When I was teaching at a university in Chongqing in ’95 I had a student say something to me that I will never forget, “at least, well, I haven’t forgotten it yet.” She told me that when she was young she had the bad habit of telling the truth. After getting both herself and her family in trouble a number of times her father sternly taught her this lesson, “Never tell the truth to anyone but your parents.”
This was one of my first major lessons about how different China really is. There is no “moral code” no “generally accepted morality.” Not even an overly trite “Confucian values” system in place here, really. I believe that one of the lasting legacies of the current government will be that they amoralized an entire country. I’m not talking about the vilification of organized religion I’m talking about the creation of a system that punishes honesty.
Anyway, back to the story at hand.
China has, in their typical reactionary fashion, decided to be incredibly strict on H1N1 because the want to show the world that they learned a lesson from their lying and covering of up the SARS epidemic a few years ago. Well, I got caught in the new H1N1 net as I returned from a business trip to the US.
Here’s my story and the lessons I (re)learned.
I’m out. Finally. After 24 hours in lock down, I just got up and told them I was leaving and then just walked out of the hospital. They screamed, tried to stop me and called security (little skinny guy with no socks that wanted no part of a pissed off foreigner that out weighed him by 100 lbs.) but finally said–“ok, but you have to take the is paper with you.” When they said that, I almost lost it. “You mean if I had tried to leave last night you would have let me?” They said no, but when it came right down to it, they admitted they really couldn’t keep me there if I had tried to leave.
Here’s the time-line of events for the last 36 hours.
Day 1, 6:30 AM HK. There were two people on our flight (CX873) taken off the plan in HK and taken to the hospital. They were a couple rows away from me. Don’t’ know what they had, only that there was a “suspicion of infectious disease” announcement on the PA and we were held for about an hour before we were let off. I filled out forms and then deplaned. No problems, no delays, temperature scanned at least twice in HK and no issues.
8:00 AM, China. Crossed the border into China and they pulled out of line for a fever. They took my temp 10x after HK and before the hospital. All the same 37.1-2 degrees. Even their own paperwork that they gave me says that 37.5 is the problem point. “What’s wrong with 37.1?” No answer.
Apparently I was right and 37.1 is not a problem, at least not enough of an issue to satisfy the supervisor in Customs. So the nurse lied about my temp when a supervisor came in. I busted her for it; they didn’t know that I spoke Chinese and didn’t like the fact that I was calling them out in public. The fact that they were exaggerating my temp and filling out the forms wrong was apparently not an issue for them and they didn’t think it should be for me either. Why did they do this? I have no idea. But the excuse I was told was that “the thermometer was not very accurate so .1 degree off was really the same.” Of course my response was that 37.1 then should be the same as 37 and I should be allowed to go. Right?! If it really is the same, after all. That didn’t go over well. Logic rarely does.
So I sat in customs—directly across from the desk for people to fill out forms—for two hours. About 5-6 other people in the same situation. No masks, 5 feet from hundreds of other people going through customs. Like I said, logic is not a commodity.
Finally they move us to a “semi-quarantine” room. Some people with masks, some without. Sometimes the doors were shut, sometimes not. Sometimes we were asked to wear masks, other times, not. One HK guy was angry and just got up and walked out—they brought him back about 15 minutes later; he was hoofing it back to HK and was picked up on the bridge. What a joke.
Once they fill out all of the paper work and stamp our passports there are 5 of us that sit locked in an ambulance for 30 min with no AC and no open windows in 33 degree heat (with suspected fevers!). Then we were transported across town to a hospital.
11:30 AM Driven to a complete dump of a hospital. Roaches in the cabinets, spider’s webs on the walls, sink drains onto the floor, no paper towels or hot water, stains on the walls, rock hard bed, no AC, used soap and no towels in the shower. They try to take my temp with a thermometer that’s just sitting on the table—no case, no sterilization, no alcohol or iodine. They want me to put it in my mouth. I tell them no way! They agree to the armpit–I clean it with a wet wipe from my bag first. Then they want to take my blood and bring in unpackaged needles and iodine to do so. I refuse this too. Really, I’m convinced that hospitals in China make you more, not less sick.
Staff in the hospital all have bio-hazard suits on. I’m isolated in a private room in an isolation wing of the hospital. But I can go out on the balcony and talk with the “unsuited” guard and lean over the rail and talk with people downstairs or in the other “quarantine” rooms too. Should I laugh or cry?
6:00PM They ask me what I want to eat for dinner. I joke that I’d like some pizza and a Coke. They giggle uncomfortably. Pregnant pause while I look at them expectantly. Finally, I say Chinese food is fine, just no bones, please. They bring bones anyway. (Honestly, I can’t make up stuff like this.)
I really hate that—if you know you’re not able to fulfill the request, why ask the question?! This happens all the time in factories. Managers ask what we want, knowing full well they can’t do it, but it’s like they’ve been taught in “Dealing with foreigners 101” that they must ask a series of questions regardless of if they can actually do anything. To any Chinese factory salespeople reading this: UNDER PROMISE AND OVER DELIVER not the other way around!!!
At sometime around 6PM the CDC employees go home for the night. Am I told that I won’t be getting my results tonight? No. Am I told anything? No, of course not. I call the nurse every hour on the hour and the answer is “we still don’t know, but we should know soon.” Bullshit. At midnight I call my wife and tell her I’m not coming home and I try to sleep.
