Springtime In Beijing, And SARS Is In The Air

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The billboard near my apartment portrayed a giant fist next to the slogan, “The SARS will surely be conquered by our government under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” In a bookstore downtown, a sign perched on a table just inside the entryway read, “Depend on Science and Resist SARS.” Yet every day, there was another SARS patient. Science and ideology are not always cooperative bedfellows.

I’d been in Beijing for nine months. I was here when the panic started, and unlike most of the foreign population of this city, I was still here to watch it die down. I’d first heard of this strange disease in February when I was planning some trips to Hong Kong and Guangzhou for work. A friend from the United States emailed me about a virus she’d read was going around southern China, and told me to avoid eating chicken, as it was somehow linked to the spread of the disease. I had seen something to that effect on a foreign news website, before they were all shut down by the government. I didn’t think much of it and even ate some chicken while I was in Guangzhou. I had a cold for a while, but most people I knew had colds as the spring weather changed and people’s allergies started acting up. Back in Beijing in March, my cold was gone but the news was only getting more severe.

Everybody from home who called or emailed seemed to assume I was totally unaware of the epidemic. “The papers here say the Chinese government is covering up a very serious illness,” they wrote, “You should come home. They’re lying about it over there.” In fact, in those early days I heard more about SARS (called feidian in Mandarin) from my Chinese friends than I did from my friends back home. True, the Chinese government hid (and probably continues to hide) the numbers even when pressed, but information was getting out. By the end of March, many Beijing locals were wearing special facemasks. By this time Hong Kong had become a veritable leper colony, with no one allowed in or out. My Chinese friends gave me Chinese preventative herbs, told me to burn incense and drink vinegar (a popular antidote to just about everything from pneumonia to depression). And then even they started in on the refrain. “Why don’t you go home?”

Before SARS, when I walked down the street in Beijing, folks called out, “Hey look! Look at the foreigner!” But now instead I heard, “Hey look! That foreigner hasn’t left yet! What’s she still doing here?”

So what was I still doing here? I had originally come to China on a Fulbright fellowship about modern dance, but my research was suffering SARS-induced setbacks, as the performances I was set to attend were cancelled or postponed indefinitely. People were not leaving their homes, so they would not meet me for interviews. Libraries limited their hours. My Chinese tutor lived in an apartment compound run by the military. Residents were no longer allowed to leave the compound (and foreigners were never allowed in, SARS or no SARS), so she cancelled our classes. Most of my funding seemed to be going to cab fare, since I no longer took crowded buses or subways (which, incidentally, were no longer crowded).

But I couldn't help but enjoy the silver lining. In a city where it usually took at least an hour to get anywhere, I was able to zip to my few remaining appointments in 20 minutes or less, because the streets were so empty. Whereas the elevator ladies and fruit vendors in my neighborhood used to comment on how much weight I had gained, or ask if I was wearing enough layers of long underwear, now these mother hens clucked about whether my facemask was thick enough, tied tightly enough, and so on.

I took precautions. As soon as I got into cabs I rolled down the windows. I dutifully wore my facemask wherever I went in public, and when I got home I washed my hands and face raw. I avoided cabs if I noticed the driver coughing or sneezing before I got in. Many people were also avoiding elevators, but I lived on the 16th floor, so I took the risk.

The nation was mobilized to xiaodu, or disinfect. It seemed to me the peroxide and other alleged sterilizing chemicals sprayed in every elevator, cab, and office building were going to cause more health problems than this virus. The elevator ladies in my building were beginning to look cross-eyed from the fumes.

It was surreal to be fighting something I couldn’t see, and frustrating to be afraid to take a deep breath in the glorious spring air that had finally broken up Beijing’s polluted winter. Percentage-wise, the number of people who contracted SARS ended up being rather small. But it was the unknowable nature of the disease, more than its statistical prevalence, that had everyone panicked.

I was never ready to pack up and leave. I had a life here, and that life went on day to day, even if it involved a few alterations in transportation. Beijing is a city of bike-riders, after all. Just don’t forget to wear your facemask.



Posted on 11/09/2009 by

Alyssa Massingill

Alyssa Massingill

Alison, I loved your article! I am currently writing a feature story for a magazine here in Texas about Fulbright recipients and their stories. If you would be interested in doing an interview via e-mail, I would be forever grateful! I would love to read more of your stories and hear about where you are now. Thanks! Alyssa alyssa_massingill@baylor.edu

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