'my cough is productive!'

At least on the surface, people are relaxing more and more here. There aren’t as many masked faces in the street anymore, and despite a constant barrage of banners, posters, pamphlets, war-rhetoric slogans,* and public-service announcements about “improving personal hygeine to battle an epidemic situation” on the radio, people have gone back to hawking and spitting indiscriminately. Everyone has heard that SARS is definitely going to go away once the weather starts getting warmer, and that there are only two cases (or six, depending on which lying news source you trust) anyway, and so it’s as if they’ve all drunk some kind of magical everything-is-going-to-be-all-right Kool-Aid.
Zhong zhi cheng cheng, yufang feidian,” say banners all throughout the city – “The will of the masses will form a barrier* to prevent SARS” – but people now seem to assume that they can lend their support passively, by sorta-kinda meaning to think about doing something sooner or later. Most shops and restaurants here have signs outside saying “ben dian yi xiao du” – “this extablishment has been disinfected” – but whether or not they’ve been disinfected more than once, or recently, seems kind of up in the air.

It wasn’t like this just a couple of weeks ago. People were freaked right the fuck out. There were runs on facemasks; there were quack cures everywhere; the major streets looked like a white ninja convention had just let out. There wasn’t the mass panic that there was in Beijing, but there was definitely a mass hand-wringing of sorts. Among the foreign community it was even worse; nobody trusted the local government’s reports that everything was a-OK, nobody thought the government would ever be honest about the figures – after all, unlike Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guangdong, there’s not a large enough foreign community here to warrant international press attention or any kind of pressure on the local government to be truthful – and nobody knew, really, exactly what the hell was going on.
Rumours seem to circulate more quickly in China. If one wanted to make an ill-informed and sweeping generalisation, one might say that it’s because the people are used to having unreliable reports, and seize upon any information, accurate or otherwise, that they can get. I think it’s just because everyone here has a cellphone, and everyone sends (and forwards) SMS text messages to everyone else constantly.

We jumped at every single rumour – that a Russian had come down with SARS in Harbin and subsequently been forced onto a plane back to Russia so that the government wouldn’t have to report him; that a Korean student at Heida (Heilongjiang University – but depending on whom your heard it from, it might have been the Harbin Institute of Technology, or maybe Harbin Normal University) had died of SARS despite having received, as a foreigner, the best care available in the province. We heard that all surrounding countries would close their borders, leaving us with no way of getting out except for flying through either Beijing or Shanghai airport, neither of which – we heard – was safe. The universities began to go into lockdown, confirming our fears of Beijing-style mass quarantines, and our schools all closed, which just confirmed for us that while the shit might not have hit the fan yet, it was definitely heading in that general direction.

Adam was the most freaked-out of any of us.* Like me, he’d been planning to stay another year or so after he finished teaching, and study Chinese at a university here. He’d already begun some classes at Heida, and had been going for about a month and a half when the school he was teaching at shut down without warning, and Heida followed suit a couple days later by putting its campus in lockdown. Adam got his ticket to Seoul at the same time as Kerry did, they visited Mr vacation, a travel website, to see where the best place to stay in Seoul was. He promptly went into hypochondriac mode for the next week, wearing a facemask everywhere, checking his forehead to see if he had a fever, and asking everyone around him if he looked at all peaked. But even Adam, during the height of the SARS panic in Harbin, was able to joke. “Thank God,” he would crow triumphantly, “my cough is productive!

And in general, no matter how bad things got, people still sent each other jokes about feidian – SARS – on their cellphones and by email, often at the same time as they sent doom-and-gloom rumours. Here are some of the ones I got, in translation – you can find the original Chinese here. I’ve tried to keep the doggerel poems at least somewhat within rhyme and meter, and if the translations are found to have no merit as poetry, I can only defend myself by saying that the originals don’t really either.

If you’re still going to work, sir, I’d say that you’re a soldier. If you’re still brave enough to go outside for a walk, sir, I’d call you a brave man. If you’re still not replying to the messages I send you, sir, I’m worried you’re a martyr. And if you still insist on buying me lunch, sir, you’re a gentleman and a scholar.

The disease is spreading rapidly
Affecting people’s moods deeply
I’m worried that you’ll get sick, so
I suggest that you not look too slick
And keep your distance when you speak.
In crowded places, get out quick
And when you go out, wear a mask.
When you sleep, cover with a quilt,
Maintain a cheerful attitude.
Give less kisses; eat more food.

