Give Us Our Clean Air, Give Us Our Voices

Zoe Yu

As I gazed out of the airplane’s window, I found myself hovering above and back at my hometown Hong Kong, observing how much more crowded it is than the suburb Andover where I attend high school in the US. It seems as if Hong Kong could not have been known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, “the gourmet heaven”, or “the shopping paradise” without first being a “concrete jungle” that traps air pollutants. I grew up in this concrete jungle, where financial development is unfortunately a payoff for polluted air. But it honestly doesn’t have to be.

I spent most of my life in a sheltered, indoor bubble, seemingly away and protected from the pollution outdoors. I inhabited an area already relatively spacious compared to the densest parts of the city, and commuted to school by bus or private car nearly every day. In an air-conditioned classroom, I would learn about how people worldwide suffer from air pollution, and realize my privilege. Yet, I would still regularly hear the roars of buses passing by my home, and occasionally even catch a scent of natural gas. I have even been trained, by all these years of my weekly commute from school to my classical voice teacher’s studio, to inhale and hold an enormous breath upon seeing an approaching bus from 30 meters away.

Air pollution still had its grasp on me. Air pollution has taken a toll on my health, despite not conspicuously. At night, when fifth-grade me lay on my bed, feeling the rhythm of my breath along with the rise and wane of my diaphragm, I would occasionally catch a weird sensation that I always struggled to believe: my lungs would feel clogged and murky, and my breath would literally smell like smoke. I would check on myself and make sure I wasn’t paranoid: I indeed did sense the smell of smoke from my own exhale in my nasopharyngeal cavity. The dreaded fear I had been burying would then resurface: What if every breath I’m breathing is insidiously tinted by the air pollutants that stuck to my lungs? What if my lungs have already become greyish? I would then restlessly take deep, cleansing breaths in an unrealistic, fervent hope of miraculously washing out the pollutants I have inhaled over the years.

Air pollution had affected me as a singer. At some point, my voice teacher noticed I was not breathing through my nose, and, as a result, not taking breaths as deep and producing a voice as full. I tried to, but could not, breathe through my nose at all. It was congested from inner swelling from constant allergies. Even as I breathed through my mouth, I tried imagining filling every bronchiole and air sac with air, but my breath was inevitably shallow. I once even had a nightmare about my lungs filling up with black pollutants from my air sacs all the way up to my trachea and nose. In my dream, my lungs were connected to an intelligent device detecting pollutants concentration in lungs, which flashed, in red light, a 100% air-pollutant concentration. The pollutants crowded out all the air in my respiratory system and I was choking. I had no voice. I couldn’t even scream for help. It seemed like science fiction. As soon as I woke up, I found myself panting for air through my mouth, and my nose was completely congested. My fictional dream was, after all, fueled by a dire reality.

The air pollutants I inhaled caused inflammation within my nasal tissues, further congesting it and making me breathe through my mouth and inhale even more air pollutants. I was susceptible to this vicious cycle until my extended stay at Andover in the US hauled me out of it. I stopped sneezing and blowing my nose as often, and my allergic rhinitis eventually waned.

The improvement of my health across geographies brought with it a series of reflections. Does air pollution have to be the by-product of financial success in Hong Kong? Or are we just giving in to the status quo and letting air pollutants smother us until we have no breath and voice left to counter it? We have got to move towards a society where economic growth and public health are symbiotic and not mutually exclusive.

Only from deliberate choice and immediate action can meaningful impact spring. We might as well be desensitized by the polluted air around us, or even the pertinent policies and advocacy. But we can’t let the polluted air smother our voices. Tackling air pollution starts by personalizing the issue and empathizing with other’s experiences. Only when we truly acknowledge the issue of air pollution as ours could we take strides in the clean air movement.