Letter from Beijing: Life in the Face of SARS
UCLA graduate student describes his life in Beijing in the grip of SARS
After living in Beijing for two years, my life had settled into a routine, a routine that I found necessary to get through the day to day drudgery of learning Chinese and conducting my research. Every day started with four hours of intensive language study, which was followed by countless hours of homework and research. The weekend offered the promise of a brief respite, followed by more work. Just when the routine seemed natural, permanent, and even enjoyable, along came SARS, and changed everything. But not all at once. The first thing to go, oddly enough, was my weekend respite.
When living in Beijing, I have found, one has a choice about staying in touch with world events. The Chinese media, as a rule, rarely report anything of interest, leaving the internet as the most important avenue for information. While some web sites are blocked by the Chinese authorities, this has never been an issue for me, perhaps because of my lack of interest in the Falugong. Western media sites, in my experience, are usually available, giving those of us in Beijing a choice of whether or not we want to ignore bad news.
Such was the case in early March, when news of SARS in South China, and rumors of its spread to Beijing, started to creep into the collective psyche of the foreign students in Beijing. At this point, we were faced with a decision: should we discuss SARS, and be aware of the problem, but possibly give in to paranoia? Or should we ignore SARS, go on with our lives, but possibly put ourselves into a dangerous situation? For the most part, we tried to forget about the rumors, and focus on our studies. But whenever students gathered and attempted to relax after a long week of study, the topic invariably crept up, as we danced around the same question, never asked: are you scared?
Then, it seemed, the SARS scare was over before it started. In late March, there were a few days when the news about SARS took a dramatic, and positive turn. Fueled by less-than-honest reporting by the Chinese government, news reports stated that SARS was in fact not a serious problem. The disease was hard to catch, and the World Health Organization advised travelers not to alter their travel plans. My friends and I breathed a collective sigh of relief, and then laughed at ourselves. How could we have been so paranoid?
A few days later, we were asking ourselves another question: How could we have been so naïve? By April, a few things were clear. The government, in an attempt to protect economic growth, had tried to cover up the extent of the epidemic. Now we knew SARS was in Beijing. But as for how dangerous it was to stay in Beijing, no one knew for sure. As our concern (if not outright panic) grew, my friends and I fought a daily battle to not let SARS take over our lives.
That we would lose this battle started to become clear in mid April, as our classes started to become smaller and smaller. Students were going home. Despite the investment of time and money required to study abroad, students were disappearing, slowly but surely. As the parade of farewell dinners continued, those of us left behind had to wonder who was making the correct choice. Finally, after yet another farewell dinner, a few of us attempted to calculate the chances of catching SARS in Beijing. We were much more likely, it seemed, to win the lottery. We would not go home; we were determined that SARS would not interfere with our lives.
The Chinese government, however, had other plans. After months of doing everything possible to downplay the danger of SARS, the government suddenly decided that it was time to tell the truth — or at least something close to the truth. SARS, they confirmed, was in Beijing. The epidemic, furthermore, was out of control, and the only way to stop its spread was a mass campaign focused on facemasks and hand washing. Up until this point, it had seemed that only the foreign population in Beijing was aware of SARS. I lived in a largely Korean community, and it was not uncommon to see people wearing facemasks. The only Chinese people I knew who were concerned about SARS were those who got their news off internet bulletin boards (BBS), although they tended to be the most paranoid, due to the many rumors that proliferated on the BBS.
But when the government came clean, so to speak, all that changed. The mayor of Beijing was fired, as was the head of the Health Department. From this point on, SARS was everywhere, on TV, on the radio, and in every other propaganda tool available to the city government. I personally became aware of the change when I stopped by my local supermarket one afternoon. While I was long accustomed to crowds, I had never seen anything like this. Every register had a line of at least twenty customers, all wearing masks. Since I had yet to start wearing a mask, I felt a bit out of place. As I stood in line with my usual basket of groceries, I noticed that everyone else had a cart full of instant noodles and water. After I got home, my landlord called me with this simple advice: be careful and stay home. The government had started its campaign for public awareness, and the result, at least for those of us trying to lead normal lives, was full-scale paranoia.
I soon saw the futility of carrying on my normal routine in the face of SARS when I made my monthly trip to the Chinese National Library to collect research materials. My dissertation topic, land reform political culture, is usually a source of great amusement for the librarians there. They never fail to laugh about the books I request, which range from land reform operas to Cultural Revolution diatribes about the evils of the landlord class. On my last visit, however, the library was empty save for a handful of diehard patrons. The librarians, all wearing facemasks, sternly warned me that the library would certainly be shutting down soon, so I should call before I return. They found no amusement in the fact that I photocopied five guidebooks to running village blackboards, one of the most effective tools for spreading land reform political culture at the local level.
