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China pollution: Airpocalypse and the expat parenting dilemma

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On Sunday morning, after a lively and delicious party (if I do say so myself) I woke up with a throat so sore I could barely swallow and pollution levels still soaring into the 600s, 700s, and 800s. The sky still looked like a storm was approaching, the sun hidden behind a gray screen. The air smelled as if six dozen cars had caught fire.

The parents of young children stayed inside for the most part, although one mom on the Beijing Mamas listserv wrote that she was venturing out for one activity that her daughter loved. But to get to that they were wearing face masks.

The air, in fact, generated a round of hand-wringing on the various listservs, e-mail chains, and blogs that Beijing expats follow. One London mother wrote to Beijing Mamas that she was pregnant and about to move to Beijing: “I am freaking out about the pollution in Beijing and how it will affect our lives and our health,” she wrote. “I am scared I will feel trapped indoors too afraid to take baby out or find the pollution depressing.”

The mothers responded generously, welcoming her to what some call “Gray-jing” and telling her about the Chinese love of Western babies, the wonderful ayis who take care of children, not to mention perks like inexpensive manicures.

Beijing parents did fret, of course. Bill Bishop, who runs a popular news-aggregating e-mail called Sinocism, wrote, “I have to say, the last couple of days have me seriously questioning why I have chosen to force my kids to breathe this air.” He added by e-mail that although he and his family put on masks, he was surprised that when he picked up his children from school few were wearing masks.

Trevor Marshallsea, an Australian-born expat dad who writes a blog called “The Tiger Father,” posted this: “Here we also talk about which brand of face mask is safest. We regularly check our iPad pollution apps and our Twitter air quality feeds (provided you can get around Chinese Internet controls). Children are kept indoors in schools on bad pollution days, and most of us invest in expensive – but quite necessary – air filters for the home.”

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