Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Health and Quarantine in Beijing, China

Some of you may have heard that Veronica was temporarily "quarantined" this past week. If you didn't hear, don't worry - I put quaratine in quotation marks for a reason.

China has become H1N1 crazy of late, and since I'm not an immunologist (or whatever Rene Russo was in Outbreak) I can't really say if they are over-reacting or not. All I DO know is that, compared to their total population, they've done a pretty good job at "containing" the "threat".

Unfortunately, this does mean dealing with some minor hassles. So far, Veronica and I have had to deal with:

1: Two delayed international landings.
When we returned from Malaysia and from Thailand, our landing group had to fill out health questionaires (Are you sick? Do you have H1N1? Did you kiss someone with H1N1? etc.) and then go through a screening process that involved some combination of:
Thermal Image Scanning
Brief examination/profiling (staff checked to make sure you weren't sweating too much or coughing/sneezing)
Individual temperature-taking (staff walks around the plane in hospital masks zapping our foreheads).
All said, this wasn't too bad for us. This is primarily because we weren't arriving from the USA. When my parents arrived in May (BEFORE the WHO's pandemic declaration), their de-boarding was delayed over TWO HOURS by all the extra precautions!

2: Annoying Text Messages.
Both of our cell phones now receive random Chinese language messages in which we can make out the roman characters H1N1, and occasionally the chinese characters for the name of a part of Beijing. We can only assume that these are announcements telling us to avoid a part of town because cases of the virus were discovered there.

3: Veronica's Workplace Quarantine.
This one mainly affected Veronica, but I had to suffer too because she worked from home this week! When Veronica showed up for her first day of work, her fellow Chinese employees didn't feel comfortable with her working in the same office as them. They initially put her in her own conference room (without internet connection or computer) until her supervisor told her to endure her quarantine from home. Which meant I had to endure the quarantine from home. Supposedly the co-workers were concerned about H1N1 because Veronica had recently returned from Thailand - but I'm willing to bet it was because she was American. Her supervisor has since informed her that the Chinese employees threatened to walkout if she wasn't quarantined for a week. He is convinced this was only partially due to health concerns and mainly due to "maybe-we-can-get-out-of-working" concerns.

4: Hospital masks and distrusting looks from Chinese.
Most Chinese seem to understand that any Westerner walking around has been approved by the "Frontier Health and Quarantine Office" (real name) and is not any more likely to be an H1N1 carrier than anyone else. Other's don't get this. As a result, I've gotten the stink-eye from dozens of Chinese, been able to ride a bus completely alone for 30 minutes (that might have been due to the weak-ass Chinese deoderant I've been wearing) and had people choose to "take the next elevator".

Due to the increase in the number of people wearing hospital masks, I haven't been able to tell if people are smiling or scowling at me. And with my limited Chinese (yup, still super limited), this piece of body language can be vital for interpersonal communcation. It lets me know if they are thinking "ha ha, look at funny westerner butcher our language and point at things he doesn't really want because he doesn't know what they are" or if they are thinking "what an idiot, I don't want to sell him any of these items now simply because his butchering of our language has offended my ancestors, countrymen and, of course, the chairman himself". It's usually about 50/50 when people AREN'T wearing masks!

Free Bonus Story

There is some worldwide confusion about what H1N1 actually is. For example, Veronica, Kim and I were lucky enough to be sitting behind two Europeans on our flight back to Malaysia from Indonesia who were clearly not native English speakers. We heard a glorious interchange about H1N1, which I will share with you here:

Swede: Why do I have to fill out these papers about if I am sick or not?

German: Oh H1N1 is a big disease, like the SARS and Bird Flu from past years.

Swede: Ah yes. But why do they call it the "sween flu"?

German: Oh, because people get it from sween in Mexico.

Swede: I do not know what this word means. What is "sween"?

German: Sween is a type of Bird.

Marc (loudly): A swine is a pig!

Swede: Oh yes because it is like the bird flu.

Marc (loudly again): IT CAME FROM PIGS!

German: Yes, like the bird flu.

Marc (giving up): PIGS PIGS PIGS.

Those of you in other places - is H1N1 a big deal? Or is it just the flu? I hear the US is being pretty cavalier about it all. Fill me in!