How COVID-19 Changed Everything for Expat Teachers in China

My phone buzzed in my jacket pocket. It’s mom. She’s wondering if I heard about this new virus that’s spreading in China.

Wear a mask and be careful, she wrote. I replied with a masked selfie while boarding my flight in Dalian, hoping it would lessen her concern. Deep inside, I was relieved to be headed home to the states. My phone continued to vibrate from dozens of expat friends reminding me: Wash your hands thoroughly. Wear a mask. Stay away from livestock. What I didn’t know was that a day later, the epidemic would blow up.

Now, it’s been nearly a month since that time and, sadly, I still feel like I don’t fully understand the novel coronavirus. Apparently, the coronavirus is common in many animals but seldom does the coronavirus infect people–until this new strain from Wuhan spread from person-to-person.

Between the over-alarmists coming from American news and the extreme-optimists coming from the Chinese news, it can be very confusing. The World Health Organization believes this is the tip of the iceberg, yet the Chinese claim they’ve reached the turning point. Until now, one thing is certain: the problem is far from being solved, and it’s unlikely things in China will return to normal soon.

How I Learned of the Novel Coronavirus

It all happened via text. It was early January, and because winter break had just kicked off, teachers were racing toward their next destination. I was officially in VACATION MODE. While packing my bags for Beijing, I got a text from one of my close teacher friends. He was on a train en route toward central China near the Hubei Province. He mentioned being nervous about a virus out of Wuhan. I read his text thinking, Where’s Wuhan? What virus? I didn’t take his news too seriously. Viruses happen every winter. The conversation carried on with our travel preparations.

But after our text conversation, the thought of a foreign virus lingered in my head; it was an unsettling feeling, so I searched for the city of Wuhan on the map. I quickly realized it was far from Dalian. Nothing to worry about, I thought. Even though my friend was only an hour or so away from the epicenter, I felt he had nothing to worry about. He’s responsible.

The Calm Before the Storm

You never expect “some virus” to be the virus that becomes the world’s next epidemic. Who knew this would escalate worldwide? Who knew the next time I would search for Wuhan, it would include people in hazmat suits carrying away bodies?

For weeks, we had no communication about the virus from our university. Chinese media was optimistic, but by mid January, official news became inconsistent: one day, there were no possible cases, but the next day, a dozen would be confirmed. A day later, people were dying, but no one was identifying this virus as lethal. No one seemed to question whether this was more serious than a common flu. All was eerily calm.

What This Means for Expat Teachers in China

For many teachers, life in China is still uncertain. Since the corona virus took off during the Chinese New Year winter break, many teachers are still blocked from returning to China. Some have returned to their home country, probably due to expenses because they’re doubtful about a quick solution. Other teachers whom I know have chosen to stay in neighboring countries, like Thailand or Japan, hoping to ride out the coronavirus until they can return to their second home of China.

As for me, my university will begin online classes in early March. More than likely, online teaching will be the solution for all other schools. I have even heard rumors, that in rare cases, some universities in or near Hubei Province will cancel the upcoming spring semester–as they should. Admittedly, I was surprised by the precautions my university took after being quiet for a few weeks–but asking us to stay home and teach from where we are was a smart decision to keep students, faculty, and staff safe from the coronavirus. In these moments, transparency means everything.

I’ve already begun preparing my online materials for my writing classes. I fully expect this semester to be abnormal and inconsistent. This semester will prove to be challenging, but I’m ready for it. In the meantime, I sit and wait for further news, not really knowing what to do. One thing is certain: the new semester is delayed, and there’s no further information about when we’ll all return. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the entire semester will be online.

The Lockdown

The remaining expat teachers, like my friends in Dalian, China, are still riding out the coronavirus in total lockdown. They are unable to leave their apartment without a mandatory protective mask. Even still, government officers regulate who goes out in public, and for foreigners in Dalian, that is limited to a once-a-week grocery trip. Most businesses are paralyzed or closed and restaurants won’t allow dining-in. Most recently, guides on how to buy food online are being shared across WeChat (China’s most popular social media). Several companies are offering a drop-off service in specific pick-up zones. The lucky few who live in farther away provinces, like in southern China, confinement regulations are different. There, in many ways, life goes on almost normally.

There is, however, the fear that no matter how much you reassure people that you left the country before it all unfolded, they will still perceive you as a potential threat. I can only imagine the headache expat teachers are experiencing trying to leave China to look for jobs elsewhere, knowing that employers might also feel this same way. These teachers may find it difficult to get a new job.

All Things Considered…

I’m comforted by the Chinese people’s determination to get through this. Videos shared on WeChat show people with signs: “Proud to be Wuhanese.” The locals are strong and want to win this fight. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, except that we can only hope that Wuhan will grow stronger from this disaster.

If you have stories to share about your novel coronavirus experience, feel free to drop a line.

Do you have any questions about the virus?

2 thoughts on “How COVID-19 Changed Everything for Expat Teachers in China

  1. Congrats, Addie, very interesting post. Also in Italy the situation is heavy in this days, but I hope that all will return quite in one or two weeks the most.
    Ciao 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry to hear that about Italy, Stefano! In fact, it seems like China’s numbers are plateauing but other countries are at serious risk. Thanks for reading! 😁


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