In Beijing, you can spot the arrival of winter by the candied haw fruit. Spurred on by below-freezing temperatures, candied haw – tanghulu – stands have staked out real estate by train stations, bus stops, and busy intersections in all corners of the city. Franchise-like in their uniformity, each stand is comprised of a floodlit glass case, spotlighting the colorful, shimmering wares as earnestly as if they were home-spun jewelry.
Traditional candied haw fruit consist of a stack of crab apples, coated in sugary syrup, and pierced along the center with a long skewer. Some vendors have gotten more creative, infusing the tanghulu with mounds of glutinous rice, pieces of chocolate, or other kinds of fruit. The effect is both tangy and sweet, a perfect diversion during long walks, when the cold threatens to swallow any exposed limbs whole.
My long walk came on a 500 AQI day, what passes for an “airpocalypse” in Beijing, and the occasion the state media uses to encourage people to spend time indoors with their families. At twenty times the World Health Organization standard for safe air, 500 AQI days are characterized by a dense cloud of smog as palpable as a curtain hanging just slightly out of reach. They smell like someone threw a Molotov cocktail into a vinegar factory and waited while the whole thing went up in smoke.
This all, compared to 300 AQI days, or otherwise what’s known in Beijing as winter. To call winter polluted in Beijing is like calling Hawaii hot or Iceland dark; there are few other words to describe it. The sky has alternated between shades of pallid and sallow gray for weeks, punctuated only by the occasional frail streak of blue. Those rare blue skies are the hope that sustains us – our sanguine faith in tomorrow as a new day. That is, until tomorrow reveals itself to be suspiciously similar to today.
Cold can have a way of deluding us, numbing us into a false sense of security. I felt it most strikingly at the Xizhimen subway station. The line 2 to line 13 transfer is a behemoth, requiring multiple separate staircases, ramped escalators, and a glassed-in sky bridge before finally reaching the train. Crossing over the sky bridge, I peered through the condensation at the scene below: men riding motorcycles in gigantic fur gloves, loudspeakers announcing hot corn for sale, the smell of roast sweet potatoes wafting up from metal oil drums.
And that’s when it hit me, this unmistakable feeling of peace. It was a reminder that Beijing is, for better or worse, this swirling mess of humanity, with tastes and sights and sounds that relentlessly assail the senses. It gave me great comfort to realize though that this mess was not mine alone to endure, but ours; the unspoken camaraderie between the city’s residents is something that refuses to be stifled, even in the coldest, most polluted months.
But lately, I feel like I’ve been going to war with the outside. My bedroom window, which was wide open every night during the summer has long been sealed and swathed in thick curtains to guard against both cold and air. Cafés and bars, themselves swaddled in thick clouds of cigarette smoke, make me reluctant to venture out and see friends. Even the N95 masks are a bleak reminder that we are all retreating ever deeper into our own protective shells.
Beijing can be a lonely place, and no time more perfectly amplifies that feeling than winter. It brings the insecurities I already have – of not making enough deep friendships, or squandering my time here – more aggressively to the fore. It was the reason for my walk in the first place. For all my griping about the winter, my neighborhood is one of the crowning jewels of my Beijing life. I derive great solace from taking in its grungy charm, the vestiges of the old in the face of modernity—even its perverse display of hipster chic.
A friend once told me that she chose her apartment in Beijing based on how close it was to green tea ice cream. At first, I couldn’t fathom something more arbitrary to base a decision. That is, until she took me to get it. It was served from a soft serve machine in a flimsy squat cone, the kind you might find sold with packaged ice cream. But when I bit into it, the taste was divine. The ice cream was the color of dark olive, and I felt like I was licking tea leaves off a marshmallow. It was this perfect marriage of bitter and sweet. Sort of like tanghulu. In a strange way, sort of like Beijing.
It was walking past an intersection that I frequent often when I noticed something funny. I had been out for about a half-hour and already I could see the mask on my face starting to change color. Just as Gulou Street changes over from east to west, I was surprised to find that the Drum Tower at the corner was entirely gone. This towering 150-foot structure was rendered invisible from 30 yards away, completely enveloped by the smog, as if a magician had made it disappear behind a velvet curtain.
The whole scene hardly felt real. Cars were swerving mercilessly in the see-nothing-fog, like they were skating on ice. One of them kicked up a cloud of ash that smelled like a mix of epoxy and black tea. But then, just as I turned the corner, there was that hope again. The tanghulu stand was set-up exactly where you’d expect it, smack in between the Drum and Bell Towers, on a concrete strip that on clear days sees skateboarding teenagers, birds pecking at bread crumbs, and little kids toting balloon animals.
For a second, I let myself think about that most taboo of subjects: why exactly I am here. There was nothing especially unconvincing about job prospects back home that forced me to take a position here. What's more, I understood full well the challenges that the city poses – the sacrifice we all make to live here. And yet, I chose to move to Beijing, barely knowing a soul, impelled in equal parts by a yearning for new experience, and a stubborn requital of unfinished dreams.
I know that for me, it would be impossible to spend my life in China. All the things that I eventually want for myself – a wife and family, a home close to those I love – would be too rife with compromise. And then there are those other issues – worrying about what’s in the air or the food or which friend will move away this week or whether or not we still have mold growing in our sheetrock (the answer: we do). Every day would be an enormous struggle. But why then, even with Beijing at its most disparaging, is it so hard to think about leaving?
Through the curlicues of smog, I could make out the faintest traces of the Drum Tower, as if it were a leopard behind a thick veil of brush, carefully stalking its prey. The mask on my face filled and deflated like a pufferfish, and I felt like I was breathing into a vacuum. I pushed it aside just enough to bite off a piece of the tanghulu and stare out at the carnage, the burning building with the distinct smell of acrid vinegar. As I stood on the street corner, part of me wanted to wait for the smoke to clear. The other was ready to go home.