Travels in the time of SARS
In early 2003, I spend some time in China travelling by trains in Guangdong and Hunan provinces. Trains were where you met interesting people - students, business folks, retired people with interesting stories from the 1960s and 70s, bored train security officers. Almost everyone was learning English, and they were keen to talk to me. Often people alighting at a station before mine would hand me fruits and snacks as a farewell gift.
In Changsha, I visited the school where Mao studied. The students, mostly teacher trainees, showed me around the campus. Almost every corner had a commemorative plaque that celebrated Mao. One talked about how Mao organised discussions on current affairs. Another one near a well praised Mao’s stoicism by informing us how he took cold water baths. The students were proud that they studied in such a prestigious school. I asked them “I am sure Chairman Mao was a naughty kid. Is there a notice somewhere here that says - Chairman Mao was punished here?”. The students replied in unison “Chairman Mao was a good boy”.
I only realised something was wrong in China when I flew from Guangzhou back to Bangkok. Our plane was made to wait for a long time before connecting to the embarkation gate. Once we alighted, they started checking everyone’s temperature. In Thailand, the papers were talking about SARS. Slowly news started trickling out of China. One of the students I met in the train messaged me that her roommates had thrown her out as she was from a town that had a high number of infections. There were a few months of chaos. But by the time I went to China in September that year, everything had turned normal. It was back to happy people waiting for me to share their stories.