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Beijing expatriates caught in a smoggy dilemma

By Zheng Xin and Chen Xin  (China Daily)

08:10, May 29, 2013

The Beijing West Railway Station is enveloped in heavy smog, May 6, 2013. [Photo/Xinhua]

Since winter, when Beijing was shrouded in smog and pollution levels went off the charts, many expatriate residents have been asking themselves one question: Should we stay or should we go?

The latter option, according to media reports and anecdotal evidence, is proving popular.

And who can blame them?

When smog hit the Chinese capital, health authorities urged children and the elderly to stay indoors, and sales of face masks and air purifiers soared.

The city's living environment is now the top challenge in retaining foreign workers, as opposed to salary or career development, said Adam Dunnett, secretary-general of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, citing research by the chamber.

Air quality has become a big concern, he said. "People leave for all sorts of reasons, but we inevitably hear nearly every time that one of the contributing factors is pollution."

Brenda Foster, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, has seen a similar trend. "Increasingly, we hear comments from members on the negative impact of air quality on their ability to attract and retain top talent."

Yet not everyone is jumping ship - some are simply adapting.

James Watson-Krips, an educational consultant from the United States working in Beijing, said he plans his daily events in accordance with the US embassy's air quality Twitter feed.

"Sometimes you give up occasions due to health concerns," he said, but he stressed he is staying put regardless. "The pollution is a fly in the ointment, but isn't bad enough to drive me out. I don't think there will be an exodus from the capital, not from my circle of friends at least."

Watson-Krips has lived in Beijing for three years and plans to remain for three more. "I came here for the city's culture, and the career opportunities are unparalleled," he said.

He is not alone.

Richard Saint Cyr, a family doctor and director of clinical marketing at United Family Hospital in Beijing, said despite the unusually serious air pollution in winter and the mounting anxiety, he intends to stay for many more years, even with his newborn son.

Air: A big concern for some in the capital

He said that since January he has noticed an increase in conversations among patients and friends about leaving China due to pollution, but he said this does not necessarily indicate a big movement of people.

Health and wellness, and a sense of happiness and fulfillment in life are much more complex than just one issue such as pollution, Saint Cyr said, adding: "I stay in Beijing because my wife and I have a very rich and rewarding cultural experience here and also our in-laws live here.

"Beijing is one of the world's most exciting places to be," he added.

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