The first thing I noticed when my plane started descending into Beijing was the unusual clarity of the air. Deservedly much-publicized, the particulate matter “haze” (so called by the authorities) which engulfs the city is often thick enough to temporarily erase whole swaths of the urban fabric, to obliterate the tops of the buildings across the street, to take entire neighborhoods out of existence. During these times, people are advised to stay indoors; if outdoor activity is necessary, air masks must be worn. This kind of pollution is quite common in the winter, when higher volumes of coal are burned for heat.
However, the sky was a crystalline blue when my plane touched down at Capital International Airport. As I walked out into the sunshine (!), I thought about a conversation I’d had with the two Beijing ladies, elderly mother and middle-aged daughter, who were sitting next to me on the plane. It all started with the revelation that I was working in Qinghai.
“Why would you work there?” the younger woman asked. “It is a very poor place compared to Beijing. The quality of life must be low.”
Telling Chinese people you work in Qinghai is like telling Americans that, coming from another country, you chose to work in somewhere along the lines of North Dakota or Idaho or Nebraska. The most common reaction is outright confusion, followed by sympathy based on the idea that the foreigner was most likely tricked into taking a job in such a ridiculous place. Why, I am asked, don’t I take a job in a big city, where I could be paid a lot of money and live in comfort; instead, why do I live in the mountains, surrounded by savage, untrustworthy minority peoples and wild animals? The second most common reaction is downright ignorance on a nearly American level: “Where is Qinghai?”
I usually tell people that I went to Qinghai because the people are friendly and the land is beautiful. But as we had quite a bit of time on the airplane, I decided to go into the question of development and quality of life, ideas which are too often confused and melded into a single ideal – that of progress for its own sake. I wanted (and want) to separate these notions.
“Beijing is, of course, more developed than Qinghai”, I said. “But is the quality of life in Beijing better? What about the environment, the cars, the congestion?”
“Life is better now than it used to be”, the older lady said. “We have a nice house and enough food and clothing. But the environment is not so good. When I was young, the sky was clear all the time. However, life is still good now.”
And then I thought about how this woman, who looked to be around 70 years old, had truly seen it all. How she had been born during a time of warlordism and upheaval. How she had survived one regime after another, the Japanese occupation, and all of the policies of the ensuing administration from her ancestral home in a hutong near the Temple of Heaven. How she had seen massive swathes of the city torn down to build bigger roads, bigger buildings, biggerbetter everything. How she had seen the air go from blue to grey to a sickly, redyellowy dustfilled glow. How everything and nothing had happened to her over the course of her life, and yet how endless possibilities remained, twinkles in her eye, both knowing and wondering.
How do we measure the quality of a life? Does it relate to character, personality, thoughts or feelings? Is it linked to what we accomplish and create? Or is it simply how we act and interact with other beings in this world? And how do we measure the quality of our lives? Americans are constantly barraged by statistics about place and money and status: median incomes and educational levels and crime rates and house prices and numbers of institutions and tree cover and racial diversity and us and them and everything else. But how accurate are these in telling us how good (not to mention who) we really are?
I don’t presume to know how to evaluate my life. But I do know that the unusually bright Beijing afternoon reminded me, oxymoronically, of the choices I’ve made about what to do, where to be and who to be lucky enough to count as friends. And though the air quality did deteriorate later, the clarity stayed with me, reminding me of who I am and the quality of life to which I aspire.