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A Brief History of Trying to Breathe in Cities

Pitchaya Sudbanthad Considers the Air in Bangkok, New York, and Saudi Arabia

Whenever the air in Bangkok becomes too polluted to breathe, my relatives turn to the internet. They open an online city map to gawk at air-quality measurements, the areas lit up in colorful shades—green for the clean zones and yellow to indicate moderate pollution, interspersed with patches of unhealthy orange and hazardous purple. They click on markers that zoom in on individual neighborhoods, which give hourly readings from the past week and forecasts for the next, to see when they might be able to breathe without worry again.

These readings come from web-enabled air-quality monitors sold by an air purifier company. My relatives often debate whether the numbers have been inflated to help the company sell more of these units. At the same time, there’s also talk that the government’s official particle counts have been reduced to keep the populace from becoming too alarmed. One of my aunts carries around a mini air-quality detector that she uses to measure particulates in her home and those near the busy main road, just to take note of the difference. These are the numbers she trusts most, because she can see them, and breathe them, for herself.

It’s not hard for me to tell when there are too many particles adrift unseen. My nose gets itchy and runny. The air holds hints of burnt rubber and over-boiled eggs. On busy roads especially, the smells seem unavoidable. Many people, from cops to motorcyclists to street hawkers to tourists donning “I love Bangkok” T-shirts, wear disposable surgical masks over their mouths and noses. Teenagers often sport ones printed with anime figures or bright, colorful designs. If one has to suffer from breathing in poisoned air, one might as well do it with style.

In Bangkok, particulates that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller, or PM2.5, are a topic of small talk as favored as the weather, traffic, and football league results. There’s good reason to keep an eye on those numbers: PM2.5 particles can settle deeply into lungs. Every year, tens of thousands of Thais prematurely expire from their effects. To talk of the air is to convey one’s concern about matters of life and death. When the readings are bad, we remind each other to wear filtering face masks and pray to dead ancestors for health. When they’re good, we thank the higher entities for rain and wind, and breathe in the air to the fullest capacity of our lungs, trusting that the day’s color code of green is accurate.

To talk of the air is to convey one’s concern about matters of life and death.

I don’t remember anyone wearing masks in public when I was a teenager. It wasn’t that Bangkok air was so much cleaner back then, but unless I ventured to walk along one of the city’s traffic arteries during rush hour, I didn’t have to fear the ethereal or invisible, beyond the norm of ghosts and bad karma.

Since the early 1990s, the population of Bangkok has tripled as more people have arrived from far-flung provinces in search of better economic opportunities. The shadows of skyscrapers overtook shophouses. Housing developments replaced green rice fields and marshy grassland. Dust from the construction boom and ash from trash burned in growing neighborhoods mixed with dust from new roads built to accommodate the explosion in traffic. The number of cars and motorcycles in the city grew to the single-digit millions, then to double-digit millions, on streets and highways unequipped to handle the volume. Of course, it is not just dust that comes out of tailpipes. They also expel exhaust fumes filled with carbon gases.

As global lust for economic growth worsens the air quality in cities and towns around the world, more carbon dioxide is also being spewed into the greater atmosphere. Climate change contributes to drastically altered weather patterns, and those in turn regularly make the air in Bangkok more stagnant, while hazardous ozone and particulates permeate the air at ground level and stay there.

In places where we now see far drier weather, more frequent and intensified fires are consuming entire landscapes—like those of the past few years in the Amazon, Australia, and Indonesia—and sending plumes across thousands of kilometers. The burning releases even more carbon gases and poisonous particulates, continuing the entwined loop of climate catastrophe and our struggling respiration.

I often confront my own complicity as I am fed into the slow, perpetual circulation of Bangkok traffic. Even with the addition of Skytrains and a subway system, traffic jams haven’t improved. I loathe having to go anywhere in a car during rush hour, but the trains convenient to me reach only the major commercial thoroughfares and not my destination.

So I often sit in a car, sometimes for hours, just to travel short distances, and watch exhaust fumes rise from the tailpipes of idle vehicles, thickening the air. If I’m on an elevated highway near sunset, I can marvel at the orange-hued haze that makes the city look like a shimmering mirage in the desert.

*

I could smell the still-smoldering towers whenever I stepped out of my apartment building in Downtown Manhattan. Sometimes, I could even see a haze rising across the West Side Highway, where workers were disassembling the crumbled, hulking ruins and recovering the physical remnants of extinguished lives. Just over two months before, I had watched the towers aflame from an office building ten blocks north, and I was still in disbelief that I had been witness to the sudden deaths of thousands. Reminders lingered everywhere—in missing-persons flyers still taped to walls and light poles, in the near-constant siren screams of emergency vehicles passing by stilled traffic on Greenwich Avenue.

A week after the attacks, I went back to my apartment building for the first time. I strapped on a dust-filtering mask and boarded a truck along with other area residents. It took us from a FEMA center set up on Houston Street and down the riverfront, past military checkpoints, and into the blocked-off zone that had been deemed too dangerous for prolonged human exposure. We drove toward Battery Park City through the scattering of wreckage and debris, its violence made stranger by the brightness of an otherwise normal, sunny city day.

I expected the worst. I had watched—from the SoHo block I’d reached on foot that day—the remaining North Tower crumble floor by floor, no more than a block from where I lived. I was surprised to see my building still intact. When the towers disintegrated, I thought they had crushed my building with the weight of their fall.

