Chapter 64: Living in the Face of SARS

Doctor in a surgical mask
As a friend goes into quarantine, and the virus closes in on John's hometown in the countryside, I had to learn how to live with the threat of SARS, everyday.

I could have been quarantined.

One of the employees at Alibaba — the Internet company I interviewed at in Hangzhou — contracted SARS while attending the Canton Fair. On her second visit to the hospital, she discovered her illness was no typical flu. And just like that, everyone who worked in Alibaba — and other companies sharing the office building — was put under quarantine in early May, 2003, including John’s high school classmate, Douglas.

I wanted so much to stay in Hangzhou only months before, and work for Alibaba. Weeks after I moved to Shanghai and began work for the global media company, Alibaba even called to offer me the job — which of course I turned down. I came so close to this company. I could have been another casualty of SARS.

As SARS continued to spread, before long it began to touch the people you know and care about.

Not long after Douglas’ quarantine news, we heard reports from John’s parents about Tonglu County. SARS is showing up in villages in the countryside around them. Wen Jiabao, the Premier, said before in media conferences that rural China was unequipped to handle the epidemic — so was Tonglu. I’d seen the conditions of the Tonglu countryside, with its many simple, dirt-floored homes and structures with chickens wandering through the house and pigs out back; where migrant workers come and go as freely as the egrets in the rice paddies; and where serviceable hospitals are hard to find. For the first time in a long time, I was worried — but all I could do was stay in Shanghai, and continue to live my own life.

And that’s the thing — you had to live in the face of SARS. I had to ride the same bus to work, covering my face and promising myself to furiously wash my hands on arrival. I still went out to eat, preferring the cleanest restaurants with their wait staff muzzled for hygiene.

Of course, I still made friends, too. One afternoon, after work let out, my Chinese coworker, David, happened to enter the same bus I took home. We sat in the very back, talking about work, life in Shanghai, and music, making the thirty minute commute as joyous as our laughter.

When I said goodbye to David and got off at my stop, I couldn’t help but wonder about what just happened. David and I were wearing masks the entire time. How was it I never even noticed it?

I trudged down the street, back to my apartment, passing a large yellow sign with a cartoonish image that no longer captured my attention: “Don’t spit in public.”

Have you ever had to learn how to “live” in the face of an epidemic or crisis? Were you surprised by your adaptability?


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.

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