If It’s Dusty, This Must Be Beijing

Letters from ChinaBy Patrick Murphy

A few years ago, the spring dust storms here were so large and so powerful that they blew across the ocean and hit Seoul, an unwelcome surprise for the Capitalist South Korean neighbors. Locals in Beijing may not exactly enjoy the spring storms that some years sweep in and dump tons of desert dust everywhere, but they are at least able to deal with them. It’s not like Washington, D.C., hit by half an inch of snow and municipal paralysis shutting down the federal government. Here, whether snow or sand, people just put on their face masks and get out their brooms and sweep it all up.

Supposedly, these are the worst such storms in six years. But as with the biggest, best, worst or most, you want to know exactly what they mean. Do they mean the winds were the most powerful? Or that they lasted the longest? Or that they dumped the most dust? Or that they caused the most economic disturbance, or triggered the highest jump in broom sales? Statistics are a great way to mislead, and having seen some really good storms in Beijing, I have my doubts about this new record.

Less than six years ago, I walked Louis and Patrick to their school, and when I turned around to head home, the buildings two short blocks away were gone. Not obscured, not hard to see, just invisible. The sun should have been up, but you couldn’t tell. Our street had vanished. It was like being in a very large, noisy box, with some buildings in it, and some people, and some trees, with the sides and top of the box made of yellow-brown grit and noise.

That storm left a layer over every surface in our apartment, despite the closed and locked windows, and the outer and inner doors opened only long enough to admit people. Floors, tables, chairs, desks had a layer of semi-sticky grit.

If these recent storms were so bad, I ask the news editors, where is all the grit? My desk is clean. Even my bike, which has been sitting on the porch since we left in February, has just the usual dust on it.

But if it’s howling dust one day, it’s a steady rain the next. And then, Ahh! Blue skies and a lovely blustery day follow, such as yesterday. White clouds tearing after one another, the trees with their new, light green leaves bending in the breeze, white fluffy stuff from something like a cottonwood or dogwood rolling along the streets like tiny tumbleweeds. And the flowering trees, of which there are many, all basking in the sun, giving people something to glance at, something other than the recent unpleasant weather to chat about. It’s odd that spring should produce some of the dirtiest weather and some of the freshest air of the year, all so close.

For visitors passing through, who have the rotten luck to meet with a couple days of sand storms followed by cold steady rain, and who then miss the payoff of freshly laundered air, one can only wish they had more time to linger.

But for us, listening to the winds outside and the children playing mahjong, we know that days will follow when the air smells brand new, and the sun shines so brightly everything seems to sparkle, and we might think that there is balance after all.

[From the March 2007 CAFAM Newsletter]

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