China wishes a Merry Christmas

Steve Kelman's experience with a festive holiday season in Beijing is marred by air pollution.

china christmas

Beijing is in full Christmas mode. The Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and “Merry Christmas” signs are not just in Western hotels like the Westin where I am staying. (By the way, no “Happy Holidays” here; American traditionalists can feel at home.) At the Beijing Airport, there is a huge Christmas tree in the main terminal, and I heard “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” in English, over the loudspeakers.

Christmas trees abound outside shopping malls, restaurants, and some office buildings. At two restaurants where I was taken for dinner, the employees were all wearing Santa hats. The two major Christmas activities are going out with friends to dinner and exchanging presents, and the holiday is particularly popular among the young. Since the biggest holiday in China, the week-long Chinese New Year festival (this year in early February), pretty much requires people to go visit their families in their home towns, people like Christmas as a chance to socialize with friends.

My arrival in Beijing coincided with a pollution level that was the worst I have ever experienced in China, which is saying a lot. Somebody said the air smelled like smoked meat. The smell was disgusting, I started breaking out in coughing fits, and frankly I felt like I was killing myself just to be breathing. (Five-star hotels like the Westin filter the air, so the hotel was something of a respite from the sickening feel outside.)

There is now a smartphone app that allows people to get the pollution measurements put out and updated several times a day by the US Embassy; some friends even had this app fuctioning as a smartphone desktop so they could know the level whenever they were online. The Embassy now actually publishes readings for most major Chinese cities, though I don’t know where there information for cities without a US embassy or consulate are made; the US Embassy in Beijing has a pollution meter on the roof. This first day the pollution reading (particulates) was about 300, described as “hazardous”; people were advised to avoid going outside unless necessary and not to engage in strenuous activities.

Two days later, Beijing got colder and windier, and the wind drives the pollution out – the Embassy reading went down to 78 (merely “unhealthy”) and then 42 (“good”) the next day, as the wind got stronger; I had a nice walk in a windy and cold Beijing with sort of blue skies. But I have now started bringing up pollution almost every time I talk with Chinese – I have told people at universities, for example, that I would not want to spend any extended time visiting their university because I can’t stand the pollution.

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