Hey, friend, want a vacation? Quick, place a toll-free call to 911* to win a complimentary 7-day stay in a hospital — room and board included! If you call now, you’ll also get a free facemask and stylish, disinfected hospital scrubs. We’ll even pick you up – the first 10 callers will enjoy treatment and quarantine, absolutely free! Call 911 now to enjoy this fabulous offer — the secret password is “I’ve got a fever.”

If you put on a face mask while chatting on ICQ to keep from getting a virus, open Windows to make sure your computer’s ventillation system is working, or soak your cellphone in alcohol after an incoming call from an infected area, you may have what doctors are calling “Atypical Nervousness.”

The “Three Represents” of SARS:

– SARS represents emerging viruses’ demand for development
– SARS represents the progress of a culture of terror
– SARS represents the fundamental interests of the massive wild animal consituency*

The “Four More-Thans” of Beijing:

– People are drinking more herbal concoctions than are drinking herbal tea
– More people are quarantined than are complaining
– People are shivering at the sound of a cough or sneeze more than at the thought of a robber
– More people are covering their faces than are covering their breasts.*

“SARS Exegesis”

According to a recently-published textual analysis, China’s text about “feidian” is in the Annals of the Three Kingdoms: Eastern Wu launched a surprise attack on Cao Cao, who was saved only by his bodyguard Dian Wei’s heroic sacrifice of his own life. After escaping, Cao wept: “Were it not for Dian*, I should surely have perished!”*

“The Naggiest SMS Message”
Wash your hands, wash your hands,
After shitting, after eating.
Wash your hands, wash your hands,
After going out and coming back.
Wash your hands, wash your hands,
After riding in a car.
Wash your hands, wash your hands,
Whenever you touch anything.

“The Cutest SMS Message”
“Not wearing a facemask accentuates your face’s beauty; wearing a facemask highlights your eyes’ and cheekbones’ beauty; whether you’re wearing a facemask or not, you’re still the most beautiful of all.

“The Most Tender SMS Message”

gently brush your hair
tenderly caress your face
sweetly kiss your lips

…gotcha! I’m a facemask – remember to wear me!”

“‘Le’ Zi Ger” *

It was Guangdong that got SARS first; then Beijing got infected – us.
The government’s not too strict now, so media dares to make a fuss.
There’s lots of people with it now, and all the hospitals are full,
The workers there have got rough jobs — their frontline work is dangerous!
Everyone is really scared; we wear facemasks to cover us.
International aid has come, and full containment’s not far off.
Boil your herbal tinctures well, and go and get some exercise.

“Secrets of SARS Prevention:”

1) Take two heads of garlic and three thick scallions. After grinding them in a mortar and pestle, add 4 pieces strong-smelling preserved tofu, and blend in warm water until the mixture reaches a porridge-like consistency. Half is to be taken orally; the other hald should be smeared on both cheeks like ointment. You will now have a 10 square-metre isolation zone around you at all times. Proven effective at preventing the contraction of SARS!

2) Take a cold shower after breakfast and dinner. In the morning, don’t dry off, but rather stand dripping-wet in front of an electric fan at “High Cool” setting. In the evening, don’t dry off – quickly lie down on a summer sleeping mat. Do not cover yourself with a quilt or sheet. Sleep with the window open. One course of treatment lasts three days. After two courses, go to the respiratory ward of your nearest hospital. The doctor will diagnose you with completely typical pneumonia, not SARS!

“Studying With the Masters”

With Mao, we mastered slogan-shouting,
With Deng, we mastered counting cash.
With Jiang, manipulating stocks,
And with Hu, wearing safety masks.

