Auntie Mao, my cleaning lady, called this morning to say she wouldn't be coming to work today. "I'm way too scared to come up there," she said. "The SARS problem in your area is too serious."
I knew what she meant. I live in a newly built, salmon-pink high-rise in Haidian, a sprawling district on the northwest side of Beijing that is home to most of the city's universities and its mushrooming collection of software companies. For weeks I'd been hearing rumors that Haidian was Beijing's SARS hot spot.
"I thought you would have gone back to America by now," Auntie Mao continued. "Or at least moved out of Haidian." A talkative, energetic woman in her mid-50s, Auntie Mao is not the type of woman who scares easily. But she told me she was so frightened by the SARS virus that she hadn't been out of her home for days. "You need to take better care of yourself. Open all the windows in your apartment; let the fresh air in. Exercise. Avoid crowds. Wear a mask. Eat lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, and lean meat." She gave me a recipe for the SARS-prevention cocktail she'd been mixing and drinking three times a day: ginger, orange peel, white radish, and green onion, boiled in water and garnished with fresh cilantro. "Who knows if it works?" she said. "But it can't hurt."
When we hung up, it was time for lunch. I decided to skip Auntie Mao's brew, but with my favorite Kung Pao chicken restaurant still stubbornly closed, I was hurting for a good place to eat. I called up my buddy Emma, a fellow Haidian resident who had recently lost a gig tutoring English because her clients were worried she'd bring SARS from Haidian into their home. "Wanna go to KFC?"
The KFC near Beijing University was hopping with customers. (I guess not even SARS can come between Beijingers and the Colonel's Original Recipe.) I ordered an "Old Beijing Chicken Roll," a menu item created for the Chinese market: a few spicy, breaded chicken strips, a few slices of cucumber, a few slices of spring onion, all drowning in Hoisin sauce and wrapped in a flour tortilla. It's a poor man's Peking Duck—and is it tasty!
Today was a beautiful day—the sky a rare, clear blue—so Emma and I decided to have a picnic outside on a patch of grass (yet another SARS prevention measure) and people-watch. A group of teenage security guards from Henan province (an area in the heartland of China) sat, masked, on the grass beside us; they were "off duty," they said, because of the SARS epidemic. Another man lay on his stomach on the grass, puffing lazily on a cigarette. Emma told me she had decided to pack up and go home to Michigan.
When I got back to my building, I skipped the 12-flight climb to my apartment and rode up in the elevator. "Please relax, this elevator has been disinfected," the sign on the wall read. Still, every one of my fellow passengers pushed the buttons with the tips of their house keys.
As I opened the door to my apartment, the phone began ringing. It was my landlord, calling to let me know that there was a confirmed case of SARS in the apartment complex next to mine. "How are you doing? Do you need anything? Do you need any SARS prevention pamphlets?"
Hmmm. Maybe there is some room for worry here.
At least it was time to get some hard numbers. I went down to the newsstand in front of my building and bought a copy (6 American cents) of the tabloid-sized Beijing Evening News. According to the chart tallying confirmed and suspected cases (published daily on Page 3), Haidian has about 399 confirmed and 270 suspected cases of SARS. Chaoyang, the next closest district, trails significantly: 106 confirmed, 352 suspected. Troubling.
Another nervous elevator ride. Back upstairs, I turned on the television and repeatedly heard the familiar words for SARS, fei dian (pronounced "fay dee-yan"). The by-now-standard slogans floated across the screen: "Depend on Science. Effectively Prevent SARS." "Early detection. Early reporting. Early Isolation. Early treatment." Where were these slogans three months ago?
"The leaders knew about the disease for a long time, but didn't want to report it during the Party Congress," my cab driver this morning—the first masked cabbie I've seen since the outbreak began—spat out in an angry tirade as we sped past Tiananmen Square. "I tell you, they're no better than Saddam Hussein. They've sold out all Beijingers."
I thumb through my towering stack of newspapers—as a student of Chinese, I can't bear to throw away a newspaper without trying to read it first—and find the Evening News from Sunday. "We are all in the same boat," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told residents many times this weekend as he crisscrossed the city in a media blitz, like an American politician. We are indeed in the same boat. But let's not forget that the Chinese government put us there.