May 2, 2003

Love In The Time of SARS - An Expat’s Story In Beijing

By Marcus Anthony

BEIJING, China - Last week my girlfriend, Ping, her best friend Oyang, and I dined out together. We were sitting in one of those restaurants in the Chaoyang District that was still open, although patronage had slowed to a trickle. The discussion, of course, was about SARS.

I explained to Oyang, 27, and Ping, 28, that I was not afraid of the dreaded SARS. Every month in China 12,000 people die in car accidents, 12,000 in work-place accidents, and another 20,000 from all forms of pneumonia. Why should I be afraid of a disease that — in a city of 13 million — has killed only 40? “The panic is totally irrational at a mathematical level,” I stated forcefully.

Oyang nodded politely and ate nervously. And that was the last I saw of her.

Now it is a week later and the restaurants are empty. So is the posh Pacific Century Plaza where rumor has it someone died of SARS. Strolling through the multi-floor complex I am reminded of scenes from a Craig Harrison novel, The Quiet Earth, where everyone has died and there is but one man left alive.

I take a taxi home. The taxi approaches the compound where my apartment is situated. But the guard at the gate will not let the taxi through. It is unclear why. Taxis have always been allowed to pass through into the compound. Just another one of the many SARS changes that seemingly have no rationale.

Ping greets me with a hug. I tell her that there is trouble brewing at the international school where I work as an English teacher. Despite the government’s decision to close all public schools for two weeks, the management of my school has decided to stay open. With only 22 confirmed SARS cases among 1.7 million students in Beijing, closing the school is unnecessary, the management says. But about fifty scared and disgruntled teachers met in a rebel meeting after school, and discussed ways in which to take matters into their own hands. Some are talking about resigning and leaving the country.

I ask Ping if she wants to go out but she is reluctant. “Come on,” I say. “You can invite Oyang along.” “Oyang doesn’t want to see you again,” Ping informs me. She tells me that Oyang doesn’t not want to have any contact with me again because I am not taking the SARS situation seriously enough, and that I am a health risk.

Oyang thinks that I am placing Ping’s life at risk with my careless attitude. She has also asked Ping to leave me and move in with her. Ping assures me she will not move in with Oyang. Instead, she will return to her family, in the far north east of China. She is not afraid of SARS, she says, but there is nothing for her to do since her office building had closed down.

Finally, after some persuasion, I persuade Ping to go out. We go to the vibrant Latinos Club. At least it used to be vibrant. We sneak a look in the door and see perhaps six people in a bar that normally contained hundreds. We scurry off to another bar, and then another, and then another. But it is more of the same. The capital of China is a ghost town. The only bar that is bustling and vibrant is the Goose and Duck. But there are no Chinese there, who normally comprised about 30 percent of the patronage. Now, it is full of expats like me.

TV stations here devote almost all their news broadcasts to SARS. On one station the broadcaster assures us that while the situation is challenging, hospitals and medical authorities are dealing well with the situation. We are shown scenes of Beijing hospitals where the entire staff and all patients have been quarantined. The camera shows smiling nurses sitting behind the gates. The voiceover assures us that those quarantined are in good spirits and “are not panicking.” Having seen the panic in the general population, the comment sounds at best a little inane.

There was a time when Chinese people believed most of what their leaders told them. This crisis has shown that the Chinese are no longer willing to blindly believe the Party propaganda. The next morning Ping returns from the bus station. All the tickets are sold out. She cannot leave today. She tells me that she will rise even earlier the next day, and go buy the ticket. She doesn’t know when she can return. All buses to Beijing have been cancelled, not because of government imposition, but because no one wants to come here anymore.

It is Sunday morning and flowers are in bloom everywhere. I walk Ping to the roadside where she can take a cab to the bus station. As a cab pulls up I kiss her on the forehead because her white surgical mask covers her lower face. I don’t know when I will see her again. I feel a mixture of emotions as the cab disappears into the distance. Sadness. And perhaps something else pushing its way up through my stomach. It feels like fear. But no. That would be irrational.

Anthony teaches English in Beijing, (nowbeing777@, and is a PhD candidate in Social Science at the University of Sunshine Coast, Queens-land, Australia.

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