Wuhan Revisited

For a number of years in the 20-aughts, I worked in Wuhan, Hubei Province, People’s Republic of China.

China being China, and Wuhan being a provincial outpost of old China, an amalgamation of three towns incorporated under the one name, observations of life there then might be of interest now, given the tumult over the mushrooming conflagration of the coronavirus.

Because I lived on the outskirts of town, near a squealing pig farm, many buffalo in the fields, goats occasioning the streets, wild dogs inoffensively wandering about most of the open-air eateries not presumptuous enough to call themselves restaurants -- a few plastic chairs and unwashed PVC tables scattered near a rough kitchen, basically -- I was faced daily with the critical choice: Shall I risk whatever microbes or bacteria or whatever we might ‘catch’ or go along with the locals, who ate whatever was on offer without much of a tremor or fret.

Most of the time, frankly, I was hungry, and my colleagues and I trusted to Providence to keep us out of what the local Wuhanites called the doctor’s office, or the uncontemporary places they called hospitals, where  if you were unlucky enough to be in one of the stalls, your relatives brought you food, bed linens, and whatever else you needed that was outside the pill regimen or ‘treatment’ you were being accorded.

At night, because my brand- new apartment had been completed with a living room, a bedroom and a marble-floored Western bathroom, a major prize considering everyone else having a squat toilet, even at work, but no kitchen at all, I would  do my work, try to fight off the plagues of mosquitoes that bedeviled me every single night. Despite my burning Citronella candles as an encircling talismanic circle around my work-desk in a vain attempt to discourage the fierce buggers, every morning I’d have a field of itching bites up and down any exposed flesh.

They itched immoderately for a day, unlike Western mosquitoes, which last, in my experience, longer than a one-day frenzy of irritation.

But at night, when I was driven out of the compound by hunger, I roamed the dark roads -- no streetlights frightened away the shadows -- until I usually came upon a crouching older man on his haunches, watching over a few fish in  a wide-mouthed plastic  laundry basket filled with water. I negotiated in Mandarin for a catch, the fish-herder stuck a fish with a sharp implement, hauled it wriggling out of the sullen water, and then transferred it to a nearby ember-filled brazier, where I waited for a few minutes for the cooking. I paid the few renminbi to the angler/chef and took the paper-wrapped fried fish back to my apartment.

When it was lunchtime at work, a number of colleagues, accompanied by our Chinese friends, ambled down  what everyone called “the dirty alley,” where  dozens of food stalls cooked various unidentified frying objects in woks producing aerosolized oil that burned your eyes and made choosing foods a penalizing  quick-pick or else. All the oil made the food soft and squishy, and the truth was, when we bought our favorites, they were fresh and delicious. And cheap.

One of my faves was what I was told were “lizard’s ankles.” The taste was of piquant popcorn, but better. Nuts were plentiful. Fruit and vegs were always abundant, ugly but tastier than their Western counterparts, where beauty counts for more than taste.

Once a week, though, I took a jitney for half an hour downtown to the French supermarket, where I bought whatever I could keep in my lonely fridge, sitting at one end of my living room. The French supermarket  was the only place  you could find cheese, or even rarer, milk. I bought whole cooked chickens, heads and feet attached, for later dissection. Lots of fresh fruit -- unbeautiful, but ripe and delicious.

A high point of the excursion was always the live market, where creepy crawlies of every type of bat, rat, snake, scorpion, small and large fauna and flora  clumped in barrels or plastic trays, some in water, many not. This was the high point of the shopping excursion every Friday, actually. It was like a free zoo. Housewives clacked away, bargaining for all the fresh kill or the still living suppers-to-be. The floors were awash underfoot with spill from the livestock. Men would occasionally swab the  grey swill, but the effect lasted seconds before the floors became swampy anew. The smell was… not Chanel #5.

Once,  I accompanied a colleague to a “doctor,” who was shorter than we were, confided a bottle of some kind of pill to my colleague, and advised her to take them with… wine. I objected: Medicines are not designed to be taken with alcohol. He shrugged. My own wellness was a blessing, as my native friends would press roots and herbs and potions on us if we had a sniffle. One was particularly effective, nipping what seemed like a cold in the very nascent moments of its birth. The ‘cure’ was a fat reddish-brown bean-like thing that, dunked in water, opened into a hairy large item like a horse’s testicle. We were supposed to drink the liquid around this unsightly object. And, yeah, it did the trick.

Speaking of water: Wuhan water was at the time not potable, so every morning, we would all get large tureens of boiling water, a gallon at a time. We drank no cold water, ever. And the boiling water we were always given was handed to us in a thin plastic cup that certainly shed  millions of molecules as it transferred its precious cargo to our insides. I tried to keep several  tureens in my bedroom, since I never knew if the water distributor would actually be there in the morning.

Each day was festooned with unknowns and questionable practices, and we negotiated the Scylla and Charybdis of our daily wellbeing and jobs as best we could manage. That I never became ill, despite the swirling nearby epidemics of SARS and Avian Flu as well as the not-well-understood MERS infections, was a miracle. The Chinese quarantined the millions of collegians in the city’s 67 city colleges, refusing to let the students train or bus home the many miles to their parents -- often living in separate cities because of far-flung work locales. The students were told to shower and wash several times a day, and not expose themselves to outsiders.

And each time I took a plane out of Wuhan, men in white hazmat outfits put us all through spectroscopic devices to test our temperatures and judge whether we were fit to mingle with others. This then is the breed-nest of the coronavirus. It was an enduring minor miracle that we expats did not come down with the toxic biologics of the markets, the problem water, the unfettered animal morass of daily life in 21st century People’s Republic.

Apparently all the unhygiene caught up with the immutable laws of Nature.

