at the water one morning, reciting a Shakespearean soliloquy in emphatic iambic rhythm.  While I ran, no one stared or approached me even though jogging is uncommon in Beijing.  I felt like one of the local university students--maybe one of the misfits.

After a breakfast buffet of vegetables and sweet buns with my professor Dr. Xiaodan Zhang and some of my Columbia Global Scholars classmates, discussing our observations from the previous day's site visits or questioning the political theory readings for that week, I embarked on another grey day of polluted air and scintillating conversations at site visits planned for us.  Our trips comprised of state-owned enterprises, non-government organizations, companies, schools, or government ministries.  Sometimes we visited three sites in one day.  At each place I felt distinctly foreign; they treated us with nervous respect, hoping to convey enough information without defying the political agenda they represented.

Beijing's notorious pollution blurred the details of setting, allowing my imagination free rein.  The clouded neon lights created colored fog, muting the city.  The air indicated that the city had its imperfections and the language barrier did not stop me from observing this.  At many of our site visits, the Chinese officials tried to show us rapid economic growth, a diminishing GNI coefficient, new cities, bilateral and multilateral trade, and innovative business models.  However, when questioned about healthcare policies, unemployment, poor education systems, labor rights, media censorship, and urbanization, they shirked our queries.  The Chinese officials replied in a smog of obfuscation.