Pandemic Adventures

I haven’t been on social media much recently, simply because everything has been so crazy and I’ve been trying to get my head around a whole load of things. Now I’ve been in one place for a few days, here’s what’s been happening with me.

My school’s Chinese New Year holiday began on Saturday 18th January, and I flew to India on 21st January for a fantastic tour around loads of places with great friends. At the time the novel coronavirus was just starting to be a news item, but as it was a two hour flight away in Wuhan, we initially didn’t think it would affect us at all. I had a fantastic time in India; however, it was gradually overshadowed by the increasing number of cases spreading throughout China. In the third and final week of our holiday, our flights back to Shenzhen were cancelled and we were informed that our school would not be reopening on 10th February as planned.

At this point we all had to make decisions about what to do and where to go, which ended up being all different places. I continued with my original plan of visiting one of my good friends in Goa while I figured out what to do next. Autum suggested I go to stay with her in Kazakhstan, as then I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, so I booked a flight to Dubai and then on to Atyrau as it was about £200 cheaper to do it that way. Plus it meant I got to visit Dubai for a couple of days and go up the tallest building in the world.

However, things are never that straight forward of course. Autum’s work were concerned about me coming to visit as I live in China, even though by the time I would have arrived I would have been out of the country for nearly three weeks, and suggested I don’t come immediately. This was quite upsetting as it seemed really unreasonable at the time and left me slightly stranded. My flights then got cancelled as there was a time change which meant the connection didn’t work, but at least it meant I could get a full refund. However, I’d already booked a hotel in Dubai and tickets to watch the sunset from the 155th floor of the Burj Khalifa.

I booked a new flight to Dubai, and bid farewell to my friend in Goa. After lots of discussion and looking at options, I then flew to Bahrain for a few days. This gave me a base to work out of for a week of remote teaching which wasn’t too far from Dubai and so wasn’t too expensive to get to or stay in.

At this point we found out that school wasn’t going to reopen on 17th February, as per the first update we received, but was being pushed back again to 24th February due to requirements from the local government in Shenzhen. I had been wondering about this and hadn’t yet booked my outward flight from Bahrain, as I wasn’t sure if I would have to go straight back to China or if it would be better for me to stay out of the country for now. As it seemed that this whole situation wasn’t going to get better overnight, I booked a flight from Bahrain to Kazakhstan for the Friday of that week.

Bahrain seems like a lovely country, although I didn’t really get to see very much of it. The whole time I was there was the first week of remote teaching, and I had to do this using only my phone. When packing for India I had decided not to bring my laptop as I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be doing any work (school work or masters) during my travels. This meant that from the moment we found out that school wasn’t going to open on 10th Feb, halfway through the last week of our CNY holiday, we had to start planning for online teaching and learning. And I had to do all my planning, finding and making resources, recording and editing videos, uploading videos and resources, communicating with my year group colleagues, and checking and marking children’s work just using my phone.

All the things you have to do as a teacher take long enough as it is. Add to that: adapting everything for online learning, adapting teaching input to a series of under-5-minute videos to make sure they will actually upload, a constant stream of messages and emails about what we’re doing and how to do it, more messages about the changes happening in China, even more messages from parents concerned about their children’s education and what we’re doing about it, making lesson plans in word, making PowerPoints and pdfs for lessons and work for the children – and having to do it all using only a phone. As you may imagine, it all took rather a long time.

At this point in time many members of staff were in parts of the world and therefore time zones other than China, so staff were asked by school to be available from 2pm-8pm China time instead of the usual school day times. Bahrain is 5 hours behind China, which made it 9am-3pm for me; pretty reasonable times. However, as most of my colleagues were in China at this point I was waking up to around 200 messages every morning that first week. Once we started lessons and the children were uploading their work, I also had around 150 pieces of work to mark. Every day. Needless to say, I was working long after the time we were supposed to be available. Especially in the first couple of weeks, teaching online is so much more work than teaching in class. Everyone I have spoken to agrees with this. It’s so much easier actually being in school. On top of this some of the parents didn’t like the way we were teaching or the fact that school was closed, and started demanding that either they had a refund of the fees for semester 2 or the semester should be extended into the summer holiday. Of course, the teachers weren’t happy with this suggestion as we were all putting in more hours than we normally would be.

