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Amy and the Pandemic: Past and Present

Published: 11 June 2020 - Amy Evans and Anne Gerritsen

If anyone was under the impression that the widespread practice of wearing facemasks originated with the 2002-3 SARS outbreak in China, they would be mistaken. People in Asia have worn masks for much longer. Amy Evans, secretary of the Global History and Culture Centre for over ten years, remembers wearing face masks when she was growing up in Shanghai (and hating it with a passion). In this fourth instalment of the GHCC pandemic mini-series, Amy talks to GHCC director Anne Gerritsen about her upbringing in China, her move to the UK in the wake of the hand-over of Hong Kong, and her experience of pandemics both in Shanghai and the West Midlands. The conversation took place on 2 June 2020.

From Shanghai to Coventry

Amy distinctly remembers wearing face masks when she was in primary school in the 1980s. ‘When I was growing up in Shanghai’, she recalls, ‘people were always worried about flu and cold viruses, especially in the winter. So, my mother made us wear a mask. Just a homemade mask, layers of muslin, that got grubby after a while. They were horrible.’ But everyone did it. Wearing a mask, to protect yourself and others, was part of daily life.

China was not an easy place to grow up. Amy had strict parents, and they had ‘high expectations of their children’. The area of Shanghai where Amy lived as a child, near the campus of Fudan university, was very much on the outskirts of the city. ‘Living standards were very basic, people largely had similar income from the government. Accommodations were allocated and at a low cost up to the early 90s.’ There wasn’t much freedom to make individual choices, certainly not about things like boyfriends.

Amy (right) with her father and sister in Fudan, near Mao’s statue

But things started to change in the 1990s. China became a place of opportunities, and foreigners started to arrive in significant numbers in Shanghai. Amy made the most of her English language skills, honed from the third year of primary school onwards, to work with expats, helping them with setting up Joint Venture contracts. Compared to her classmates, she was making good money. It was in that heady environment that she met her Keith, who would become her husband. At the time, she was planning a very different future for herself: she had been preparing for the TOEFL test to allow her to follow her older sister to the United States.

Amy left Shanghai for Britain in 1997, only a few weeks after watching the Hong Kong handover in a Western bar in Shanghai. From the Chinese perspective, the return of Chinese authority to the British colony had always seemed inevitable, just a matter of time. I wondered what emotions she recalled, thinking back to her younger self in that bar, seeing the carefully choreographed movements of these two nations. A sense of anxiety or foreboding about her new home? A sense of pride in the place that had been home until then?. She mostly recalls the excitement about coming to Britain and starting a new life there.

Of course, arriving in England was a shock. She describes it as ‘very, very quiet, no people around.’ After the high-octane environment of a global city like Shanghai, it felt like stepping back in time in the West Midlands of the 1990s. It wasn’t easy to get used to locally spoken English, either. In an environment where most of the English she heard was spoken by non-native English speakers, she felt very comfortable using the language. But that English seemed nothing to do with the English people spoke on the buses and in the shops around her here. It was almost like learning a whole new language.

But somehow, over the years, Coventry became home, and China less so. When I asked about China, she described the change as ‘beyond recognition, the infrastructure, people’s look, housing, economy etc. almost everything is different, Shanghai has grown into a concrete/steel jungle'.

Amy's home office during the current pandemic, June 2020

SARS and COVID

On the SARS outbreak of 2002, Amy recalls that she had wanted to travel to China to visit her parents that year with her pre-school-age daughter, before school terms would start to make that difficult. But her mother told her not to come.

When the first information about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan started to seep into our news channels, Amy thought it would be just like SARS. There would be some travel restrictions, and the disease would be contained within Asia. But in 2002, people didn’t fly anything like as much as they do in 2020. It transpired soon after that we were dealing with quite a different situation. Initially, the outbreak seemed contained to Wuhan, although it is difficult to know how reliable the information from China is about the early days, long before Covid-19 was declared to be a pandemic. ‘It’s China, after all; we don’t really know what they are telling us (and what they are not telling us).’

Comparing her recollections from China with the current situation in the UK, what strikes Amy most is a sense of freedom. People are free to question the decisions that the Government makes and openly discuss and challenge them, which it is not quite possible in China. For instance, a Chinese individual (陈秋实) vanished overnight in February because he was reporting what was happening in the streets of Wuhan via the social media platform Weibo.

Indeed, talking to her relatives in China over the past months, it was clear to her how different the attitude is there. ‘They are extremely cautious, would stay indoors for weeks and months which reminds me the of the expression mingzhe baoshen 明哲保身 [trans: ‘the wise protect themselves’]. My mother never forgets to tag a phrase ‘always wear facemask’, as if that’s a way of protection for oneself.’

So, is she wearing a mask now, forty years after wearing masks in primary school? Does she follow her mother’s advice? ‘No!’. Of course, she admits that when it becomes mandatory for everyone to wear masks, she will obey the rules. But if she can avoid it, she will.

Amy talks about being ‘scarred’ by having to wear those grubby masks as a child. But when I push her on this, it seems there is also another reason. For her to wear a mask would mean looking ‘just like any other Chinese person wearing those masks’.

Having lived here in the UK for so long, having made her home in Coventry for over twenty years, she may not quite describe herself as ‘English’ (we agreed on that; both of us don’t think we’d ever describe ourselves as English), even though she acquired a British passport in 2004. Equally, it doesn’t feel right to be grouped together with those who have only just arrived in the UK. Like so many of us in the Global History and Culture Centre, Amy belongs to more than one place. She is a global citizen.