Running through the haze becomes first Chinese lesson

By Pat Butcher ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-03-27 08:34:47

Running through the haze becomes first Chinese lesson

Li Min / China Daily

As a former champion runner back in the United Kingdom a few years ago - OK, many years ago - I learned the importance of timing. I didn't have to be a Usain Bolt wannabe to realize that you can lose a middle-distance race by one hundredth of a second, just as easily as a sprinter can in 100 meters. My friends and acquaintances would race to say that it's a shame that my recognition of the tyranny of the stopwatch did not stretch to a respect for the clock, since I was frequently late for meetings. My excuse remains that winning or losing by a hairsbreadth meant that I needed a bit more latitude off the track.

Running through the haze becomes first Chinese lesson

Of course, they are different examples of timing; and here's another one that's afflicting me at the moment. Having retired from a job which took me to the four corners of the Earth over the past 30 years, I arrived in Beijing recently, with a view to finding an apartment for a few months, in order to start learning Chinese. And since I still run most days, albeit more slowly than those "few years ago", my stipulations for flat-hunting were that it had to be near a park and a subway. Now, unlike in my home in London, that cuts down the options considerably.

I met a young Beijinger in New York a couple of years ago. He'd just visited London for the first time, and I asked what he thought of the English capital. Eyes wide, he said: "It's like a big park". London has a lot of parkland, and Beijing doesn't. But what Beijing does have a lot of at the moment is smog. Which has meant that while staying in a hotel initially, I was able to use the health club, to plod on the dreaded (for me) treadmill; but when I moved to a friend's place on the edge of town for the weekend, there was no escape. I could barely go outdoors.

Now, Beijingers don't need me to tell them that pollution levels have been "hazardous" for days. But for those few China Daily readers elsewhere in the world who remain oblivious, I've even seen young guys who you could describe as "macho" wearing face-masks on the street. Smart kids.

"Has this put you off staying here?" asked one of my Chinese friends. It's certainly given me pause. There are a lot of good Chinese-language teachers in London. But it's just not the same is it?

I've got a pal in Hainan province who says the air quality is among the best in China - whatever that means. But as much as I detest smog, my fair hair and white skin means I equally hate the sun for long periods.

So, dear Beijing friends, here I am, for better or worse - sorry, for worst. I'm still looking for an apartment near a subway and a park. But don't rush to e-mail me yet. I can just about see the neon sign for the restaurant across the street, but that's because it's big and red. I can see little else but haze. And I won't be going to the restaurant anyway. If I can't run, I need to diet.

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