Fear is not an inbuilt instinct but rather something we learn as we get older. Now that I’m an adult I worry about all kinds of shit – trivial shit, heavy existential shit and everything in between. At the age of 26 I find myself plagued by a host of abstract anxieties. But I was not always this way.
There was a time when I was unfazed even in the face of big changes and confusing situations. My mettle was routinely tested throughout my childhood and adolescence as I travelled with my younger brother between my parents in China and various schools in Asia, mostly without adult supervision. When I look back on those times as a worrisome world-weary adult it occurs to me that there were many moments which could cause me to lose my cool if I experienced them now. And yet as a carefree kid I took it all in my stride.
One particular incident stands out in my memory. It was sometime in 2002 or 2003 when a SARS outbreak in Hong Kong was threatening to reach pandemic proportions and the scaremongering media was in overdrive forecasting the extinction of the human race. I was about 14 years old and my brother was about 12 and we were traveling from our school in India to see our parents in China. In those days it took us at least three days, sometimes more, to get home from school (3-hour bus journey from Ootacamund to Coimbatore + overnight train from Coimbatore to Chennai + overnight hotel stay in Chennai + 5-hour flight from Chennai to Bangkok + overnight stay in Bangkok + 5-hour flight from Bangkok to Kunming + overnight stay in Kunming + 2-hour flight from Kunming to Changsha). On this occasion when we reached Kunming, where we were supposed to meet some friends, all the passengers on our flight were detained by heavyset security personnel wearing facemasks and surgical gloves. We were all directed into a waiting room and forced to surrender our passports to a man holding an empty pillowcase.
My brother Tom and I didn’t have a clue what was happening. We were two of only a handful of foreigners on the flight and we knew only smatterings of Mandarin Chinese. We didn’t have a member of the airline staff accompanying us. And I don’t recall any English announcements explaining what was going on.
We were all sealed off in the waiting room and left to languish there indefinitely. I was a little concerned about being parted from our passports, knowing we’d be trapped in the limbo of Kunming’s transit area without them. I was also frustrated about not having any access to a phone and thus being unable to contact the friends awaiting us at arrivals. But I soon realised there was nothing to be done so I just shrugged it all off. I flicked through the channels of a TV mounted on one of the walls. Then I sprawled out in my seat and attempted to get some shut-eye.
The other passengers were chattering away to each other in Chinese. Some of them were frantic. Some were weeping. At one point I overheard the conversation of some Americans who seemed to have an idea of what was happening. It turned out that one of the passengers on our flight had experienced a slight increase in body temperature, sparking fears that he was infected with SARS. Everyone on the flight was now a potential carrier of the virus and we had been quarantined until further notice.
Eventually a couple of medics showed up in full biohazard suits. Without explanation they went around the room pointing lasers at our foreheads to obtain temperature readings. One or two unfortunate souls even had needles jabbed in their arms or necks. They moved swiftly and silently, these laser-wielding contagion-thwarting spacemen, looking like they were prepared to deal with a nuclear meltdown if necessary. I felt certain that they were going to perforate me with their hypodermic syringes and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Fortunately my veins suffered no such intrusion. But at this stage people were seriously breaking down. Some of the women were completely hysterical. Tom and I were both able to grasp the gravity of the situation, knowing that SARS is highly contagious and can be fatal, and yet we were untouched by the sense of panic that hung in the room. In those days I had no great fear of death. Perhaps, like a lot of 14-year-old boys, I felt invincible. But I don’t think this childish delusion can fully account for my lack of fear at that time. I had witnessed death, I had been confronted with its cold reality and yet I viewed it as little more than an interruption. I had already seen a lot of the world by the age of 14 and figured that if I had to depart from it I wouldn’t be leaving behind anything much. I was not old enough to have any big regrets. The only thing that saddened me about the prospect of death was the knowledge that my parents would be distraught to lose me. But I had faith. I knew that God gives and takes away, that not even a sparrow falls without Him knowing, and that nothing happens without His consent. I accepted that life and death are both part of the divine master plan.
So we waited. The afternoon slipped by and evening came. Around dinner time we were provided with burgers, fries and drinks from McDonalds free of charge. Those soggy lukewarm food parcels were the only compensation we ever received for the inconvenience of being herded into a potential SARS deathpit and incarcerated there for nearly a whole day.
After nightfall we were given the all-clear by the medical authorities. It transpired that the suspected SARS carrier had merely contracted a cold. We were released from the waiting room only to be stopped again at border control. The gates were closed, the immigration officers were nowhere to be seen and we had not yet been reunited with our passports. We were kept waiting there for another hour or two. There were no seats so we all had to sit on the floor around the passport desks. There were no official announcements. At this point tiredness and boredom were my predominant emotions.
Finally the fellow with the pillowcase returned and dumped all our travel documents out into a pile. Tom and I rummaged through the pile and found ours. They were easy to find as they were among the few non-Chinese passports.
We were surprised to find our friends waiting at arrivals. While we were in quarantine they had managed to find out what was going on from airport staff. Ironically they were probably better informed about the situation than we were.
Anyhow, neither Tom or I were shaken up by the whole experience. We were just relieved to be on our way home. We were travel-worn, footsore and excited to be at the start of a school holiday. One more day and we would be meeting our parents in Changsha, having not seen them for four months. And now we were armed with another good story to tell them upon arrival. It didn’t even occur to us that they might be horrified to hear our tale of the SARS scare in Kunming. It was all good.