It was mid-May, 2003, in Shanghai — in the midst of the SARS epidemic — and I had just stopped at a pharmacy, to buy some alcohol for disinfecting our home. Or so I thought. “Meiyou — we don’t have any.” The shopkeeper, a matronly woman with a cap of silvery curls, said the words I feared.
I trudged back to our apartment, with the news. “I can’t believe it — they’ve sold out of alcohol!”
John looked towards me, his calm face the opposite of the near-panic and frustration I harbored within. “Scare-buying.” He said it as if he was announcing what we’d have for lunch, or mentioning an interesting news story.
Except there was nothing common about it, to me. “Great.” Here we were in the midst of SARS, and an important tool — alcohol — was now out of my reach.
But it wasn’t just alcohol.
“Has anyone been able to find banlangen?” I overheard one of my coworkers, a young twentysomething girl twirling her brown-dyed hair. Banlangen is this herbal tea used to combat everything from inflammation to flu.
“No,” chimed in another girl, her hair dyed brown and cut like a boy. “Ever since someone said it cures SARS, it’s been sold out everywhere.
The thing is, with an epidemic like SARS comes an epidemic of panic, followed by an epidemic of scare-buying — one that China seemed to ignore. I could live without alcohol. I didn’t believe that banlangen really cured SARS. But at some point, scare-buying starts to threaten the necessities — and what are you going to do?
When I walked to the shopping mall one day, I noticed a bicycle-powered rickshaw cart, piled with vitamins in the back. I still had vitamins on hand at home — but I had to wonder if I’d get another “meiyou” next time I hoped to pick up some vitamin C.
Did you ever experience shortages (in China or elsewhere) because of an epidemic, or a disaster?
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 browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.