Inside, my apartment was covered almost entirely in a thin layer of gray. The dust cloud had blown through the half-inch of window I’d left open before departing for work that day, as well as a quarter-sized hole that had later been punched through the glass by an unknown projectile. I imagined the gray matter to be pulverized bits of planes, buildings, and people. I paused to consider whether a sacred ritual was required before touching it, but then just mopped and wiped it away.

Tens of thousands of liters of volatile jet fuel had conflagrated to heat the steel skeleton of the towers to the point of structural failure. Its particulate remnants turned into a foul gray plume that floated over Lower Manhattan before the wind blew it southward to the ocean. To help allay fears of asbestos and other hazardous material in the air, the authorities gave away HEPA air-filter units to building residents. When I turned on its ionizer for the night, the air started to smell of its metallic charge.

The next morning, I woke up to find previously buoyant particles settled on the pair of glasses I’d removed before bed. A couple of months after the attacks, the air outside still smelled strongly of burning. The news reported that first responders at Ground Zero were experiencing difficulty breathing. Glass fibers, dioxins, and who knew what else mingled invisibly in the air. I bought N95 respirator masks at the hardware store for my walks to the subway or grocery store.

Soon, what was left of the dust was being washed away by rain. Winter was arriving. Snow would soon cover the ashes settled into the crevices of the charred, twisted steel ruins, which still awaited dismantling. Every once in a while, I would hear the sounds of demolition explosions, preceded by the screams of air horns. But slowly, life began to return to some semblance of normal. The air became more breathable. Instead of respirator masks, I only covered my mouth and nose with my winter scarf, the way Bangkok motorcyclists often wear bandanas.

Over the next year, the Bush administration would use false information to justify America’s bombing of and eventual war in Iraq; there would be no repercussions to the native country of the 9/11 hijackers, a major military ally and oil supplier. Frustrated by the denial of truth and the promise of more senseless, baseless violence, I joined the hundreds of thousands gathered in Union Square to rally against what was clearly a war for fossil fuel and little else. Someone gave me a button. On it was the famous Milton Glaser “I love NY” logo with the addition of “and Baghdad.” For a second, I thought it said, “and Bangkok.”

I was made to wonder: did the tourists wearing the “I love Bangkok” T-shirts truly love the city where my family lived and breathed, any more than American policy hawks loved the notion of egalitarian democracy in the Middle East? Technology’s collapsing of distance has rendered every region a place where some variety of value can be extracted, be it exoticized leisure or fossil fuel. When people laud a new world made smaller by air travel and the internet, they often neglect to mention that these new intimacies have been made possible only by ravenous empire.

After the protest, I returned to Battery Park City and took a walk along the promenade by the Hudson River. The sun was beginning to set behind the Statue of Liberty. I gazed at the cargo ships and oil tankers in New York Harbor floating out to the Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps somewhere beyond.

*

In the early 1980s, the beach along the highway between Al Khobar and Dammam was popular with the immigrant workforce that came to Saudi Arabia in search of better pay, a group that included my father. When we went there to picnic with friends from the architecture firm where my father worked, I was a Thai kid surrounded by Indian, Filipino, and Korean families, or more often, groups of young, able-bodied men from everywhere in the world, on a break from their jobs at oil-field service companies.

A reliable breeze blew in from the Persian Gulf. In the high desert temperatures, the wind and seawater were always welcome. My home city of Bangkok was no temperate place, but the heat in Saudi Arabia felt different. The sun was quick to scorch exposed skin. As a child in Bangkok, I couldn’t care less about sunscreen. In Saudi Arabia, I begged for it. It didn’t surprise me how much of the landscape was lifeless. I observed it every day, looking out the window as I rode to school on a long, thin highway: expanses of dunes on one side, the sea on the other.

At the beach, I played with the abundant sand, digging it up to build what my megalomaniacal seven-year-old mind thought to be a city—like New York, which I’d visited for the first time that year. The pits I dug widened as my sand cities rose. If I dug far and long enough, I might reach the oil deposits underneath.

Long ago, minuscule sea animals had died and settled into the sunless, airless depths of a long-departed sea. The concentration of their biological sludge and high temperatures turned them into crude oil sealed by years of sediment deposits. In 1938, the Standard Oil Company of California found those deposits, and since then, millions of barrels a day had been pumped out of the ground. Some of that oil was hanging from a key chain that I carried with me in Saudi Arabia. Through a dark glass vial, I could see an inky liquid roll as I tilted it.

The empire of capital would not let the dead, ancient animals alone. Through systemized extraction, they were being unearthed to light up and power our cars, motorcycles, and sky-shattering jets, and they were vengeful at us for disturbing their rest. In their incineration, the dead would turn into dangerous dust, seeing to it that our lungs became poisoned and diseased, that the entire world grew hotter, that seas flowed over our cities of stone, and that lush forests dried into desiccated dunes. The dead want to quicken our union with them, perhaps so that we may sooner know what it is like to be exhumed for some living being’s expedient use. In the end, we become all that we consume.

Where I stood then—sandy toes wetted by ebbing waves—I was too young to see that the tankers floating toward the horizon carried both the dead and the future. I could not yet understand that this place, where the desert met the sea, was inseparable from an American metropolis overlooking a busy harbor and the growing city where I was born.

As afternoon approached twilight and the tides crept closer, I got up from my sand city. The waves would have it. On the walk back to my parents’ car, I picked up a sun-whitened seashell, its inhabitant long taken by the deep. Hello, friend, I said to it, and then I breathed.

_____________________________

Amy Brady and Tajja Isen, eds., The World As We Knew It

Excerpted from THE WORLD AS WE KNEW IT: Dispatches from a Changing Climate edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2022

Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain is available now from Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK). He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn.





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