Quarantined! AKA: “Never tell the truth to anyone but your parents.”

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?

Hosp 1

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.

Hosp 2

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.

Hosp 3

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.

Lessons learned:

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.

10 Responses to “Quarantined! AKA: “Never tell the truth to anyone but your parents.””

  1. Shenzhen.

    Was just told that a friend who tried to go back into Hong Kong a day or so after his flight and he was taken unto quarantine for 5 days! Be careful.

  2. Lutas,

    You’re right. Quarantine is not a moral issue and is very unwanted but sometimes understandably very necessary.

    My problem is not with the medical necessity of quarantine but with the system and how amoral, random and unprofessional it is. This is not a condemnation of Chinese people whom I have great respect for (for being able to compete so well in this system).

    Two further points. First, if there is to be a quarantine then it should be done like HK–very effective, maybe a bit too draconian, but there are no loopholes and everyone regardless gets the same treatment.

    That’s what really should be expected from a national-level quarantine mandate. China lets people slip out, puts sick people in front of healthy ones and really only goes through the motions for political “face” rather than to control anything. They don’t have modern equipment a don’t have a clue who is coming from where–I could have called CX and found out the status of passengers faster than the hospital did!!

    I can personally attest that the motivations of the officials in China are for face and job-preservation rather than heath risks. Or, the level of education is so low that no matter what they do the quarantine will be ineffective. Either way it’s frustrating and inefficient.

    Second, China is at least doing something, even if it’s just for show. The real problems are in the US and the EU. THERE IS NOTHING GOING ON IN PUBLIC PLACES THERE!!! I was in three airports in the US last week and was never scanned once, no one is masked, no PSA’s, anyone can get on any flight, no news about H1N1 to speak of. NOTHING. Visibly sick people are getting on flights and no one seams to care at all.

    The West is exporting the disease to Asia because, obviously, companies there are more concerned about passenger satisfaction than health.

  3. Your hysteria in the last two paragraphs of the post above is only understandable as an apologetica for the scathing comments on the quarantine detention you experienced in Shenzhen.

    Face masks are not recommended and generally regarded as having little or no effect; face masks are not listed by What You Can Do to Stay Healthy on the website of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an effective protective measure against this influenza which is spread person to person. The CDC also reports “the attack rate (is) similar to seasonal influenza”, and that “(a)s of June 15, 2009 there have been over 35,900 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza A in 76 countries, including 163 deaths”. That’s a mortality rate of 0.45%. Yet, a calculation published in Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, volume 5, 2008, showed that “(f)or the eleven year study period (1995-2005), a total of 260,814… deaths was attributed to influenza, corresponding to an annual average of 23,710, or 0.91% of all deaths.” Although this statistical study was limited to the US you can see that the mortality rate of seasonal influenza at 0.91% is higher than that now confirmed to H1N1, 0.45%. H1N1 does not pose a higher lethality, a fact the informed public well understands unless given over to hysteria, and despite the psychological comfort of face masks and temperature checks at airports. That news of H1N1 no longer occupies any meaningful space in the Western press eager for sensationalism shows there is no issue here, or do you smell collusion and cabals at work?

    You then go on to accuse The West of exporting the disease to Asia rather than affect profits. Uh, what are you on? I can’t believe prescription meds would give a person such intense delusions.

  4. Well, I dare say your comments indicate that you’ve had significant personal experience with hysteria.

    A couple of non hysterical responses.

    1. The fact that the US CDC does not list face masts as “what to do” does not in any way imply that they are of no help. Indeed, Asian CDC’s do in fact list them, provide them for free and encourage people in large metropolises to wear them for any and all kinds of flu. High density cities like HK with much more (and more recent) experience in contagious respiratory infections insist that as soon as there is even a suspected case individuals are masked. Trans-pacific flight crews are masked and no cases are reported within crews and yet the most cases are coming from the US and Mexico via air travelers.

    2. The fact that “normal” flu is more deadly on an annual basis is more deadly than new H1N1 does not mean that there should be no concern for the health or safety of individual subject to this new strain. I personally think that the whole H1N1 scare was over blown. But should we only take precautions against the most deadly diseases in the world? Regardless of the hyperbole, most cases are coming from North/Central America and sick people are, instead of being denied access to the flight in the first place, being pulled off and quarantined in Asia (at the expense of Asian Govt’s). The cases in Asia are DIRECTLY attributable to people traveling from the West to Asia—precisely because there is no testing in public places in the West—as Asian governments are anxiously pointing out. As flu season in the West (winter) approaches we’ll see more and more cases just like southern hemisphere countries are seeing numbers increase now.

    3. With the economy as it is now, to attribute the lack of any expensive/troublesome new activities to anything but cost finance would be naïve, I believe.

    4. Finally, I was never angry that I was quarantined. I understand the need and the concern, even if I don’t believe all the hype. My frustration was with the ignorant, unfair and ineffective process in China (as opposed to those in HK) and my own overly-honest response to the original questionnaire. My final response to other comments stating that the US should be doing more does not negate any of my frustrations at the processes here either.

