[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.”
MINISTER OF HEALTH: “Thank you.”
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.