atypical noodles

[NOTE: My site is already blocked in China anyway, for some inscrutable reason or another, so I’m just going to say what I really think here.]

When SARS first broke out in Guangdong last November, I paid no attention to it – it was far away, and if it ever got serious, I figured, the government would call in WHO and ask for help. Besides, new diseases break out in Guangdong every five minutes or so; avian flus, new strains of colds, and assorted other bugs seem to thrive there.

And then the fuss died down for a bit, and then suddenly it was March, and I was back in Harbin, and I was getting e-mails from the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang. At first, these were bland cautionary notices trickling in maybe once a week – “There’s a weird strain of pneumonia going around in Guangdong, so, like, heads up” – and then gradually became more urgent – “Don’t go to Guangdong if you don’t have to.” Then, around the middle of March, buried among the e-mails that all American citizens abroad got about being careful because of the terror alert and the war, were the local consulate’s SARS messages, more frequent than before, and kind of panicked – “People are dying, and we don’t know how many because the Chinese government is lying constantly, so be really careful.” After another week, they had become hysterical missives that came in at the rate of 5 a day. “GET OUT OF CHINA,” they said, followed by another one 10 minutes or so later, saying “NO, DUDE, SERIOUSLY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF CHINA! WE ARE NOT JOKING!”
Then came a much calmer e-mail saying that they had “authorized the departure, on a voluntary basis, of all non-essential personnel at the Embassy in Beijing and all consulates.”* The e-mails stopped coming after that.

None of the foreigners I know here in Harbin was particularly worried; mostly we made gallows-humour jokes about what an inconvenience it would be to catch atypical pneumonia and have scarred lungs for the rest of our lives*. Then it hit Beijing, and I got one final e-mail from the consulate in Shenyang (which is relatively near Harbin) saying that there were unconfirmed rumours of cases there. Then I heard from a friend in Changchun – a two-hour train ride away – that the word on the street there was that they’d just had their first SARS fatality.

Meanwhile, CCTV was easing our minds by insisting that they were cooperating fully with WHO, and that there were only 4 cases in Beijing, 1 in Shanghai, and 8 (if I recall) in Shenzhen, all of which were so amazingly under control that we really had nothing to worry our pretty little heads about. They aired a press conference given by the Minister of Health which went something like this:

CHINESE REPORTER: “First, I would like to congratulate the Ministry of Health on its remarkable success at controling and treating this outbreak without foreign aid.”
CHINESE REPORTER: “And secondly, I would like to ask whether you anticipate anything unexpected [sic] in your continuing treatment of the disease.”
MINISTER OF HEALTH: “Not at all. We are entirely confident in our ability to control this. Next question.”
FOREIGN REPORTER: “You said at first that you are treating this disease, but then said that you had cured it. Is it a treatment or a cure? Also, if it is so effective, why has it not been mentioned by WHO? Are you addressing the symptoms, or the disease itself, and, more importantly, how?”
MINISTER OF HEALTH: “I would like to say that I think the most important factor in our successful control of this disease has been international cooperation. Next question.”

And so on. My favourite line of any Chinese news program’s SARS coverage was a Chinese “medical expert” saying, with an absolutely straight face, that “just because this disease is from Guangdong Province does not mean that it is necessarily a Chinese disease.”

But the amazing thing is that this seemed to work on Chinese people, in some kind of bizarre real-life Orwellian doublethink: It’s under control. It has always been under control. It’s from Guangdong. It’s not Chinese. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

That is, it worked at first. Then last week, I overheard my co-workers talking in hushed voices about feiyan – “pneumonia.” One of them later said to me that they had all cancelled their travel plans for the upcoming May Day holiday because they were afraid of catching SARS. Meanwhile, the radio station keeps reporting the same figures: 4 cases in Beijing. 1 in Shanghai. Other areas being watched, but appear to be fine.

I like Shanghai Noodles, in the Nangang District on Revolutionarystrife Road, for a few reasons: first-off, they’re 24-hours, and in a country where 99% of the population seems to go to sleep at 8 and wake up at 7, 24-hour joints must be supported. Second, because of its hours, it’s frequented by cabbies, who are usually fun to eavesdrop on when they’re talking shop. Third, no matter how sick I may get of noodles, theirs are always excellent, and their liangcai are to die for.

Last night, there was a prophet of doom at Shanghai Noodles. I was sitting there and not really paying attention when I heard someone angrily shout that in all of Harbin, there was no such bing. Distractedly, I wondered for a moment why someone was getting so worked up about pancakes, and how that could be, anyway, given the number of bakeries in Harbin’s Nangang and Daoli districts alone. Then I realised that I’d misheard the tones: ‘pancake’ is third-tone bing, but he’d said fourth-tone bing. “Disease.”
This went through my mind quickly enough that I was able to follow his companion’s response from beginning to end:
“Bullshit there isn’t any fucking pneumonia in Harbin. I’ll tell you — I’ll tell you — no, I’m not finished, so shut the fuck up — I’ll tell you, my wife’s sister in Changchun said they’ve heard that 3 people are dead there. Word on the street is that someone died from it here today! I went to the one pharmacy on Strongwill Avenue and West 11th, and they didn’t have any masks — use your fucking head, man!”

“But on the radio they said –” began the other.

“4 cases in Beijing? 4 cases my ass! Think about how much people move around just here in Harbin, and then think about how much more they do it in Beijing. They say 4, they mean 40, 400, 4000.”

