Ask any ESL teacher that has taught abroad and they’ll tell you that their first few months, heck the first year, is rife with challenges. What happens, though, when the country that you’ve moved to suddenly experiences a health epidemic, like SARS or Avian flu, on a global scale? Do you pack up and go home? Do you stick it out? What do you do? Here’s what happened to me during the 2003 SARS epidemic in Mainland China.
During my first month in China, SARS had already spread to Beijing from Guangdong Province. Beijing was a mere 14-hour train ride from where I lived in Changchun, Jilin Province. It arrived in Jilin Province within a matter of weeks. Thousands of cases had been reported and people were starting to die.
Over 30,000 Beijing residents were quarantined in their homes or at quarantine sites between March through July 2003. Foreign teachers were leaving the country in droves by mid-March as schools and businesses closed down all over Changchun. Many went under because they couldn’t afford to stay open with no money coming in, and the city quickly turned into a ghost town as the bustling streets of Changchun grew quiet. No one was in the streets and when people did go out, everyone wore hospital masks. The economy ground to a halt. It was a really scary time to be in the streets. I was terrified of getting sick. People looked at each other in suspicion and fright if even the slightest cough or sniffle occurred. I saw people that refused to take the elevator for fear of being enclosed in a small space with other people.
By mid-April, people were calling SARS the first new virus of the 21st century. In retrospect, the school that I was very fair to its teachers, although many of us didn’t think so at the time. We were given the option of flying home or staying on at reduced pay. Most of our staff went home. I was the only new teacher that stayed on, much to my mother’s dismay, although teachers that had been with the school for several years also chose to stay.
We were enlisted to paint the classrooms and do a massive cleanup. There was nothing else for us to do but wait things out. The city government wouldn’t let anyone drive in or out of city, and once that happened most of the teachers remaining in Changchun decided it was time to fly home. When SARS hit Toronto in April, I felt that my chances were better in remaining in China than getting on an crowded airplane to Canada. My parents called daily begging me to come home. It was a very scary time to be in China.
That was also my first taste of seeing how distorted the media can be. I’d hear accounts of what was happening in China from my mother in Canada and it wasn’t even close to the information we were getting in China. I finally stopped reading the news. Six weeks later, I was wondering if I had made a really big mistake. SARS had put a hold on absolutely everything. No one knew when, or if, life would return to normal.
To bide my time, I found myself a tutor and started learning Mandarin. I spent more time with my new Chinese friends and became accustomed to getting around the city. And, I was given a Chinese name, “wei xiao tian shi” which means “Smiling Angel.”
Eventually, life returned to normal, and by the end of the summer, classes were going again and people were starting to get out and live life again. That first year in China was one of the most pivotal years of my life. It changed me forever. I learned that there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t accomplish on my own. I also learned not to believe everything the media reports. And I learned that sometimes it’s better to just ride things out.