  5. On my last trip to China I wondered why the Chinese seemed to want to rip you off all the time. I came to the view that it was because it had no generally accepted moral code, it had a moral vacuum instead. As I checked out next day the receptionist took a call and then told me I had left my mobile phone in my room, woops!

  6. Interesting story. Couple of my friends were quarantined in Shanghai for a night or two, there stories are no where near as bad as yours. I guess the South is just less regulated than up North. They don’t call them Nan Man for no reason haha. Good luck with your company.

  7. Travel Alert

    United States Department of State
    Bureau of Consular Affairs
    Washington, DC  20520 


    June 19, 2009

    The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the quarantine measures imposed by the Government of China in response to the 2009-H1N1 pandemic that may affect travel to China.  This Travel Alert expires on September 30, 2009.

    Current quarantine measures in China include placing arriving passengers who exhibit fever or flu-like symptoms into seven-day quarantine.  Although the proportion of arriving Americans being quarantined remains low, the random nature of the selection process increases the uncertainty surrounding travel to China.  The selection process focuses on those sitting in close proximity to another traveler exhibiting fever or flu-like symptoms or on those displaying an elevated temperature if arriving from an area where outbreaks of 2009-H1N1 have occurred.  We have reports of passengers arriving from areas where outbreaks have occurred (including the U.S. and Mexico) being placed in precautionary quarantine simply because they registered slightly elevated temperatures. 

    In some instances, children have been separated from their parents because either the parent or the child tested positive for 2009-H1N1 and was placed in quarantine for treatment.  This situation presents the possibility of Chinese medical personnel administering medications to minors without first having consulted their parents. 

    The Department of State has received reports about unsuitable quarantine conditions, including the unavailability of suitable drinking water and food, unsanitary conditions, and the inability to communicate with others.

    Travelers to China are reminded that all foreign travelers, including U.S. citizens, are obliged to follow local procedures regarding quarantines and any other public health-related measures.  The U.S. Embassy will be unable to influence the duration of stay in quarantine for affected travelers.   The Chinese government will not compensate people for lost travel expenses.  Travelers to China are urged to consider purchasing travel insurance to protect against losses in the event they are quarantined.

    For more information on U.S. Government policy during a pandemic, and for travel safety information, please see the State Department’s “Pandemic/Avian Influenza” and “Remain in Country” fact sheets on http://www.travel.state.gov.  Further information about 2009-H1N1 Influenza, including steps you can take to stay healthy, can be found at  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/, the U.S. Government pandemic influenza website at http://www.pandemicflu.gov, and the World Health Organization website at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en/index.html.

    U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the Department of State’s travel registration website.  By registering, American citizens can receive the Embassy’s most recent security and safety updates during their trip. Registration also ensures that U.S. citizens can be reached should an emergency arise either abroad or at home. While consular officers will do their utmost to assist Americans in a crisis, travelers always should be aware that local authorities bear primary responsibility for the welfare of people living or traveling in their jurisdictions. 

    Beijing: The U.S. Embassy is located at No. 55 An Jia Lou Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing.  The American Citizen Services section can be contacted during regular business hours and for after-hours emergencies at (86) (10) 8531-4000 or by e-mail.  For detailed information please visit the U.S. Embassy web site. The Embassy consular district includes the following provinces/regions of China: Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi.

    Chengdu: The U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu is located at Number 4, Lingshiguan Road, Section 4, Renmin Nanlu, Chengdu 610041; tel. (86)(28) 8558-3992, 8555-3119; after-hours emergencies (86) 1370 8001 422, and can be contacted via email. This consular district includes the following provinces/regions of China: Guizhou, Sichuan Xizang (Tibet), and Yunnan, as well as the municipality of Chongqing.

    Guangzhou: The main office of the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou is located at Number 1 South Shamian Street, Shamian Island 200S1, Guangzhou 510133.  The Consular Section, including the American Citizens Services Unit, is now located at 5th Floor, Tianyu Garden (II phase), 136-146 Lin He Zhong Lu, Tianhe District; tel. (86)(20) 8518-7605; after-hours emergencies (86)(20) 8121-8000; and contact by email. This consular district includes the following provinces/regions of China: Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Fujian.

    Shanghai:  The Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai is located in the Westgate Mall, 8th Floor, 1038 Nanjing Xi Lu, Shanghai 200031; tel. (86)(21) 3217-4650, ext. 2102, 2013, or 2134; after-hours emergencies (86)(21) 6433-3936; inquiries can be made via email. This consular district includes the following provinces/regions of China: Shanghai, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

    Shenyang:  The U.S. Consulate General in Shenyang is located at No. 52, 14th Wei Road, Heping District, Shenyang 110003; tel. (86)(24) 2322-2374; after-hours emergencies (86) 137-0988-9307; contact may be made via email. This consular district includes the following provinces/regions of China: Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin.

  8. […] even commented on students a few times too. When I was teaching at a university in Chongqing in ‘95 I had a student say […]

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