A few days after we got back to Beijing, I ran into a neighbor on the street in front of our apartment building. She stared at me as if she were seeing a ghost.
"You're here!," she said breathlessly. I thought her tone was a bit odd, but I chalked it up to the cold weather and her basic English skills.
"Yes, we just got back from Bali a few days ago. It was a great vacation," I replied.
There was a long pause, as if she were processing this simple sentence in slow-motion. "But, but, you're missing in the tsunami! The school made an announcement about it right after Christmas, and your picture was in the paper with a story about how you were missing!"
Needless to say I was stunned. What was she talking about? School announcement? Newspaper story? Perhaps she was confusing us with some other family? Perhaps she had an over-active imagination?
Over the next couple of days, however, I kept having similar experiences with other neighbors. Each one mentioned a newspaper article about us and the tsunami, and a school announcement. Unfortunately, no one had saved the article, and I wasn't able to get over to the school when they were open, in order to ask what they knew.
Fortunately, one of the neighbors mentioned that the article had appeared in a newspaper called Beijing Youth Daily -- one of Beijing's largest dailies (circulation over 2.1 million). Finally, a clue. We knew someone who worked there -- a young reporter whom we had hired as a Chinese tutor for the girls in the afternoons.
I emailed her and got back the following message:
When I clicked the link she gave me, here's what popped up:
And when I clicked the "see it in print as a PDF" link, I saw how it appeared on page A6 of Beijing Youth Daily on January 2, 2005:
Here's a translation of the article:
On the one hand, I'm tickled that our reporter friend cared enough about us to try and make sure we were OK, and that so many of our neighbors noticed the article. On the other hand, I'm somewhat surprised that our "news" rated printing in such a major newspaper, in a city of 17 million people. Either events related to foreigners are still disproportionately important in China, or it was a really slow news day! Oddly, despite the fact that we had emailed a number of our Beijing friends in the days after the tsunami, nobody called the paper with an update after the article appeared.
Our neighbors and friends were all relieved to welcome us back, and we in turn were surprised and touched by the impression we've apparently made on people we hardly even know since we moved here. The reaction to the rumors of our death made our return from our first long trip away from Beijing feel like a true homecoming.