Living in Limbo

An Update on the Horrors/Joy/Mostly Horrors of Teaching Online

My last blog post, back in October of 2020, saw me packed and mentally gearing myself up for the 14 day quarantine in Shanghai and +7 day stay in a hotel outside my school in Beijing before I’d be allowed back into my dorm and classrooms. At the time, I was optimistic to finally be returning to China. I had the necessary visa and plane ticket. Everything was good to go…Until it wasn’t.

                The week before my flight, the Chinese embassy threw a wrench into my plans.

Failure to launch. What happened??

The Chinese embassy , without saying in so many words, pretty much blocked incoming U.S. passengers by imposing the near-impossible requirements of needing two different Covid tests done within 48 hours of your flight (really, I was told it needed to be 36 to give the embassy a 12-hour window to verify your results).

I had a rough, desperate go of calling up and down public and private clinics in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to find a lab that could do the tests in time. One nurse flat out told me I won’t have any luck, and, sadly, she was right. No one I contacted could guarantee I would get my results in the time needed, and I wasn’t going to risk thousands of dollars on a “maybe” and find myself stranded in Texas or LA.

My second attempt at returning failed as did the attempts of six other colleagues trying to return from around the globe.

Living in Limbo

Thankfully I had the foresight to buy insurance on my flight and had my two-thousand dollar one-way ticket refunded in full. It’s mindboggling to think that prices were as high as $10,000 one-way last September. In all my years of traveling back and forth to China, I have never paid more than $600 for a one-way ticket!

My Chinese coworkers were incredulous when I told them the news, telling me that it takes them only about an hour to get tested and results back. It hurt having to explain how our hospitals are overwhelmed here because we lack the health infrastructure to meet the needs of those being tested.

While I continued to teach over Zoom, other foreign teachers who were unable to make it back found their classes being pulled one after another over Christmas. The explanation given being that the Chinese parents were concerned about their children having too much screen time. I grew increasingly panicked and distraught as communication from my school outside of my teaching assistants became nonexistent. Finals came and  went. I went into our month-long new year’s break unsure if I’d continue to have a job as the embassy has yet to change their requirements and my special PU letter and visa have expired.

In true Chinese fashion, two days before the start of the semester, I was given a link to the school welcome back speech. So, here I am teaching nights on Zoom again…

Connection issues continue to be an almost a daily occurrence. A huge chunk of the problem, my TAs and I deduced, is that while the school increased the amount of students and classes (and tuition!), the internet has not been updated in years. In fact, there continues to be pushback against updating it. So, while I have high-speed fiber on my end allowing students to hear me just fine, I often cannot hear them. It’s incredibly hard and frustrating, especially when I want to have my students read out loud or give presentations! Equally upsetting is that I still have to find and pay for my own material and design curriculum for 16 classes a week between two grades and two different subjects. Ah, the joys of teaching long-distance.

How I’ve been Coping

I admit that I’ve been struggling under near-constant anxiety. I know that I should consider myself lucky to even have a job during this pandemic, and I really do have so many blessings in the form of my husband and having a roof over our head. However, the mental strain of teaching at night online for over a year now has been enormous. When it started to affect me physically these past few months, I sought help.

The lack of sun hasn’t helped either.

Therapy has really saved my sanity. My therapist has helped me realize that none of this situation is my fault. I did my best to return, and for the sake of my mental health, I need to focus more on what I can control. It’s so easy to think of what-ifs. For instance, what if instead of saying they’d reimburse me, my school simply paid for a flight for me to arrive earlier in September or October? My feelings of anger and frustration are understandable and justified. It is a crappy situation overall when my hands are tied and I can’t be the kind of teacher I want to be for my students with so much limited access to what I can do with them through a tiny virtual screen. Add to this the fact that I’ve been not been checked up on, let alone contacted, by the director of the program or even heads of the department for months, and so much of my stuff is still in my school dorm. It’s a rough state of affairs to be in.

Re-Examining My Needs and Learning to Let Go

It feels like a lifetime ago now.

            When I moved to Beijing in the Fall of 2019, I had such dreams of positive growth and learning from experienced colleagues. Instead, I found myself working 60+ hours a week as faculty in a fairly toxic work environment.