I managed to do a short tour of Bahrain on one day, by making my lesson videos and preparing everything the day before, and in between being constantly on my phone for work. Luckily, I was the only person on the tour so I could ask my tour guide, Ludmila, to repeat information if I missed anything she said! She was very accommodating, which was great. I saw the Tree of Life, the first oil well, Bahrain fort, the king’s camel farm, Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain National Museum, Bahrain Formula 1 track and Manama souq. It was a busy but interesting day!

On Friday 14th February, four days after school was supposed to open, I flew from Bahrain to Dubai to Almaty to Atyrau, finally arriving about 1am the next morning. Autum met me at the tiny airport with a borrowed winter coat, as I had gone from a balmy 20C to a slightly colder -5C. Atyrau in February is so cold that the river freezes over. When I visited last year we walked across the frozen Ural River and I stood on the line where Europe and Asia meet.

Week two of online teaching was considerably easier as I was able to borrow Autum’s laptop, and as the time difference was only 3 hours behind China I didn’t have quite as many work messages to wake up to. However, we had new requirements for online teaching from the Chinese Education Bureau and so had to change our timetable for that week to ensure we were meeting those requirements. This still meant making videos for every lesson, planning what we were doing, rewriting the planning into child-friendly instructions, having our Chinese Teaching Partners translate all the instructions into Chinese so the parents could read them too, making the resources and uploading everything to an online server for the parents to access. The first day of online teaching my TP had tried to email all the instructions and resources to all the parents – and her email had crashed. The school IT guy set up the online server as a solution, and that’s what we’ve been using ever since.

I felt much less stressed about the whole situation once I was staying with Autum. I’d been there before, so knew a few people as well as the place, and having a laptop to use for work made such a difference. Of course, the situation wasn’t done changing. The third week of online teaching we had another new timetable, still with video lessons as there were many staff and students still out of the country and so in different timezones.

At the end of the third week, we found out that we would be starting live online lessons the following Monday, 2nd March. This meant that I would begin teaching at 5am every day due to the time difference. The Education Bureau sent out information that the children should have a maximum of 2 hours online teaching per day in primary, with offline work also provided to follow on from the online lesson. This whole time I’d been in constant contact with my colleagues in Year 6 via WeChat, organising everything we had to do between us. (And I will say at this point that my colleagues have been awesome.) With the live lessons we were given the choice of using either a WeChat video platform or Zoom. As WeChat was only available in Chinese, we opted for Zoom!

Starting this whole process of teaching online was a complete baptism of fire. None of us had ever taken part in an online meeting system, let alone had any training. A lot of it was trial and error, at the same time as researching the best ways to do things, adapting our lessons, and trying to ensure that the students and parents were as happy as they could be, considering the difficult situation. What made the whole thing more difficult was the constant changes. Every week we were given different expectations for what and when we had to teach, and so a different timetable of lessons.

Once we started the online live lessons, it was really nice to see the kids again, have a chat with them and find out how they were doing. We got positive feedback from the parents as well, as they preferred the live lessons to video lessons, and the complaints and demands for a refund of fees stopped. For the second week of live online teaching, the number of lessons for the children increased to three per day, but as we were still limited to two hours online by the Education Bureau they had to be three 40 minute lessons back to back. Any offline work we set for the children had to then be completed after all the online lessons had finished.

On the Friday of week 4 of online teaching, and after we’d done all our planning for week 5, we were told there were more changes coming from the Education Bureau. These were supposed to start the following Monday, but as it was such short notice my school decided to keep with our then current plan of changing to three lessons each day for week 5 and start the new plan the week after on Monday 16th March. Previously, this date had been the proposed reopening date for school and all staff were encouraged to return before that date just in case. However, with the new information from the bureau it seemed that this was not to be.

