China: Beijing dispatch


Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

End of April: "The new look"

That is, the new look of Beijing. Which would be empty. There are still people out walking around and playing badminton and riding their bikes and walking their dogs. All the normal stuff. But last week there were about 10-15 times more people than there are now. And the traditional Chinese greeting ("Have you eaten?") has changed to be more along the lines of "What's the latest about SARS?"

I went into my office for a few hours this morning. There were vegetables and pans all along the windowsill of the office. My Chinese co-worker is living there round-the-clock because there were two reported cases of SARS in his housing complex, and he can't go home now. He doesn't seem to mind too much, though; he loves his work, and now he can do it whenever he's not sleeping.

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My friend's school is no longer allowing anyone at all on campus. There are a few students left in the dorms, who couldn't afford to go back home; they aren't allowed to go out at all. Only the teachers can enter and leave, so my friend is helping out the students and also the cleaning lady who can't get off campus to buy stuff from the store.

Today was the first day of my English institute's May Day holiday. I'm waiting to find out if I'll still have a job after this week, since the number of students coming is too small to keep the institute open, much less pay my salary!

End of May: "Define normal"

I was talking with my mom last night, and mentioned something about having my temperature taken. She seemed a bit surprised by that, and then I realized how odd my daily life must seem to anyone outside China. It's rather normal to me, but then I guess you'd ask me to "please define normal."

When I arrive at my office every morning, the guard on duty shoots his "thermometer gun" at my forehead and then lets me go in with a "Haole!" (OK!). I then proceed to walk through the front doorway, which is positively billowing with bleach fumes. I enjoy the bleach all the way up to my fifth-floor office. When I walk by the director's office, I notice the open box of something labeled "Stop SARS!!"-part of the government's massive anti-SARS campaign. Four weeks ago my Chinese colleague gave me a bottle of something to wash my vegetables with; when I smelled it, it was pretty much diluted bleach. Maybe that's what was in that box.

On my way to Chinese class at 11:30, I pass about 10 to 15 signs covered with anti-SARS propaganda. The English ones mostly say profound stuff like "Joining hands to fight SARS" and "Let's fight SARS." The Chinese ones have recently changed their general tone from "get rid of SARS" to something more along the lines of "The government and party together will win the fight against SARS."

When I arrive at school, I go to the office, where my temperature is taken and recorded yet again! The school secretary has a cool little thermometer that has a metal base that records the temperature when run slowly over the person's forehead and then gives the temperature along with a smiley or frowney face to let you know if you passed. I always get a smiley.

I only have my temperature taken once on weekends, unless I go shopping at a major store. Most of the larger stores have guards lining the people up for temperature checks. I only have a temperature check when I go to the hotel where our assembly meets. The hotel security guy has a grand time shooting everybody with his thermometer before they enter the door. I bet it's the first time he's ever been allowed to carry a gun. c

-Used with permission from weblog of a former World Journalism Institute student living in Beijing


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