Entry 5

“Prevent SARS: No booths allowed”

My dear dad, a very reasonable, unflappable internist, is not easily alarmed. For instance, whenever my sister or I go to him with a suspicious ache or pain, he’ll glance at the allegedly metastasizing tumor for about a half a second before he shoos us away. “That’s nothing. You’re fine.”

But last night, the same man who insisted on coming to mainland China via Hong Kong at the height of the SARS outbreak there in March called me in serious distress. “June, are you OK? I read in the paper that things are getting really bad in Beijing,” he said. “Don’t go outside anymore. Cook at home. You’re about to become a wife, you should learn to cook.”

A filial daughter should never put her parents through unnecessary worry. So this morning, I decided to heed my father’s advice and stay in for a while, catch up on some neglected work, maybe even attempt my own version of Kung Pao chicken for dinner. I left the windows in my apartment open all week—at the behest of Auntie Mao and one of last week’s lead stories on the People’s Daily Web site—and, while the Beijing breezes may have swept away any coronaviruses lurking in the corners of my home, they’ve also left enough grit on our floors, tables, and bedspreads to fill a small sandbox.

I began dusting the coffee table and turned on the television for some company.

CCTV-4 was broadcasting a report on President Hu Jintao’s visit to an anti-SARS command center in Tianjin, a city about an hour south of here. Mr. Hu worked the room, shaking hands, taking “impromptu” questions from reporters. It looked to me like he’d been studying some damage-control playbook for American politicians. But then, in typical Chinese official-speak fashion, he reeled off a series of spirited, yet canned, phrases: “Definite victory belongs to us! Definite victory belongs to the Chinese people!”

Some of you may be wondering how your diarist has been able to spend so much time courting coronaviruses this week and still pay her rent. As a self-employed knowledge worker—that is, a free-lance writer—my time is mostly my own (and man, is it hard to manage!). Sometimes I end up with far too much of my own time. But this spring, I’d been particularly busy, at least until the SARS uproar began.

The work project I had originally scheduled for this week—to visit and write an article about a microfinance project in a poverty-stricken community three hours away in Hebei province—was postponed indefinitely when my contact there, Mr. Zhou, called last Wednesday to warn me that because of the fear of SARS, all cars and people coming from Beijing would be turned away by police at the county line.

This morning, I called Mr. Zhou for an update on the situation. “Things are still very tense here,” he said. “Authorities aren’t even allowing people to travel to the next town. Ten thousand people fled here from Beijing last week. Every one of them has been quarantined. We’re all in a panic.” Luckily, Mr. Zhou’s county, one of the poorest China, is still SARS-free. He had no idea, he said, when they would let Beijingers back in.

“It used to be that everyone wanted to come to Beijing and Beijingers would look down their noses at outsiders,” said Cheng Jie, my law professor friend who ventured out to lunch with me yesterday. (My Kung Pao chicken haunt was, alas, still closed, but we found a Korean place serving kalbi and kimchee.) “Now we’re the ones getting snubbed!”

On the way home, our cab driver filled us in on the latest gossip: former President Jiang Zemin (whom many believe still runs the country) is so freaked out by SARS that he’s fled to Shanghai, which allegedly has only a handful of SARS cases. “Everyone I take to the airport these days is heading to Shanghai,” he said, “I’d rather be in Shanghai right now, too.” (I’d still take Beijing over Shanghai any day.)

It may be only wishful observing, but I think the mood in Beijing is beginning to change. It’s been days since that overpowering marijuanalike smell, which comes from the burning of Chinese medicinal herbs to frighten away evil spirits, has wafted into my apartment.

Last week, scary rumors were flying via text message from cell phone to cell phone. “Completely dependable information: Don’t go outside this morning/tonight/tomorrow afternoon; the government is planning to move hundreds of SARS patients in ambulances. Air quality will be very bad.” Lately, levity has crept into the messages. “Latest information: Exchanging cash bills is the most common way to catch SARS. For your own health, and your family’s health, please bundle up all the cash in your home and place in a plastic bag. For a very small fee, I will come by and get rid of them for you.”

Old folks playing cards in Houhai

My plan to stay at home today lasted only a few hours. I went downtown to help Josh move out of his hotel. He’s decided to end his self-imposed “quarantine” (which also ends our access to a really fine gym). Before returning to Haidian, I decided to wander around Houhai, a neighborhood of old-fashioned, low-slung brick homes and trendy cafes surrounding a large lake. Houhai is an oasis from the noisy construction sites and mammoth high rises sprouting up all across the city.

Beijingers were out in force today, creating postcard-perfect tableaux: Young couples holding hands and canoodling on benches; elderly folks sipping tea out of old Tang jars, playing or watching each other play cards, Chinese checkers, and Mah Jong; young people pedaling boats along the lake. A Beijing Evening News hawker did some brisk business from the back of her bicycle. Very few people wore masks—and those who did wore them dangling from one ear. I hope China’s “definite victory” comes soon.