Just to add to all the stress of teaching online, the constantly changing timetable, and the state of the world in general, I was only allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for 30 days and there was no way to extend my stay. This meant I had to leave by 14th March. Of course, this wasn’t going to be as straight forward as it should have been. 14th March was also the beginning of Autum’s spring break holiday, but due to the spreading virus her plans were cancelled as well. My original plan had been to fly to Thailand and stay with friends near Pattaya, so that I was closer to Shenzhen to make it easier to get back and the time difference was only an hour to make it easier for live online teaching. However, the day before I was due to fly, Thailand was added to the list of countries that meant a 14 day mandatory government quarantine upon arrival in China. So I had to decide whether to stick to my original plan and fly to Thailand regardless, fly somewhere else like Turkey or Uzbekistan that I could get a cheap or direct flight to from Atyrau and then return to Atyrau (although by many people would be there then due to the holiday) and start my 30 days again, or go from there back to China but with no guarantee that that country wouldn’t be added to the list before my return to China and therefore I’d still have to quarantine. Plus somehow making sure that I still had access to wifi and enough technology that I could teach my lessons (hence the original plan of going to stay with friends who could lend me a laptop).

After visiting a travel agent who contacted the immigration office for me to check I definitely couldn’t stay longer than 30 days in Kazakhstan, and the airline office to see if I could change or cancel my flight (I couldn’t without a fee and/or losing ask the money I’d paid for the flight), and having conversations with Autum and other friends about what to do, I decided to keep to my original plan of going to Thailand as I figured that wherever I went at that point is probably have to quarantine when I got back to China anyway, and at least that way I’d be with friends, the time difference would only be an hour and I could borrow a laptop for my lessons.

About an hour before my taxi to the airport for my flight to Bangkok, Autum decided she would come with me. Her dog was already being looked after as she was originally supposed to be away for two weeks, and she decided she didn’t want to just stay in Atyrau for the whole two weeks with very few people around. She quickly packed her backpack and we headed to the airport for the first flight to Almaty. When we arrived there and went through to the departure lounge, there was quite a while when we were the only passengers in the whole departure area – the only other people were staff. Then just to freak us out even more, the hands on the main clock on the wall started whizzing around!

The second flight and our arrival in Bangkok went without any further drama. We simply had a temperature check once in the airport and were asked to download the app for the airport to keep up to date with changes. The car I’d organised was waiting for us and a little over an hour later we arrived at my friends James and Nat’s place just outside Pattaya. Unfortunately, the laptop I was going to borrow died but as Autum had come with me I could continue borrowing hers for the time being.

The day after we arrived there was an announcement by the Kazakhstan government that they were going to close the country’s borders the next day at 8am, meaning people could leave but no-one could enter until at least 15th April. This meant Autum couldn’t go back at the end of her spring break. James and Nat had kindly said we could stay as long as we needed to; however, neither of us wanted to impose on them for longer than necessary. We just needed to figure out what to do.

My family suggested I go back to the UK, but at this point there were restrictions in place for people arriving from abroad and I’d have nowhere to quarantine. Plus my parents and sister are all in the high risk group, so I wouldn’t want to put them at risk by staying with them, and with live online teaching I’d have to teach from midnight until 8am every day, which would be horrendous. I decided I would go back to Shenzhen as now things were starting to open up again as the only cases were imported. However, it turns out that getting back to China is not as easy as I had hoped.

I wanted a direct flight to Shenzhen as it’s only about 3 hours and usually not very expensive, and this would save me the hassle of going through Hong Kong when all but one border is closed. When I looked at flights the earliest direct ones weren’t until the last couple of days of March, and the prices and times were ridiculous. The first flight which was a reasonable price and was at a time that ensured I didn’t miss any of my online classes was on 1st April, so I booked it and let my work know what I was planning on doing. A couple of days later I was checking that everything was still ok with my flight; I found out that my flight no longer existed. As I’d booked through an intermediary, it took them a couple of days to catch up, but I had already decided not to wait and looked for a new flight to Shenzhen. There weren’t any.

