By NICK CHILES
Every once in a while as a parent, you stumble across stories or tidbits of information that help you to gain some perspective on your life and your relative blessings. This seems to be more and more necessary with this high-wire act that has become middle-class life in America, where all of the certainties and stability that we had come to rely on as college-educated adults seem to have been snatched away over the past decade—leaving fear, anxiety and that constant sense of impending panic in their place.
I got one of those perspective-supplying moments yesterday when I came across a story in the New York Times about life in Beijing, China—a story that coincidentally came to me on the day we have come to celebrate as Earth Day, April 22.
Apparently, the air quality in this massive city of 20 million people—and other large Chinese metropolises—has grown so acutely bad that it has radically transformed the nature of childhood for millions of Chinese children and their families. With levels of deadly pollutants in the air that are 40 times the recommended exposure limit in Beijing and other major Chinese cities, parents don’t let their children even go outside anymore unless absolutely necessary, many schools have eliminated outdoor activities and class trips, parents choose schools based on the adequacy of air-filtration systems, and some fancier schools have even built domes over sports fields so that students can actually breathe while they play.
For many families, it is becoming a living nightmare, not having any confidence that when you open your mouth and inhale, you aren’t hastening your demise.
The four-year-old boy highlighted in the Times story isn’t allowed to go outside without a face mask. And when he goes to bed every night he must have his sinuses cleared by saltwater piped through the tubes of a machine.
The very air that they breathe in these Chinese cities is toxic, forcing them to lead lives that sound so bizarre and foreign that we Americans have a hard time even imagining it.
“I hope in the future we’ll move to a foreign country,” the boy’s mother, a lawyer, told the Times. “Otherwise we’ll choke to death.”
Middle- and upper-class Chinese families are leaving the country in droves, while businesses are having a difficult time attracting foreigners to lucrative jobs because people are afraid of the air.
Here in America, where we still take for granted the cleanliness of the air we breathe, we should note that this is the future we will be leaving to our children and grandchildren if we don’t do a better job of reducing our carbon footprints and committing ourselves to being better stewards of the planet. That’s a sobering message on Earth Day.
But it is also a reality check as we go through our days with worry eating away at us—worry that we won’t be able to pay the bills, that we won’t be able to find a job, that we won’t be able to afford to send our children to that really good private school, that we won’t have enough to pay for the expensive medicine we need, that our son won’t stop growing so damn fast and need a new pair of sneakers every month, that the kids won’t complain too much if we can’t buy them the sweet treats they are used to getting for their lunch box, that our parents will be able to hold on a little longer on their fixed income….
As these worries and a million more just like them flood through our mental inbox tonight as we are trying to close our eyes long enough for a few hours of sleep, perhaps we can be thankful that at least, at least, we can still go outside and breathe. For now.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.