In Beijing: The wonder of a rainbow after a bad-air day

Jan 12 should have been a joyous day - it marked the first time I could make out the body contours of my unborn baby from the grainy ultrasound image.

But fears and self-blame filled my mind instead as that day also marked a record peak in Beijing's hazardous smog, where a day of puffing in the air was equivalent to smoking 21 sticks of cigarettes.

"Am I being an irresponsible, heartless mother to put my baby through all this?" I asked myself.

In my four years of living in the Chinese capital, where the air quality ranks as among the world's worst, I had never agonised as much about the smog as I did on Jan 12.

That day, the PM2.5 index - measuring the concentration of tiny air-borne pollutants 2.5 micrometres in diameter that can penetrate deep into one's lungs - shot off the charts at 886 micrograms.

It exceeded far beyond the 300 to 500 range labelled "hazardous" by the US Embassy's air quality monitoring system in Beijing. A PM2.5 reading of 300 is roughly equivalent to the "very unhealthy" PSI level of around 230.

So I can empathise with Singaporeans amid the haze-induced air pollution that hit a new PSI high above 400 last week. It triggered memories of how I had coped with Beijing's smog.

When I arrived here in early 2009, I had trouble with my sinuses and fell sick more often, but that did not deter me from exploring Beijing's historic sights and "hutongs" (ancient alleys), even during the harsh winters when coal-burning spiked.

Over time, I almost forgot what blue skies were like.

But on Jan 12, I realised I had to take drastic action - especially for the sake of the little one.

I made a mad rush to snap up air purifiers and surgical masks - even one resembling a chemical warfare face shield.

I spent nearly $3,500 on heavy- duty air purifiers from the United States, keeping them on full-blast almost every night, nearly doubling our electricity bill.

And I even minimised my time outdoors, albeit reluctantly.

My husband and I reasoned that these are sacrifices worth bearing to experience first-hand the dramatic transformation of the world's No.2 economy. Still, I do wonder sometimes if I'm mad in deciding to deliver and bring up my baby here.

But I do believe some people are called to make contributions and thrive in places far outside their comfort zones. There are also as many blessings - especially opportunities to share in the lives of people - in Beijing as there are dangers.

What is crucial, apart from precautions against unhealthy air, is a healthy mindset.

Haze - along with other hazards such as unsafe food, polluted water, crime and disaster - can happen anywhere. Most people survive, and get stronger.

And things do get better over time. I was reminded of this when a resplendent rainbow - which a fellow Singaporean called "the most beautiful he had ever seen" - appeared after one particularly bad day of smog in Beijing this month.

So I hope my child will learn early to adapt and wisely make the best of every situation, even unbreathable ones.