At the same time, Hong Kong had just announced that they would only be letting in Hong Kong residents, meaning I couldn’t fly into HK either. That left me with one option – to fly into Guangzhou, the next city to Shenzhen. I booked a flight for Friday 27th March, again so it wouldn’t affect my online teaching time.

While I was dealing with this, Autum decided she would go to Hawaii to stay with her parents until she could go back to Kazakhstan. Initially there was no rush to get back by a particular date, as she was still on holiday, but then Hawaii announced a mandatory 14 day quarantine for everyone on arrival from Thursday 26th March. In order to get back before that so she could self quarantine instead, she booked a flight for Wednesday. Just to add to the stress of flying under the circumstances, when she got to the airport the majority of flights were being cancelled. Luckily, hers was not, and she successfully boarded the plane from Bangkok to Hawaii via Tokyo.

In the meantime, the Thai government started introducing various restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Whilst Autum was in the air, I found out that if I waited until Friday to go to Bangkok I might not make it there at all as starting Thursday people would not be allowed to travel between provinces. Thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea to get stuck and miss my flight, I booked a hotel near the airport for two nights, and a car to get me there. I finished my lessons for the day, packed, and hung out with James and Nat for a little while before getting the car to my home for the next couple of days.

So this is where I am now, watching the occasional plane land and take off as I eat a late dinner, hoping my flight on Friday will go ahead and enable me to get back to China, and wondering what awaits me when I arrive there.

No Shopping Challenge Week 10

Back in Shenzhen and back to work after a fantastic three week holiday for Chinese New Year.

Which of course meant I was wiped out after work on Monday so the only money I spent was 2.4rmb on the bus home. Tuesday I had a bit more energy and time so I used these to catch up with friends over dinner (363rmb/£41 – more expensive than we thought it would be!) at as little Spanish place called Mambo. I also used some of my time to pay for the deposit and book accommodation for Summer School, where I will be studying for my MA Education which I’ve just started. I’m not counting the cost of the MA in my ‘no shopping challenge’ as this was already arranged before I came up with the challenge idea. I am, however, going to buy as few books as possible and instead read them online through the university library.

Wednesday was another catch-up dinner followed by the local pub quiz, which we actually won! We won 1000rmb of vouchers for The Brew between 7 of us, so 100rmb each plus a drink each next time. Not bad, even if I do say so myself! Total spending for all drinks and dinner for both of us that night was 548rmb (£62).

Usually on Thursday I go to D&D, but unfortunately I ended up going home early from work with a migraine. I guess the plus side to this was that I didn’t spend any money on dinner, instead sleeping for most of the rest of the day and then just managing toast. My only outgoings were the taxi to and from work (37.5rmb/£4.25 both ways) and 100rmb (£11.30) to top up my phone.

On Friday I had to stock up on muesli and yoghurt (67.4rmb/£7.65) as I finished the last of it for breakfast. A small group of us decided to go and see ‘Black Panther’ at the cinema after work as it was the first day of its release in China – and for 35rmb (£4) it was definitely worth it! This time I even remembered to bring my 3D glasses so I didn’t have to buy a new pair! Of course, we had to have dinner before the movie as well: shrimp quesadillas, chips and bogof cocktails for 153.6rmb (£17.45) at Blue Frog was pretty good.

My final night out for the week was on Saturday, and this time there was no alcohol involved! A friend had arranged a movie night at a private cinema for a group of us – 63rmb/£7 for 4 hours in a comfy room with a group of friends watching movies – it was great, and really nice to do something a bit different. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday came round much too quickly as usual. I woke up quite early but stayed in bed reading for a few hours before finally deciding I was too hungry to stay in bed any longer. Once again I resisted the urge to order takeout, and raided the freezer instead for my last frozen meal from previous cooking escapades. I spent the rest of the day alternating between studying and watching ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, which meant I spent no money at all (and stayed in my pyjamas all day).

My total spending for week 10 was 1442.4rmb (£164.50) plus the accommodation and deposit for Summer School. Still no takeaway or stuff!