During Shansi orientation in January, we heard a lot of horror stories—from hostage situations in airports and emergency helicopter evacuations to outbreaks of infectious diseases and prolonged hospitalizations. In China in 2003 during the thick of the SARS epidemic, all of the Shansi Fellows were airlifted back to the U.S. for four months before the situation settled and they could return to their teaching posts. Yet through all of the warnings and nay-sayings, never did I think that I would be one of the lucky few appointed Fellows to say they were abroad during such a trying time.
H1N1 (better known as swine flu in the states) is quickly becoming a global crisis. In China, specifically, there seems to be a divide—in the south, due largely to a warmer climate, the situation is apparently under control, but in the north, it is making daily headlines. Two dead at Peking University in Beijing and many more dropping off in the countryside. As of about two weeks ago, H1N1 has developed into a full-blown pandemic closer to home—on the campus of Shanxi Agricultural University (SAU). According to hearsay, the whole situation started when one undergraduate student came to the higher-ups on suspicion of having H1N1 and was immediately rushed to the hospital. Almost in exactly the same breath, his dormitory was quarantined, and the entire rest of the school was put on lock-down—no students could enter or exit any of the gates on campus, effectively trapping them inside.
Ironically (and more than a bit nonsensically), though, teachers and other staff were able to leave at will. The first night that we got word of the new regulations, I had planned to go with some of my students and the other foreigners to do some karaoke singing off-campus. Meanwhile, every entrance to the school was swarming with confused students, bewildered as to why they couldn’t leave. My students came to me with the bad news shortly before we were about to go to dinner, but in a stroke of spur-of-the-moment thinking, we swooped them up, and, citing them as our translators, made it safely out of the gates. After that first day of commotion, though, the administration got wise, and that was the last time my students, or any, saw daylight outside of campus.
My Group I class and their collection of pumpkins. It was with a few of these students that I went to sing karaoke prior to the lock-down.
Within days, other freedoms started to give. There was an earlier curfew instated for when students were to return to their dormitories. Another whole dormitory was quarantined, such that crews of bio-hazard clad personnel were forced to deliver pre-packaged food and water to those students’ rooms three times a day. The swimming pool was closed, as were most indoor spaces where large clusters of people could congregate. Even luxuries we had not considered luxuries started to fade. Because students couldn’t leave the gates on campus, the neighboring and outlying businesses began to go under. Bei yuan (North Yard), where we had previously frequented to eat dinner, buy fruit, and shop at local vendor stands, became completely deserted, with all of those individuals and families out of a job. This may have been the most heartbreaking consequence of the entire scare. After two days or so when vendors realized that the situation wouldn’t improve, they left, and the school went so far as to erect a brick wall on the opposing side of the gate so that students literally couldn’t “slip through the cracks.” We now affectionately refer to it as “The Great Wall of Taigu.”
I’m being made increasingly more aware every day that I’m living in China. It's hard to imagine that anything to this scale could ever really happen in the states. If we were all trapped at Oberlin, there would literally have been riots, not to mention innumerable attempts to cheat the system. Posted at every entrance at SAU there is a security guard who carefully monitors the flow of traffic (or lack thereof) into and out of the school. Each is armed with a device that resembles a speed detector more than it does its actual function—a thermometer. All of us teachers are required to carry our “Foreign Expert Certificates” every time we want to leave campus, because apparently our white faces are not always sufficient enough to elucidate the fact that we are not students. More still, we must ask permission from our bosses if we want to go past the main gate, and are virtually prohibited from traveling any further than the Taigu city limit. We can often leave without a hitch, but on our return, we get a speed gun to the head to make sure we are still well enough not to infect the twenty thousand students made completely vulnerable by being cooped up on campus.
It all feels a little bit like a war zone. Red tape litters considerable stretches of campus and beyond the closed gates is an almost visceral feeling of desolation. Even those who live nearby can’t go home and loved ones have to greet sons and daughters at the main gate to deliver food and other care packages. With the number of nearby restaurants literally limited to the handful that are located on-campus as opposed to off-, exiting into town is really the only way to go out for a meal. As a result, we have all been eating much more frequently at the Foreign Affairs Office, where the hired cook now works evenings and weekends when previously she had off. This on-off divide is further exemplified in establishments like the campus-affiliated underground supermarket, cafeterias, and bathhouse. Sometimes I feel like this whole lock-down is effectively a measure to increase the school’s own in-house economy, as these institutions are getting three and four times the business they used to prior to the scare.
Two students posing with their creations. I thought that the skull head made particularly good use of the oblong-shaped pumpkin.
It makes me question a lot of the measures China, and more specifically, this university, is taking to ensure safety. In many ways, they seem more hypocritical than they do helpful. Firstly, the very fact that some people can leave and others cannot is preposterous. If we were all truly at risk of getting H1N1, teachers are just as likely to carry and spread the disease as students (though admittedly, there are less of us). Not that I’m knocking being allowed out, but I believe that privilege should be extended to everyone. Secondly, some indoor establishments like the swimming pool are closed, but giant breeding grounds like the supermarket and the cafeterias are quickly becoming over-capacity to accommodate for the lack of other dining options. Additionally, all classes with 50 or more students have been cancelled, but student dorms are routinely overcrowded, sometimes fitting eight students to a single room—not exactly the best way to censure the transfer of disease. This has led in recent days to the new edict that all third- and fourth-year university students be sent home to free up room for other students. As a result, these students will miss four months of classes and cannot return until the start of the spring semester in late February. Though much of the costs associated with Chinese education are subsidized by the government, there is no tuition reduction, and for many this has meant a later graduation date, not to mention a heavier burden on families.
All students are required to take their temperature twice a day, at 7:30 and 11am, and to report to the authorities if their readings are abnormally high. But especially with winter approaching, high temperatures often mean nothing more than a seasonal cold, or, at worst, a routine flu. But because of the looming fear of hospitalization (with an unspecified return date), students are understandably more and more wary of letting on if they are feeling under the weather, even to their peers. It’s like something out of the McCarthy hearings—the school administration counts on students to turn their friends in for the sake of their own presumed wellness. What’s more, the students are as ignorant of the details of the situation as we are, if not more so, as many do not own computers and almost all do not have access to the news on TV. This in itself is hugely different from the way global epidemics are talked about in America. All that many students (and teachers) are left with is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness—we have no real defense against catching the disease, and with the school locked down, we can’t do much else but sit around and wait for the whole mess to blow over.
(More on Biz Markie, Animal House, bench-pressing pumpkins, knife-related injuries, my Chinese name, the WHO, and sobriety in Pt. II of this post).