White Skies

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.

Shanghai Skyline through hotel room window

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?


Pat's Place said...

Your writing topic was interesting since I had almost the identical conversation with a woman yesterday. She has always lived in East Texas with tall pines and large-leaf trees. She said that when she went to West Texas with almost no trees she felt like she had lost all sense of her boundaries in all that vast expanse. I, on the other hand, was raised in the Texas Panhandle with few trees, none native to the area, and I become almost claustrophobic when I cannot see the sky and especially the horizon because of the trees. It is an interesting sensation when we move into a landscape that contains an unfamiliar aspect. I cannot imagine continual white skies. I think that would really bother me! Was it a type of smog or air pollution?

By the way, I am so glad you are back. I missed you!

Herm said...

It's my birthday today. Two of our children took us out to dinner. We went to our favorite place for steak. The children were out of their element. A fine restaurant was a foreign land to them. The tab was $135.00. Our daughter put a $5.00 tip in the tray. "Dad, is that all right?" "Honey, this isn't a serve yourself cafeteria" It was funny. I helped her out. Our son thought five was a plenty, but he likes Taco Bell.

Welcome back, Sharon

Ritergal said...

Pat, my aunt, who lived her whole life in the New Mexico desert, reported the same sense of claustrophobia on trips east. It took me over a dozen years to quit missing the mountains and pine trees and appreciate the desert in eastern Washington where I lived for nearly twenty years. The term "comfort zone" includes the physical as well as experiences.

Ritergal said...

Happy birthday to Herm and best wishes for another year of blessings! I hope your children's comfort zones expanded a little as a result of that lovely gift. Personally I know I appreciate the lavish ever so much more for not having grown up expecting or feeling entitled to it. :-)