I’d been working for barely a month in Shanghai, when news of SARS began to spread like the virus itself.
Masks quietly spread around the bus I rode into downtown Shanghai.
The women’s bathroom became our morning decontamination station, as everyone washed their hands more obsessively than Lady MacBeth — over conversations about whether or not to buy face masks.
E-mails about Hong Kong infected my inbox, with seemingly fictional photographs of people muzzled with face masks, and health workers dressed in outfits straight out of the Andromeda Strain.
Even the office showed symptoms of the SARS scare.
“As a precautionary measure, we plan to fumigate the entire office over the weekend,” read part of an e-mail from management.
“The company is sending me to Guangdong Province for a business trip,” confessed Stanley, a bespectacled, twentysomething reporter for one of our magazines who now wore a concerned grimace. “But I’m not sure it’s so safe to go.”
“I spent the last weekend in, watching movies just to avoid the crowds,” announced one of my coworkers in a conversation I overheard one morning.
SARS elicited fear, discouraged people from close physical contact, and demanded a more sterilized approach to life — conditions that seemed contrary to being in love in China, just as I was with John, my Chinese boyfriend.
It didn’t seem right to be so in love, at a time when China. faced a deadly illness spreading surreptitiously throughout the country. It was even stranger for me, a girl with a history of short, punctuated relationships — never finding someone who would stay with me beyond that brief honeymoon. But, sometimes, love is what you need to get through, when you’re forced to stay indoors and avoid the crowds.
It was one sunny afternoon in our apartment in Changning District, Shanghai, while listening to music from one of John’s classmates at his Shanghai university, that a song with an infectious melody roused me from my reading over to John’s side — it was See you everyday, by A-Do. Standing in the light, I offered my hand to him. “May I have this dance?” He arose from his work at the computer, and together, we glided across the scuffed parquet flooring, in and out of the sunshine — our natural spotlight. If not for SARS, we could have been just another young couple snuggling on our own private dance floor, celebrating the two of us.
We needed moments like this, and we needed each other — like some imaginary antidote to the spread of SARS. And while we didn’t know if Shanghai was one hundred percent safe from SARS, we knew one thing: it was still safe to be in love.
Did SARS ever make you think twice about your normal life, or things like love?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.