Day 48: Living with the Air Quality Index in Hong Kong 

If there’s one thing about Hong Kong that I have noticed, it’s that you have full license here to become as neurotic as you want.  In fact, I think that most things that exist here that are used as tools to help enhance your life were born out of someone else’s neuroses, and then somehow it was transferred to others in some kind of bizarre version of a “snowball effect”.  One example of this is the use of the Air Quality Index in Hong Kong.

We all know that air quality in cities is not good.  I have read studies that say that Hong Kong has one of the worst air quality levels of all the cities in the world, and to be honest, it is/was one of my top concerns in bringing the little guy here, and it was one of the major reasons we moved to Discovery Bay from Tai Kok Tsui.  We wanted to be able to breathe the air and actually smell nature (or at the very least not smell exhaust fumes).  We wanted to not have to worry about the little guy developing asthma as a result of his little lungs breathing in all the horrid content of the air in the city.  Just one look out our window (which has a pretty amazing view of Hong Kong) shows the kind of smog cloud the city is enshrouded in.

Is it neurotic to care about the air quality?  Absolutely not.  But there’s another layer to it in Hong Kong.  There is an “air quality index” (AQI, as it is called) that you can look up, and if the score is too high, then if you are a good and caring parent, you are not supposed to bring your child outside.  One day this week, my wife told me that there was talk on one of her social media groups about the air quality index: the score was too high – and therefore everyone was staying in with their children.  I asked, “isn’t that the score for the city?” she said, “no, they do the scores for different parts of Hong Kong, including Discovery Bay, too, and the score was not good for Discovery Bay.”  This was the same day that I was out on a little hike in the hills with the little guy, notably enjoying breathing in that fresh Discovery Bay air, so I was moderately confused.

So, if you want to understand the predicament I am in, I will lay it out for you:  as if it is not complicated enough to go out with a child, especially when you cannot use sunblock (so you must rely on shade) – and don’t forget all the gear you need (diapers, bottles, and so on), now I have a new thing to worry about: if the air quality has too many parts per billion of something. Sweet, isn’t it?

What exactly are they looking at with the Air Quality Index?

  • FPM (Fine Particulate Matter)
  • RPM (Respirable Particulate Matter)
  • Ozone
  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Temperature
  • Dew
  • Pressure
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Then, they put all these numbers together and come up with a score, and that’s what the day’s Air Quality Index is.  That score is given a color:

Air Quality Index scores explained by http://aqicn.org
Air Quality Index scores explained by http://aqicn.org

It might sound like I am a little skeptical about the whole concept of the AQI – trust me, I am not, it is good to know what the air quality is, especially for those people who have respiratory problems.  Where I get frustrated is the topic of how we should raise a child in an environment that encourages an active lifestyle if we are hiding inside at times.  And I should also point out that it is hard to know what in Hong Kong seriously when people in Hong Kong also think that drinking cold water is bad for you (even bottled cold water), and do not think that babies in general should leave the house much before the age of one year.

So what do I do then?  I will use something that I think a lot of people throw out the window too easily: common sense.  That’s right, I will use common sense.  If I look outside and it looks hazy in my neighborhood, I will still go outside with the little guy, but I will take stock of the situation when I am there, and if the air is weird we will either go back inside or we will not stay out for very long.  Please understand Discovery Bay has a vague feel of Antibes, France in some parts, and Central California in others, so it is not like being in the middle of Hong Kong.  Between the “peak hours” for heat, of course I will not plan to be out with the little guy, but generally, I will go out with him and not stay out with him for long this summer.  If it is sunny, I will block the sun.  If it is rainy, I will block the rain.  You get the idea, right?

I guess my point is that we cannot live in a bubble (in this case, literally), and raise our child in a bubble, if we expect him to be connected to the world around him and to learn about being active and experiencing the world.  These are concerns that many people in other parts of the world do not even have to think about (especially in Sweden where they have a mild climate and the purest air I have ever breathed), but here in Hong Kong, you do have to think about the air quality – the matter to consider is how much you think about it, how much you obsess about it, and how much you let the AQI run how you live your life.  The same could apply to any resource, right?

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