For a number of years in the 20-aughts, I worked in Wuhan, Hubei Province, People’s Republic of China.

China being China, and Wuhan being a provincial outpost of old China, an amalgamation of three towns incorporated under the one name, observations of life there then might be of interest now, given the tumult over the mushrooming conflagration of the coronavirus.

Because I lived on the outskirts of town, near a squealing pig farm, many buffalo in the fields, goats occasioning the streets, wild dogs inoffensively wandering about most of the open-air eateries not presumptuous enough to call themselves restaurants -- a few plastic chairs and unwashed PVC tables scattered near a rough kitchen, basically -- I was faced daily with the critical choice: Shall I risk whatever microbes or bacteria or whatever we might ‘catch’ or go along with the locals, who ate whatever was on offer without much of a tremor or fret.

Most of the time, frankly, I was hungry, and my colleagues and I trusted to Providence to keep us out of what the local Wuhanites called the doctor’s office, or the uncontemporary places they called hospitals, where  if you were unlucky enough to be in one of the stalls, your relatives brought you food, bed linens, and whatever else you needed that was outside the pill regimen or ‘treatment’ you were being accorded.

At night, because my brand- new apartment had been completed with a living room, a bedroom and a marble-floored Western bathroom, a major prize considering everyone else having a squat toilet, even at work, but no kitchen at all, I would  do my work, try to fight off the plagues of mosquitoes that bedeviled me every single night. Despite my burning Citronella candles as an encircling talismanic circle around my work-desk in a vain attempt to discourage the fierce buggers, every morning I’d have a field of itching bites up and down any exposed flesh.

They itched immoderately for a day, unlike Western mosquitoes, which last, in my experience, longer than a one-day frenzy of irritation.

But at night, when I was driven out of the compound by hunger, I roamed the dark roads -- no streetlights frightened away the shadows -- until I usually came upon a crouching older man on his haunches, watching over a few fish in  a wide-mouthed plastic  laundry basket filled with water. I negotiated in Mandarin for a catch, the fish-herder stuck a fish with a sharp implement, hauled it wriggling out of the sullen water, and then transferred it to a nearby ember-filled brazier, where I waited for a few minutes for the cooking. I paid the few renminbi to the angler/chef and took the paper-wrapped fried fish back to my apartment.

When it was lunchtime at work, a number of colleagues, accompanied by our Chinese friends, ambled down  what everyone called “the dirty alley,” where  dozens of food stalls cooked various unidentified frying objects in woks producing aerosolized oil that burned your eyes and made choosing foods a penalizing  quick-pick or else. All the oil made the food soft and squishy, and the truth was, when we bought our favorites, they were fresh and delicious. And cheap.

One of my faves was what I was told were “lizard’s ankles.” The taste was of piquant popcorn, but better. Nuts were plentiful. Fruit and vegs were always abundant, ugly but tastier than their Western counterparts, where beauty counts for more than taste.

Once a week, though, I took a jitney for half an hour downtown to the French supermarket, where I bought whatever I could keep in my lonely fridge, sitting at one end of my living room. The French supermarket  was the only place  you could find cheese, or even rarer, milk. I bought whole cooked chickens, heads and feet attached, for later dissection. Lots of fresh fruit -- unbeautiful, but ripe and delicious.

A high point of the excursion was always the live market, where creepy crawlies of every type of bat, rat, snake, scorpion, small and large fauna and flora  clumped in barrels or plastic trays, some in water, many not. This was the high point of the shopping excursion every Friday, actually. It was like a free zoo. Housewives clacked away, bargaining for all the fresh kill or the still living suppers-to-be. The floors were awash underfoot with spill from the livestock. Men would occasionally swab the  grey swill, but the effect lasted seconds before the floors became swampy anew. The smell was… not Chanel #5.

Once,  I accompanied a colleague to a “doctor,” who was shorter than we were, confided a bottle of some kind of pill to my colleague, and advised her to take them with… wine. I objected: Medicines are not designed to be taken with alcohol. He shrugged. My own wellness was a blessing, as my native friends would press roots and herbs and potions on us if we had a sniffle. One was particularly effective, nipping what seemed like a cold in the very nascent moments of its birth. The ‘cure’ was a fat reddish-brown bean-like thing that, dunked in water, opened into a hairy large item like a horse’s testicle. We were supposed to drink the liquid around this unsightly object. And, yeah, it did the trick.

Speaking of water: Wuhan water was at the time not potable, so every morning, we would all get large tureens of boiling water, a gallon at a time. We drank no cold water, ever. And the boiling water we were always given was handed to us in a thin plastic cup that certainly shed  millions of molecules as it transferred its precious cargo to our insides. I tried to keep several  tureens in my bedroom, since I never knew if the water distributor would actually be there in the morning.

Each day was festooned with unknowns and questionable practices, and we negotiated the Scylla and Charybdis of our daily wellbeing and jobs as best we could manage. That I never became ill, despite the swirling nearby epidemics of SARS and Avian Flu as well as the not-well-understood MERS infections, was a miracle. The Chinese quarantined the millions of collegians in the city’s 67 city colleges, refusing to let the students train or bus home the many miles to their parents -- often living in separate cities because of far-flung work locales. The students were told to shower and wash several times a day, and not expose themselves to outsiders.

And each time I took a plane out of Wuhan, men in white hazmat outfits put us all through spectroscopic devices to test our temperatures and judge whether we were fit to mingle with others. This then is the breed-nest of the coronavirus. It was an enduring minor miracle that we expats did not come down with the toxic biologics of the markets, the problem water, the unfettered animal morass of daily life in 21st century People’s Republic.

Apparently all the unhygiene caught up with the immutable laws of Nature.