Any three-year-old child will tell you, the sky is blue. That’s one of the fundamental truths in life. Even on a cloudy day, you know that blue sky lies above the clouds, soon to return. Blue sky, green grass, white snow, clear air. These are constants you can count on. Unless you live in China. Maybe other places in Asia too, but China is the one I know about. In China the sky is white. So is the air. Not white like snow, but white like pearl dust.
I’d heard about the air quality problems in China, and I expected to find nasty brown air when I stepped off the plane in Beijing last month. Imagine my surprise at finding pearly, milky mist, not the sinister, visibly toxic smog I had anticipated. Perhaps this is just an anomaly, I thought. Perhaps tomorrow the mist will clear. But it didn’t. It varied in brightness and luminosity, and we had occasional rain, but it never cleared. The same conditions prevailed in Xian, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chongqin, and Guilin. They remained constant out in the country as we cruised along the Yangtze River through the three gorges from Wushan to Chongqin. Finally, in Hong Kong we saw patches of pale blue between the clouds.
To my vast relief, the visible air presented little challenge to breathing. I found it a source of continual fascination, more novel than being surrounded by cities too vast to fathom, an endless sea of Asian faces, and incomprehensible language and signs. The mist magnified the sun’s strength, diffusing it to generalized glare that taxed the limits of my camera and hurt my eyes.
The air absorbed the cities. In Shanghai our hotel room was on the 35th floor of a tower high above the city. Clusters of skyscrapers filled the landscape as far as I could see around an arc of about 120º. I have no idea how far this cityscape extends — the edges melted into the mist.
In contrast to the sky and air, the grass and trees were reliably, intensely green — the same green I know and love at home. The earth was brown, and water variable. These constants reassured me that I had not left Planet Earth.
I loved every minute of the twenty days we spent in China, seeing the sights, wandering random city streets, taking copious notes and thousands of pictures. I loved the openness of the people, who always returned a smile and nod, and often asked us, in halting English or simple gestures, to pose for pictures with them. Those who were able to ask were endlessly curious about our opinion of China. They are intensely proud of the progress their country is making, and Olympic Fever raged like the Spanish Flu. It matters immensely to ordinary people that Americans think highly of China.
In the end, it’s the white sky and air hovering above and around that sea of welcoming faces that I remember. China, the land of the white sky. It would be hard to get used to, and much as I loved my stay in China, it’s good to be home where the sky is blue, as it is supposed to be, even on a gray rainy day like today.
Write now: about a time when you were in a situation where some fundamental element of life was changed. Perhaps you visited the desert and missed the greenness of your part of the country. Perhaps you live in the desert and felt claustrophobic amid endless trees. Seashore, mountains, cities, country. Differences are good and help us appreciate our home surroundings. How do you react and handle these differences?