This post was written over six weeks ago, when I had just had my wallet stolen in Beijing. While I didn’t post it at the time, I find it interesting looking back at how I was feeling now that I’ve been in China for over two months, and I’m proud of myself for staying:
I walk into the police station, exhausted and feeling like a dog that’s been kicked one too many times. I’ve been in Beijing for two weeks, after signing a contract with a company that promised I’d quickly have a job in one of their many kindergartens, while living in a great apartment, and earning enough to save a large chunk every month.
The reality was a filthy apartment, along with the realization that I would be working illegally while being paid peanuts. After a week of living on a friend’s couch I quit the company and had to change my number when they began sending me threatening messages.
I decided to visit the New Zealand embassy to get some advice since I was told my visa may have been canceled. My wallet was then stolen as I was sitting in Starbucks waiting for my appointment.
I know better than to have only one bank card. But my only card was in that wallet, along with all of my cash. Rookie mistake.
“Uh Ni Hao,” I say uncertainly, crossing my fingers that someone here speaks English. The floor and walls of the police station are covered in a thick layer of grime, and I walk to the high desk where seven or eight police officers are eyeing me.
After using Google Translate to explain that I want to file a report, an officer leaves to find someone who speaks English.
A cute police officer looks up from his computer and says something in Chinese, which another officer translates.
“Where are you from?”, the man asks in halting English, and the cute police officer seems to get excited when I reply that I’m from New Zealand. He begins speaking very fast and gesturing wildly.
“He is going to New Zealand for his honeymoon. He is looking forward to it very much. He wants to know if you like Beijing.”
This is awkward. I want to tell them that I hate it here. That I’ve only been here for two weeks but it has been two of the most stressful weeks of my life. I almost tell them that it was a mistake to come here, and I’m astounded that I chose to swap Chiang Mai for freezing, filthy Beijing.
“It’s definitely different!” I smile brightly. “There are so many people here.” The officer nods and translates for the other police officers, who seem to find that amusing as they begin chuckling and conversing in Chinese.
The original officer returns minutes later with a female officer. She introduces herself as Amanda, and we head back to Starbucks to watch the video footage.
Outside it smells like something is burning and people are walking at a fast shuffle, trying to escape the cold. A man hoikes and spits, quickly followed by another, and I increase my pace, hoping to get this over with quickly.
“I just have to ask, if you’re from beautiful New Zealand, what are you doing in Beijing?” Amanda pushes her glasses further up her nose while waving a hand and gesturing at the thick air around us, and I have to admit she has a point. On the Air Quality Index a good score is anything between 0 and 30. Today the air quality is 514, which is beyond hazardous and quite literally off the scale.
“Right now I’m not sure.” I say. “This morning I almost had a panic attack while I was walking to the subway because I couldn’t take a full breath. And I was wearing a mask with a filter.”
“I’ve lived in Beijing all my life and I think I’ve built up some sort of resistance to the pollution.” Amanda replies. “Maybe we have some antibodies. I think it’s much harder for foreigners.”
Right now it feels like a small child is sitting on my chest. I can taste the pollution on my tongue and it’s how I imagine a rusty coin would taste.
Amanda tells me that the air never used to be this bad, and when she was a child there was always a month of clear skies in fall. Children here are now growing up with Beijing cough, and residents are regularly hospitalized for respiratory illnesses and asthma.
I researched this before I moved to Beijing of course. And while I had learned that the pollution levels are reducing life expectancy by around 15 years, I still found myself unprepared for the psychological effects of breathing in the pollution and never seeing the sun.
I’ve had a run of bad luck in Beijing, and while I’m tempted to cut and run, there’s a little voice in my head telling me to give it a chance. It’s time to make a decision. Do I stay or do I go?