I realize that living in Lishui and working in Chinese public schools for two years had spoiled me in so many ways. Sure, I’d dealt with a lot of uncomfortable experiences there, such as not having hot water for months at a time in the winter (lots of boiled water baths) and being awkwardly hit on by campus security guards. However, I had a lot of teacher friends in Lishui who were open, loving, and honest. I felt like I was welcomed as a part of a family there, and I understand now that this is something I really value in a workspace. I am at my best when I feel appreciated and that what I’m doing makes a difference.

            Beijing was fun in that there was so much to see and do. However, I never had time to do as much as I wanted before the pandemic stranded me in the US. The work environment in Beijing was so different from small town Zhejiang. For one, I was not expecting to inherit so much drama from teachers in my previous position when I started in Beijing. Consequently, it was an uphill battle from the get-go to build a foundation of mutual trust and respect. Once my contract ends this July, I’ll be happy to be able to go into more detail about how different it is to teach in private and public schools in China. My therapist made a good point in that I shouldn’t be stressing about what I can’t control despite how much it rankles my ethics. Do I even expect (or want) to keep in contact with many of these people in ten years? There’s also so much happening with the country itself that gives me pause about wanting to try to stay there longer term.

            Perhaps it’s true, too, that I’m moving into a different season in life, and I ought to think more about what the future entails. I have spent my twenties having some wonderful adventures and experiences. Therapy has also helped me realize that I’ve been simply continuing a pattern I’ve had my whole life in terms of constantly moving. The longest I’ve ever lived in one city was seven years in Yokota AFB, Japan, but the longest I’ve stayed in any one home is only around three years. My husband, on the other hand, was born down the road where he went to high school. He was raised in a supportive, loving embrace of having extended family close by. I didn’t have that. My nuclear family situation was highly volatile, abusive, and problematic. My extended family lived oceans away. When my husband and I do have children within the next few years, I need to come to terms with what that will mean to give them the best home life I could only dream of as a child.

Pushing Through

                In the meantime, with seventeen weeks left of this spring semester, I have to be contented with watching for news from a distance. I had sent a care package of holiday snacks and candies from the US to my students that was bafflingly rejected by the school. The reason I was given is that Covid strains were found on the bolts and screws of a delivery truck somewhere in China, despite the face that nothing could live in or on my package since it’d taken over a week to arrive and had gone through a sanitization process at customs about three times. The paranoia is strong. Any package from overseas is no longer allowed on campus.

Graphic coutesy of tmz.com

The most amusing and cringeworthy development is the practice of anal-swabbing incoming passengers to China. Some study in China proclaims this as the best way to detect the virus in a persons’ system. In my wechat groups, accounts have been varied as to whether one is able to self-administer or a female nurse does this for you. Even a little five year-old was not exempt.

Apparently this has been such a disturbing experience that the Japanese embassy has asked China to stop doing this to their inbound citizens!

If given the option, I’m not sure if I’d want to go through with it all. Yet, I am not in a position to even get this option as of right now our HR lady says that China isn’t even issuing visas to people outside of plane or ship crews. For another amusing story see this one in which China’s Civil Aviation Admiration guidelines encourages stewardesses to wear disposable diapers to avoid using the bathrooms in-flight.

Focusing on the Positives

I could spend all day stressing about these new developments, so it really takes effort to focus on what I can control. One thing I’m working on is giving myself permission to take breaks from work to do other things. I’m the kind of person who feels incredibly guilty doing anything else besides work or what people need from me, and this mentality only feeds the anxiety cycle. I have to force myself to not be a workaholic, especially in the current situation I’m in where it feels never-ending.

                Some of my accomplishments lately have to do with baking and cooking (see pics below). I’ve mastered macrons on the second try! I’ve also focused on practicing foods I miss and cannot find in our area of Maryland, like Pad Thai and Jiaozi (Chinese hand-folded dumplings). The only downside is that I have had to order quite a few expensive specialty ingredients online that I can’t find at our local grocery store.

I also tried a free reading app called Libby. I signed up for a temporary e-card through a local library and now have access to loads of kindle books and audiobooks through Libby. With some popular titles, you do have a wait time, but it hasn’t been a problem for me. I have to say, 2021 has become my year of audiobooks. I love how they free up my hands to do chores. I’ve listened to over a dozen so far these past two months!

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