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Bilingual skills: Putonghua and pollution-speak

Updated: 2013-11-03 08:20
By Belle Taylor ( China Daily)

Since moving to Beijing I feel I've been learning two languages - Mandarin and pollution-speak.

To speak Mandarin, you have to practice your pronunciation and learn pinyin. Pollution is slightly easier to pick up (well, they do say total immersion is the quickest way to learn) and requires a healthy dose of black humor and awakening your dormant inner scientist.

"PM2.5 is 200 today," you might say, with a shake of your head.

"But we're hoping for a bit of rain tonight. Should be clear by the weekend."

Other expatriates deal with it through droll humor.

"Well, it saves on cigarettes. You just need to go for a jog - same effect."

Of course, pollution is almost impossible to predict, and you soon realize that to live your life dictated by the air quality is foolish. Beijing is simply too polluted too often to stay indoors whenever smog cloaks the city.

A friend once described Beijing to me as the boyfriend you wouldn't want to introduce to your parents but loved anyway. It's not a bad metaphor. Beijing can be gray and dirty, but its sometimes-gloomy exterior belies a city of hidden depths.

Some visitors to China tell me they prefer Shanghai to Beijing. It's more Western, they say. The restaurants are more similar to what you might find in London or Sydney, and more English is spoken.

But since my first visit to China in 2008, Beijing is the city that grabbed me and made me vow to one day live in China.

It's a truly living city, from the mysterious labyrinth of hutong in the Gulou area to the gleaming modernity of Guomao. It's cosmopolitan - you can eat chuan'r (kebabs) and drink Yanjing (cheap beer) at a street stall or sip cocktails and eat tapas in a glamorous bar.

The choice is yours. Beijing remains unique and full of its own special style of grit and weirdness.

There's also a buzz of opportunity in Beijing, with entrepreneurs and artists finding the city rich with inspiration and opportunity.

It's a city that has seen off dynasties and revolutions, and is again shedding its skin, being born anew every day.

On a blue-sky day, there's no better place to be. If only they came around more often.