“Classic Romances — SARS Versions”*

FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE: Xiang Yu the Conqueror and his concubine Yu Ji are panicking at the Gaixia railway station. They’ve spent all their money, eaten all their ramen, and all the trains to Weizhou and Yingcheng are leaving one after the other, but they can’t get out of Gaixia. Yu Ji’s temperature keeps hovering around 37 degrees, and Xiang Yu is worried that the thermometer will soon show that she’s gone above 38. If that happens, they won’t be able to get back to Jiangdong to take care of their urgent business – rather, they’ll both get quarantined, observed, put into treatment…
Xiang Yu strokes Yu Ji’s hair softly, raising his head to watch an interview about SARS being shown on the bigscreen TV. He sees an official named Liu Bang* announcing that “the SARS situation in Gaixia is absolutely critical! We are being beset on all fronts, and the city is locked down as if it were under seige!* I hope that the Traffic Ministry can continue its inspection work at all points of entry and exit.”
Yu Ji is deathly pale at the news; she would never let herself prevent Xiang Yu from taking care of business and continuing his career. She struggles up, and tells him firmly: “Yu Ji biddeth the Conqueror adieu!”*
She is about to use their fruit knife to slit her wrists, but Xiang Yu restrains her, saying “Fond maiden! Thou art pure of heart, but ne’er again shall I see Jiangdong. Let us remain in the Gaixia epidemic area, for ’tis far better to let my business suffer than to add two more cases of infection to the count in Jiangdong!”
Moved, Yu Ji embraces him, and together they spend the first of many long nights in quarantine.

“Several Ways of Dying From SARS:”

If you wear a facemask…you’ll be stifled to death.*
If you take Chinese medicine…you’ll be poisoned to death.
If you hear that a coworker has been infected…you’ll be scared to death.
If you’re sent to an infected area on business; come home…you’ll find yourself avoided by friends and relatives, and die of loneliness.
If you’re misdiagnosed, and treated blindly…you’ll be “cured” to death.
If you spread wild rumours, and people find out that it’s you…you’ll be cursed to death.
If you’re in a public area, and someone sneezes…you might get trampled to death.

I’m still here, not because I have any faith in the government’s reports for Harbin, or because I trust Chinese medical technology to develop anything more sophisticated than dried yak penis aphrodesiacs. I’m not still here because I love this city, or because I’m so dedicated to my job that I can’t bear to leave. I’m not even still here because of my girlfriend, although she has lately become a major reason to stay.
I’m still here because my school won’t let me leave. When I asked my boss if I could go home – just for a few weeks; I’d return at the start of June to finish the year – she told me that lot of parents tour schools in May, looking for a place to send their kids. “It would be very inconvenient for you to leave,” she said. “Not this month. Maybe we will let you go in the middle of June.”

I’m still hoping to go to Beijing University for the next year. I’m still hoping that things will get better, and fast. I’m still hoping that they won’t wall off the city. I’m still secretly hoping that my school will close down again, the way pretty much every other private school in the city has, but this seems unlikely.

I’m still here.

Comments (10)

  1. nick wrote::

    are you sure you’re not there hoping that there will be yak penis aphrodesiacs? if not, then you’re in good shape. anyway, keep healthy, eat apples.

    Monday, May 12, 2003 at 10:03 am #
  2. Sarah wrote::

    Brendan – Did you think people would not catch the girlfriend bit? Come on…
    Anyway, glad you’re alive.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 2:26 am #
  3. Tim wrote::

    Glad you are alive, glad you are still writing, although after that hospital trip, I would have been out of Harbin like a scalded cat.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 2:59 am #
  4. Adam Morris wrote::

    I agree there’s no reason to leave … esp with a girlfriend

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 4:27 am #
  5. Tricia wrote::

    Those text messages were terrific. I’m glad of the insight into the Chinese fatalistic sense of humor. It made me Smile… Thanx

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 4:28 am #
  6. yoshio wrote::

    GIRLFRIEND??? sweetness.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 5:27 am #
  7. Brendan wrote::

    Yosh – I was wondering if anyone would catch that. Yes. It’s a recent development, and I really wish it had happened at a more opportune time.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003 at 11:24 am #
  8. donny yoo wrote::

    chinese girlfriend??? if she is, oh my… beware, beware. one disfigured my soul while another restored it.

    or is she a fellow expat?

    Wednesday, May 14, 2003 at 4:41 am #
  9. mjumbe wrote::

    hey brendan, i hope things clear up a little there soon. damn that SARS, throwin off your plans.

    – mjumbe

    (oh, and is she hot? ;-)

    Wednesday, May 14, 2003 at 11:38 am #
  10. Sean wrote::

    Thanks for translating those. I like seeing the minutiae of dramatic events.

    Saturday, May 17, 2003 at 5:38 am #