Personally, I found the fate of my language program, my home away from UCLA, the most depressing. Classes now only had one discussion topic, SARS. My teachers were all young and computer savvy, which meant that they got much of their news from the internet. We were told to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts, as SARS could be transmitted through the skin. Don’t forget to wear a hat, as SARS can attach to your hair. And don’t leave the house tomorrow, because there will be a large-scale transfer of SARS patients, so the air will be contaminated. These rumors were accompanied by a disturbing development. Every day, classes would be suspended for a meeting, where our program director would detail the latest rumors, and warn us that classes might have to be stopped permanently. As the students became more and more alarmed, the meetings turned into discussions about changing plane tickets, and the best way to get back to the U.S. I found myself increasingly agitated during these meetings, largely because of the presence of the program teachers, most of whom I had become quite close to over the past two years. Indeed, I found this to be the most troubling aspect of SARS. For while I, and all of my classmates, could easily return to the relative safety of the U.S., we would be leaving behind many friends who could not leave. What would become of them?
I had long noted the countless meetings that plague work units in China, and as I found myself attending meetings daily, I was increasingly frustrated. It was a mixed blessing when finally, on April 21, our language program had it last meeting. The program would be shut down, at least temporarily, and we were encouraged to return home. About half of my classmates had already done so, and those who stayed were told to continue to study at home. In the tense atmosphere that pervaded Beijing, few did. A week later, we received an email stating that the program was closed. Thus the school year ended abruptly, and I never got a chance to thank my teachers for all their hard work over the past two years.
With no school and no library, I finally made the decision I had been putting off for months. I booked my ticket home, although I gave myself a few weeks to tie up some loose ends. I had to find someone to take my apartment; my landlord was an elderly and kind man, who had little idea how to find a new tenant. I had to pack and ship the many books that I had accumulated. Most importantly, I had to find a way to say goodbye to all my Chinese friends. How was I supposed to say that Beijing was too dangerous, so I had to leave, when they would stay behind?
While I pondered this question, Beijing continued it transformation. The city was empty, it seemed, with no crowds and no traffic: the benefits of SARS. Schools and communities, meanwhile, closed their gates, so that getting from one place to another involved long walks, and served as a reminder how easy it would be to impose martial law in the city. Increasingly, those left had three choices. The first was to give up and go home, leaving behind their lives in Beijing. One night as I went out for a walk after being cooped up in my apartment all day, I ran across a particularly disturbing result of one foreigner who made this choice. On the side of the road, on top of a short wall, sat a small puppy, half starved and nearing death. Overcome with emotion, I pondered what I should do. I was leaving myself, and could not take it in. I was unaware of any animal shelter in Beijing, nor how to contact them or what they would do with this pathetic creature. Seeing my predicament, the guard watchman came over and told me to stay away from the puppy, as it was diseased. It had belonged to a Korean student, who had left Beijing because of SARS, leaving the dog to fend for itself. I walked away, trying not to blame myself.
Those who did not leave struggled between the remaining choices, anxiety and denial. My landlord chose the former, staying home and donning a mask whenever he left the house. At the other extreme were those who refused to change one iota of their lifestyle. One popular dance club held a “SARS Party,” advising attendees to bring a facemask, gloves, sunglasses, and condoms. Like most people I tried to find a sensible middle ground, wearing a facemask in crowded markets, but not attending any SARS parties. Most people in Beijing, I suspect, took the same approach. Shortly before my departure I ventured to Hou Hai, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Beijing, to enjoy the lakes and the spring weather. To my surprise, the area was as crowded as ever; it seems that everyone decided that on this day, cabin fever was more dangerous than SARS. But still some people still insisted on wearing their masks while they strolled around the lake.
In the end, I apologized to my friends for leaving and flew home on May 7. The first half of my flight, from Beijing to Tokyo, was empty except for myself and five other passengers. Everyone, including the flight attendants, wore facemasks. After a brief layover, I boarded a plane and flew home to Hawaii, the plane full of Japanese tourists, none of us wearing masks. The man sitting next to me nervously asked the flight attendant where the plane had been before, afraid that it had come from Beijing. She told him that the plane had just come from Qingdao, and had been thoroughly disinfected. I did not have the heart to tell him he was sitting next to a longtime Beijing resident and potential SARS victim.
After I returned home, I put myself into an unofficial quarantine, staying home for a week. A friend of mine had caught the flu after returning home, becoming something of a medical curiosity, and I wanted to avoid his fate. Besides, my grandmother’s doctor had forbidden me from seeing her for ten days. As I write this, the news from Beijing is improving by the day, although I believe the real test will come this winter, which coincidentally is when I plan to return to Beijing. As I have told my friends, if China cannot contain SARS, it will become a worldwide problem, so I figure Beijing will be as safe as anywhere else. But having experienced the outbreak of SARS, I at least was able to offer them some advice, should the outbreak come to our shores. As I warned them, we should all invest in clothes with more pockets, to hold our facemasks and bottles of hand sanitizer.
Brian deMare is a doctoral candidate in History, preparing a dissertation, under the direction of Professor Philip Huang, on land reform political culture. He lived in Beijing since the summer of 2001, studying at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Studies (IUP), based at Qinghua University, and conducting his research, supported in part by a FLAS fellowship from the UCLA Asia Institute and a fellowship from the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. While SARS has forced him to return home, he plans to be back in Beijing this winter to continue his research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published: Thursday, May 22, 2003