Day 2 7:00 AM Temp has not been over 37 for over 20 hours now, no new tests, no results, nothing—why the hell am I still here?! When I ask them to tell me what’s going on, the staff (still in bio-hazard suits and using two breathing masks and clear face-guards) tell me: “Don’t worry. There are a lot of people in the same situation.” Who the hell cares how many other people are in the same situation?!?! I want to be told what my test results are! I need to know if I can go to work, if I can talk with my family. No answers. I am told that the CDC people come back to work at 8 AM–ahhhh…Now I know why I was kept over night. Their shift ended.
9 AM. They tell me that even though I’m in a private room, in an isolation wing with staff that are completely bio-suited I am still required to wear a mask! Who, pray tell, am I going to infect (with my 37 degree fever)?! “It’s for your own safety,” I’m told. “If you were really concerned about my health you’d let me out of this dirty hospital!” More uncomfortable giggles.
10 AM. I’m basically in a Chinese jail. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, what the problem is, or what, if anything they are doing about it. People are trying to stick unsterile things into my body cavities and I have no recourse—I can’t even all a lawyer. I have to admit, though, the staff here is very polite and quite friendly. I just wish that they were as well educated as they are congenial. This place is a pigsty! If I am sick it’s because of the hospital, I’m convinced.
Got a list of swine flu symptoms from a friend (via my 3G phone—Thank God for technology). Went through the list with the staff and showed them that I don’t have any symptoms. They still want me to wear the mask in my empty room. They’re not impressed with my doctor impression or my ability to do internet research in jail either.
10:30 AM Finally, I’ve had enough. I shower, get dressed and walk out. They scream, try to stop me, call security (little skinny guy with no socks that wanted no part of a pissed off foreigner that out weighed him by 100 lbs.) but finally said, “ok, you can go but you have to take the is paper with you.” And then they let me go.
I had to pay for my own taxi to get back home.
I’m not so much angry as I’m just in shock at the collective idiocy of this event from beginning to end. I’m not excluding myself from the list of idiots either.
Turns out I did four things wrong.
First, I usually don’t let police (border agents) know that I speak Chinese. If there is a problem, I only speak English and if they start off in English then I only speak Thai, just to get out of things faster. (Speaking Thai usually works like a charm, by the way.) If they can’t communicate they often just give up and let me through. But, when I caught the nurse lying about my temperature to a supervisor, I called them both out in Chinese–that was the mistake. From there on out everything was in Chinese and I was treated just like everyone else that spoke Chinese.
Second mistake was that I just put my head down and followed orders at the hospital. In China if you do what you are told you get lost in the crowd. When I finally opened up and told them I was leaving I got the attention that I wanted and something was done immediately about my case. Prior to that, though, because I was willing to wait, I waited. I’m sure that if I hadn’t thrown a fit I’d still be there. I’m also sure that if I’d thrown a fit last night I could have left last night too.
Third, I told the truth. Why was I kept in the hospital in the first place? Because I told the truth and offered them as much info as I could about where I had just arrived from–just trying to be helpful and honest. Turns out that the other guy from my flight that was in lock down with me didn’t tell them anything and was released last night. I was held so they could confirm with HK that the people on my flight were not an issue. Since they needed 24 hours to confirm that, I was held for 24 too. If I’d just not told them anything about my recent trip to the US I would have been home in my own bed last night.
Fourth, I assumed that since I was put in the hospital by people in uniforms I was required to stay there. Big mistake. I could have left, they admitted that they couldn’t keep me, if I had really tried to leave. Image is as much a reality as law–if you look the part, you can more or less do what you want. Why do you think that China has such a uniform fetish?! People look the part, but very very few of them actually have the authority to make any decisions. In business or in the hospital or at the border, who says yes or no isn’t as important as who has the authority to enforce the yes or no. And the enforcer is rarely in a uniform and never on the floor dealing with riffraff.
1. If you have even the tiniest cold, drink cold/fever medicine before you arrive so you can get in. If you are sick in any way at all and coming from the US you’re not getting in—the people implementing the policies on the border are scared for their jobs if they screw up, racist, ignorant of modern health procedures, using outdated equipment and defensive since they were caught lying last time (SARS).
2. Don’t share any evidence that you were on a flight from the US recently (i.e. open passport to blank page). Don’t lie, just don’t offer any info about travel out of HK/China. This specifically worked for people in the same ambulance I was in that were also on my same flight. I was stupid and actually filled in the form with the information requested. Other people didn’t and were let out 12-15 hours before me.
3. Don’t speak any Chinese and don’t try to understand their English either. If they can’t talk to you, they’ll get frustrated and either let you go or send you to quarantine (where you’re headed anyway). This works well if you can understand what’s going on. If you can’t speak Chinese in the first place you’ll be used to this and so it’ll be no big deal. But as soon as they know you can speak, it’s all Chinese from there on out and you’ll be treated just as badly as they treat everyone else that speaks Chinese. Trust me, you don’t want to be in that group.
4. If you do speak Chinese, listen to all conversations and double check all documents that are about you or that you are asked to sign. Refuse to sign anything you can’t read and/or don’t agree with 100%.
5. Don’t offer up ANY additional information that isn’t specifically and directly asked for. Answer yes/no and give as little info as possible.
6. Remember, once you’re in the hospital, the staff are not the problem. They really can’t do anything. The CDC and the border guards are the people to yell at. And yelling at the right people works.
7. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. In China if you keep your head down and follow the rules you’ll get passed by. Sometimes that’s what you want, but if you’re scared for your life (e.g. in a Chinese hospital, getting the once over at a border crossing) you don’t want to just stand there and take it. I threw a fit and threatened to leave and that’s finally when I got attention. The previously “busy” MD and CDC rep immediately showed up when I grabbed my bags and starting walking out of the isolation unit.