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My Childhood Up In Smoke: What Beijing, Chicago, and My Memories Have In Common

By Suzy Schlosberg - May 11, 2017


An issue that’s important to me is the increasingly dire consequences of pollution in large cities. I grew up in Beijing, but instead of remembering smog and bleak skies, I have a distinct memory of how it smelled like spring every time it rained, of playing in playgrounds with neon swings and hot pink slides. A life that was about as blissful as ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. And so, after moving to Chicago when I was eight, I heard all these tales of how horrid conditions were in Beijing, of how the fog was so dark and thick that you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you, how cars piled up for miles and miles and traffic crawled like broken clocks. All of this was in shocking juxtaposition to how I had painted the Beijing of my childhood, and I refused to believe it.

Of course, now I know that in 2008, when I left China, pollution was already terrible and that all the happy memories I had were distorted under the closed bubble of my planned community. But then, I chose to believe that reports of children fainting in classrooms from monoxide poisoning, of cars crashing from the cloak of smog, were mere fabrications. That refusal to believe the truth is terrifyingly like how policymakers choose to deny the existence of climate change and erase lives that are ruined by it.

Then two summers ago, I went back to my “small town” of over 21 million people for the first time over five years, and upon arrival, I felt like I had been shattered. Gone were the trees and parks and flowers and blue skies and sunbeams and slowly melting popsicles and gleaming playgrounds and everything that I had treasured in the time capsule of my childhood. It was gut-wrenching to see that everything was gray, black, dusty, and dirty, a valley of cars honking weakly through the ash of burning factories. I walked in concrete jungles for two weeks, and I can’t remember seeing a single blade of real grass.

The point is not to contribute even more to the history of scapegoating China, or India, or other developing nations for being the only emitters of CO2. I fell to the belief that nothing bad could touch me, to the idea of myself being necessarily separate from the negative effects that reached everyone else. It was painful for me to see my little bubble pop, but imagine what it would mean for the entire population of the United States if we kept turning a blind eye to all the darkening patches in our summer days, what it would mean for the parks and golden beaches and streets to overfill with smog, and how devastating it would be when all of us finally realized just how much we had poisoned ourselves.

Sincerely, 

Suzy 

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