Sunday, October 14, 2012

You Must Be Choking!

I love our life here, along with so many things about Hong Kong. During the summer when the sun shines and the sky is blue, it feels close to paradise, and I can see what must've drawn people here many years ago. On a clear day the view of Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula, from anywhere in the territory, is spectacular. But it doesn't last long...

I've only ranted a couple of times about the air "situation" here because it does get boring. People who live here don't like it but they've come to accept that it's a part of life here, and ranting about it won't change anything. It's a bit like complaining to the poms that it rains in London, or telling the Aussies how expensive it is to live in Sydney - we know already! The trouble is, I can't accept the pollution, I can't turn a blind eye and just get on with it - it's the one thing that's stopping us from settling here permanently (sorry Mum). Once the wind changes direction at the end of summer the haze settles in like a thick, yellowish fog. You can smell it as soon as you step outside, some days you can smell it inside. The visibility drops significantly and you start to feel like you really shouldn't spend too much time outside, let alone attempt to exert yourself in the great outdoors. I find it suffocating and infuriating.

I don't understand enough about the composition of the air we breathe, or the pollutants in it, to give you an in-depth discussion on the topic, but I can give you a little summary based on what I understand.  There are a couple of different ways to measure "air quality" and a few different organisations around the place that measure it on a daily basis. The Local Environmental Protection Department have their own Air Pollution Index which is "the conversion of the ambient respirable suspended particulate (RSP), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations." The level corresponds to a rating somewhere between 0-500, with 100 being the limit according to HK Air Quality Objectives. Anything over that represents a level of pollutants in the air which would be "harmful to human health." The most common criticism of this is that Hong Kong's government has set its own objectives and measuring system, and these are way too high by international standards. According to the Clean Air Network, a local NGO, "Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives, recommended maximum guidelines for 7 pollutants, permit pollutant levels 2-4 times greater than those recommended under the WHO AQGs." The warning system, which tells people basically when to avoid going outside, kicks in at too high a level as well, and this leads to a lot of people getting very sick each year because they do crazy stuff like exercising or breathing... (For more info on the API see here).

Some say the pollution comes from trucks and ships that use "dirty" fuels and coal fired power stations, others say it all comes from the mainland factories just across the border - I say it's a combination of these things, combined with a government that doesn't care enough. Since we moved to HK 5 years ago, there have been a number of days on which the pollution levels have not only exceeded the WHO threshold for what is considered safe, but they have set new records for Hong Kong's pollution readings. Every year it seems a new record is set, and the number of days that the pollution levels are hazardous are increasing. There was a day this summer when the API reached something like 250, and it was so bad it made the news in other parts of the world. People on the street were struggling to breathe and I was sure there was more pollution in the air than actual oxygen! 

In the short term this poor quality air can lead to watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, sinus pain and irritation, and a tight, burning feeling in the throat and chest, but who knows what it means for our health in the long term? It's certainly not good for my mum guilt! We spent the afternoon at the beach today, ignoring the fact that we couldn't see the horizon, and both boys came home coughing and rubbing their eyes. I feel pretty rotten myself, and the EPD website tells me the main pollutant today was "Respirable Suspended Particulate" (aka dust, organic matter, nitrates, sulphates etc) which can "penetrate deep into the lungs" - great! According to one independent air quality watchdog, the number of particulates in the air was 21 times higher than the WHO limit for safety. 21 times!

Whatever all the numbers mean, however you measure it and wherever it comes from, one thing is certain - we shouldn't have to inhale the crap that we do. And I don't want my boys growing up in a place where toxic air is such a routine part of life that we just don't mention it anymore. It's only October and the wind won't change direction again for at least 6 months, and I've already had enough. Time for a holiday?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Trash or Treasure?

A little while ago I wrote about our renovation, and I'm thrilled to say that, 12 weeks later, it's 99% done. I'll get to that another time but I'm mentioning it today because while we were renovating we had a bit of a clear out and that's what I'm writing about now. We couldn't make our house any bigger, we just had to be very clever about the space that we have, and really decide what was important to us - something we should have done years ago.

I was dead keen to get rid of the old IKEA furniture that came with the house, and Dave was determined that there was no way the old TV was coming back. I managed to reduce the number of toys we had accumulated, and a fair few clothes and books went to charity. We tried to clear out while we packed up, and it felt cathartic initially, but then we ran out of time and shoved things in boxes with the intention of sorting through it when we moved back in. We put a bit in storage and took a lot with us to the house we were staying in. As we went along we shopped for new things and had to figure out where to keep them, and we were very grateful when friends offered to look after things for us. In the end we moved 4 times, had our belongings spread across no less than 6 houses, and on our final move managed to whittle down the essentials to one suitcase and a few boxes of food and toys. It was at that end point, when looking at what we actually needed, what had followed us from one house to the next, that we realised something - we own a lot of crap.

We moved back in two weeks ago, and we still haven't unpacked all the boxes, and we still have things  in storage, but we're almost there. And we are throwing things out or giving them away on a daily basis. There are times when choosing what to throw out, and what to put into storage, has been quite easy. There have been a couple of heated debates about things like whether or not I really need to hang onto my teaching resources from 2003, and if there is a more appropriate place for Dave's model aeroplanes than the bedside table, but mostly we have agreed on what stays, and what goes. We each have one piece or furniture that we have had longer than we've had each other, and neither of them fit into our new aesthetic, but they have stayed and been put to good use. I've mostly enjoyed looking at what we have, and remembering why we've kept it. We both love things that have a history, and all of the pieces of furniture or knick knacks that we have held onto have that in spades, but they also still have a purpose - everything else has had to go. Clothes I haven't worn in the last 12 months, books we haven't read (or books we read and didn't like), old sheets and towels, mismatched dinner plates and cutlery, blinds that no longer fit the windows, and anything broken or unusable is no longer with us.

The things I've found the hardest to let go of have been the baby things. Friends of ours have, just this weekend, welcomed twin boys. I was more than happy to pass on clothes my boys had grown out of, with the exception of the outfits they each wore home from the hospital, and the little onesie I bought for Charlie the day I found out I was having another boy, but I also found myself keeping anything that was gender neutral. I've still got the majority of my maternity clothes, and anything baby related that I found essential. Even though we don't think a third child is a good idea, I keep putting things away "just in case." I sold a few big items recently and it hurt deep inside in a way I didn't expect. We had a bouncer that both boys sat in as newborns, and the moses basket that was Josh's first bed, neither of which were irreplaceable, but I remembered my excitement when I bought them, and the moments of joy that were attached to each of them. I sold a Fisher Price rocker this week - the chair where both boys sat for their first taste of real food. As I was packing it up Dave reminded me of how Josh used to play with the tag on one of the toys for hours on end, and I choked up. It's silly to be attached to things like that, especially when they take up so much room, and are no longer necessary but I can't help it. I'm not sure if I'm struggling with the fact that my boys really aren't babies anymore, or with the idea that there won't be any more babies... Maybe it's a bit of both, but I'm really not ready to let go, no matter how much we need to clear out.

So the gorgeous new version of the house we're now lucky to be living in is free of outdated IKEA furniture, and the teaching resources are tidily packed up and stored away, but if you look closely you'll find a white onesie here, and a swaddle there, and a co-sleeper under the bed; just in case.