I was choking... I had not prepared for this.
I stopped on the side of the road, took off my breathing apparatus, and coughed up a mass of thick fluid as I gasped for air.
I inspected my carefully researched anti-pollution bi-filter breathing mask "for bicyclists"... both filters were black with soot after only one week of use. This was not working.
Not long before that, on a visit to the US, a doctor diagnosed me with asthma and gave me an inhaler and some medicine for my sinuses.
The inflammation in my nasal passages was so severe that I had lost the use of my nose for breathing. My lungs, which had been healthy and elastic on arrival in China, now felt like mud caked burlap sacks... deep breaths met firm resistance as my lungs simply refused to stretch. It is a strange thing to experience, and not something I ever want to live with again.
I had expected severe air pollution... I had purchased a $1000 air filter for our Chinese high-rise apartment. I had purchased the best mask available, read all of the research I could find comparing them, made sure it fit properly... but none of these steps were enough to keep my lungs healthy.
After 1.5 years in Suzhou, my lungs made a bubbling sound on each exhale, and I had a steady low grade fever that I could not shake.
It was time for a change of environment.
This morning, 6 years later, I am once again on a bicycle heading to work... no mask, no fever, no constant painful cough. Sunglasses, aching legs, dripping sweat all the same though.
My lungs seem to have suffered some damage that has not been completely fixed by the breathing exercises, massive amounts of vitamin C and green tea, or all the dietary changes I have made in the last 7 years to reduce inflammation and prevent the possibility that terrifies me.
Oddly enough, my experience living in a highly toxic natural environment is the best thing that ever happened to me. In my efforts to cure my newly acquired asthma and prevent potential lung cancer, my lifestyle changes reduced my blood pressure from around 150/90 to normal levels, my borderline diabetic blood sugar levels to normal, my weight to normal...even my hair and teeth have improved in the process.
My breathing feels normal now even when pushed to the limits. Only when laughing hard, or laying in bed at night, does the soreness in the center of my chest... dulled now from the intense pain it once was... remind me that I am mortal, and that I must be grateful for every day I have.