Why you should care

Your first-world child-rearing problems pale next to China’s.

Jennifer Duggan is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai, China. She writes for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Scotsman, Macleans and RTE.

Trying to get a facemask on a wriggling toddler is no easy task. It doesn’t matter how much I try to make a game out of it, he just doesn’t want to wear it, not even for a second. Unfortunately, this isn’t a game of dress up or even the basic parenting battle to get your kid in clothes — it’s a serious attempt to protect my baby from the thick, toxic, yellow shroud of pollution that hangs over our home.

Shanghai is by no means the most polluted city in China; it doesn’t even make it into the top 10. But during wintertime especially, the air pollution regularly reaches levels of more than 10 times the maximum recommended level by the World Health Organization. Stepping outdoors on bad days, the air has a bitter metallic taste that catches in the back of your throat. The city takes on a ghostly air, the shadows of skyscrapers looming large through the haze, their bright lights barely visible.

As a journalist who writes mostly about China’s environment and its pollution problems, I literally live and breathe my profession. My husband and I were childless when we moved from Ireland to Shanghai, for work three years ago. And while the pollution was annoying from time to time, it didn’t overly concern us. I found it interesting and morbidly fascinating.

I worry about sleeping routines and getting my son to eat vegetables. But in China, there’s a bigger worry.

Until my son was born almost two years ago. Then, suddenly, things I’d only cared about from a journalistic perspective — like tiny pollution particles that lodge deep in the lungs and heavy metals in the water supply — had seeped into my already fraught anxiety of early motherhood.

Like all new moms, I worry about sleeping routines and getting my son to eat vegetables. But in big cities in China, there is a bigger worry: the growing awareness about the health effects of living with such high levels of pollution, particularly for children. Sales of air purifiers and face masks have boomed during episodes of very high pollution, aka the “airpocalypse.”

Children stay cooped up indoors for weeks at a time, breathing air recycled through an air purifier. Instead of snow days, we have smog days, when the air is too hazardous to even venture outside. After three days indoors, my son gets bored. He picks up his shoes and points at the door; he wants out.

Last year, during one especially awful “airpocalypse,” the smog was so thick it was difficult to see the end of our laneway (a traditional Shanghainese lane that crisscrosses the city and is lined with narrow houses and apartment buildings). Within a day of the pollution reaching off-the-chart levels, in a panic I bought an air purifier and the much-hated baby facemask. Then 6 months old, he was unable to remove the mask on his own, and reluctantly complied after much wriggling.

I tell my neighbor she shouldn’t be outdoors, either. She walks away shaking her head at the crazy foreign waiguo ren.

As I stepped outside, my son in my arms, an elderly busybody neighbor scolded me for being outdoors. She said my son must be “bu shufu,” not comfortable wearing his mask. In my imperfect Chinese I tried to explain that the pollution is very bad and that she shouldn’t be outdoors, either. She walked away shaking her head at the crazy foreign waiguo ren. She spends hours every day out in the laneway sweeping up and keeping tabs of everyone who comes and goes, her door always wide open with no concern for the thick black Mordor-like smog hanging in the air.

A Chinese friend also doesn’t like to wear a facemask because it’s “bu shufu,” but on bad air days she complains about headaches. However, she was horrified when she saw the filters that had come out of my air purifier, which had turned from white to black in a month of bad air. “Do you think our lungs look like that?” she gasped.

A number of Chinese friends say they would like to leave, and they cite pollution as one of the reasons. Over lunch, two friends say they will eventually move to New Zealand. I mentioned that I had traveled there to visit family. “Is it beautiful?” Ping asked. “Such a clean place, no pollution. Air, water and food is all safe,” she sighs wistfully.

My friends gawk with envy when I tell them we pay just $800 a month for a full-time, Chinese-speaking nanny.

I too fantasize about fresh air. Ireland has plenty of it. But when I go home for a visit, I realize that Irish moms have fears too. Unemployment is high; people are taking pay cuts; child care costs are exorbitant. My friends gasp when I tell them about Shanghai’s pollution, but they gawk with envy when I tell them we pay just $800 a month for a full-time, Chinese-speaking nanny.

Still, back in Shanghai, I continue to lose the battle with the facemask. My son resolutely shakes his head “no.” He refuses to wear it. And now, at almost 2, he has the force to pull it off himself. So instead, I put on his jacket. I open our door and make a dash for it, hoping a short trip to the store won’t hugely impact his little lungs.

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