I listened a while longer; it was more interesting, certainly, than the bulk of conversations I eavesdrop on when there’s only me and two Chinese people in a restaurant – there are almost invariably long arguments over whether or not I’m a Soviet*. all predicated on the assumption that I don’t understand them despite having just ordered dishes and chatted briefly with the waitress in fairly decent Chinese – but this seemed to be the high point of the conversation. They talked a bit more about the likelihood of an outbreak in Harbin, and what that would do to the cab economy; whether or not they’d wear masks, and whether or not Chinese medicine would be more successful than Western in curing SARS. (They agreed that it would not.) Then they stopped talking – their noodles came – and all I could hear for a few minutes was slurping and chewing.
Then, quietly, “Hey, think he’s Soviet?”

I stood up, paid for my noodles, and left.

Comments (16)

  1. alf wrote::

    Wow, is your consulate really telling you to leave China? I get a lot of emails from the Beijing one but they are pretty bland, just telling me to take the proper precautions.

    I know that the goverment is lying all the time but at the same time I’m not believing the stories about hospitals full of dying SARS patients.

    Saturday, April 12, 2003 at 1:12 am #
  2. John wrote::

    Wow, that’s more than a little disturbing. Hopefully this whole SARS thing will clear up (or at least be under more control) by the time I leave for China in August.

    Saturday, April 12, 2003 at 12:06 pm #
  3. Jim wrote::

    Hey from NYC.. Another interesting reading. I feel like I have an embedded reporter on the front lines in China. Stay well ..


    Sunday, April 13, 2003 at 4:19 am #
  4. jennifer wrote::

    How is this effecting people who want to leave china? Are they being quadruple checked at the airports?
    Hope you are well. Don’t be a hypochrodriac. :P


    Sunday, April 13, 2003 at 9:26 am #
  5. mjumbe wrote::

    Silly me, i’d probably listen to those consulate guys in Shenyang (/the emails stopped coming because they’re all DEAD!/). But seriously stay well — take shallow breaths, don’t share needles and always wear a mask.

    – mjumbe
    (and why the heck is your site blocked in China? makes me feel like i know someone famous)

    Wednesday, April 16, 2003 at 8:36 am #
  6. Zach wrote::

    Sup bro, appreciate your grea update from zhong guo on the SARS virus. Real imformative for someone from New Zealand as myself. Personally just got back from China and I was there when the whole thing started but apparetnly hid by the government – I guess thats why your site is blocked – all your emails etc go through local filters and id say alot of it is read..personal experience. I hope things work out for you there – keep safe bro and do what you can!
    China is an amazing place and espeically Harbin I just sincerly hope SARS has not gotten to Harbin, I have alot of friends in that city!!
    Email me if you have time
    Zai jian

    Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 8:32 am #
  7. rohinee wrote::

    Just happened to wade into your waters….
    SARS has really ruffled a lot of feathers lately..especiallyso in china, as i get to hear thru various media. Wish the chinese government was more co-operative and honest in the way they are going about dealing the whole issue. Hiding facts is not gonna help any one.
    I just hope that you are taking good care of yourself. Please stay safe.

    Friday, April 18, 2003 at 2:44 am #
  8. yoshio wrote::

    just saying what’s up. i’m taking 2 chinese classes this quarter, getting back on the horse is definitely a challenge, but it’s also loads of fun.

    Friday, April 18, 2003 at 5:28 am #
  9. Prince Roy wrote::

    yeah this SARS is total bollocks. I’m guessing they’re going to cancel my summer program now and all because instead of 30 cases in Beijing there are probably 300. In a city of 12,000,000. Better safe than sorry I guess, but still this sucks because this is probably the last time in my life I can take a summer off for something as enjoyable as a language program.

    Sunday, April 20, 2003 at 1:48 am #
  10. Tim wrote::

    I love the insights on life in China, and on how the SARS thing is seen. I linked to you yesterday on, and docbear had someone copy the link over there, so I imagine that you will get lots of people coming looking for information on SARS in China.

    Stay well!


    P.S. I presume that you know this, but whenever I try to get off the home page on your site, I get php errors. something about including prax.php

    Sunday, April 20, 2003 at 2:41 am #
  11. megan wrote::

    that’s really spooky. i’ve been wondering whether i should go back to beijing this summer. are you studying at beida? i have a friend who’s also there now. wouldn’t it be strange if you were in the same class or something? small world.

    stay well.


    Sunday, April 20, 2003 at 3:03 am #
  12. Brendan wrote::

    Yosh – glad to hear you’re getting back on the wagon, dude. Welcome back.

    Roy – I know; this has screwed my summer plans completely, and might end up fucking up my plans to study in Beijing next year too.

    There will be more SARS-related entries coming up in a couple od days…

    Wednesday, April 23, 2003 at 4:19 am #
  13. jensen wrote::

    Re: Chang Chun A friend of mine has a daughter in the University there (Jilin Univ. I believe). A student who had recently visited Beijing and returned to the university came down with SARS. Subsequently, so did the students father and the doc and nurse at the hospital where they treated the student. The university is not allowing students out or return home during the holiday.

    Hope this helps.

    Thursday, April 24, 2003 at 2:17 am #
  14. Andre wrote::


    Im suppose to go in China (Changchun) the 20th of May. Do yo have any idea what is the situation out there? Could you give me some advises? I really want to go but maybe im minimizing the gravity of the outbreak.


    Thursday, April 24, 2003 at 2:50 am #
  15. bill wrote::

    Reading that was like seeing bombs drop out of the sky and never hearing the explosion. I know that I need to know more. Keep writing please.

    Saturday, April 26, 2003 at 2:34 am #
  16. pratyeka wrote::

    good read! if only my 汉语水平 was up to eavesdropping standard…

    Friday, May 9, 2003 at 3:13 am #