Summer 2019 – Lots of time with children & grandchildren
Husband and I are spending lots of time with loved ones before heading to Beijing, China. We accepted offers to work at an International school and were so excited about our upcoming ex-pat life! Jim would be working in Learning Support and I was to do a maternity coverage in secondary curriculum.
August 2019 – Arrive in Beijing
Overwhelmed, both good and not so good at times, by the new culture, our new school, and our new life! So grateful to have a wonderful school and bosses that took such good care of us newbies.
Fall Semester 2019 – Adjusting to our new life
So thankful we got to Beijing a few days early to adjust to time zone changes. While August was a whirlwind of things to do as new residents in Beijing and new employees at the school, that was to prepare us to do the work. At a new school, there is always much to learn. What is the school culture? How is this different being in an international context than an American context? How can I learn as much as I can to do this maternity coverage without messing it all up? How will I remember to properly say names that are unfamiliar to me as I don’t want to offend anyone and I believe names are important? How do I find doctors and a dentist?
In addition to the work, we got to travel a bit. Jim went to Singapore for a conference and I went to Incheon (Seoul) for a conference. We went to Busan, Korea for fall break and spent a week enjoying the beach. We went home to see family for Christmas. It was exhilarating and exhausting!
Spring Semester 2020 – Chinese New Year turned into being away for 8 months
Things started to flow well in January. I had a semester at the school & in China under my belt. I was looking forward to exploring China more, taking Mandarin lessons, and decorating our new apartment.
We were going to see some family and friends in the US for Chinese New Year, leaving Beijing on January 22, 2020. A few days earlier we had heard about an illness in Wuhan, but that was really far away. All my international school colleagues shared stories of various health things that happened at one posting or another. I was assured this wasn’t a big deal and not to worry. ha! If we only knew!
A few days after arriving in the US, we were notified that school would not resume in person on February 3rd as originally planned. Instead, we would start online schooling then. It was thought it might be for a week or two (again – ha!), and we could stay where we were and work remotely. We decided to stay in the US since we weren’t sure how well the infrastructure would hold together in China (note: it was fine and better than the US) and the US State Dept was telling citizens not to go to China. Some of our colleagues that had been on holiday returned as scheduled, most stayed away. As the virus continued to spread and China got more locked down, some colleagues who had returned or never left for CNY holiday decided to leave and return when we would go back to in-person school. Our seniors never were on campus again until their delayed graduation (and some were stuck out of China). Our MS & HS students had a week or two on campus in June. Our 1-2 weeks online turned into 4 months!
March 2020 – Illness from Wuhan becomes worldwide pandemic
The first few weeks of working online went ok, it was difficult due to time zone issues, but we weren’t synchronous and my work was more about meetings and getting things done on my own time. Because we hadn’t planned this, we didn’t have a long-term place to stay. Many offered rooms or basements to us, but we honestly had no idea how long this would last. We thought it would blow over and we’d head home to Beijing in a few weeks. Except it felt like daily things were getting worse.
In February, we changed house every 1-2 weeks, while still trying to work. From March to June, we changed house every month, which normally included flying somewhere else in the world to stay. This was one of the most stressful things. Trying to work, worrying about the pandemic, and having to constantly find somewhere else to live and get us there.
Then, one of our friends and former colleagues from Atlanta died of COVID. It was devastating. I was reading anything and everything I could about COVID, China, and when to return.
April 2020 – Survival mode
We are now in Lake Tahoe, CA. At this point, we’ve been in Florida, Georgia, Thailand, and now back in the US. We got locked out of China just as we were trying to return. Now we can’t return. Our dog has been with the dog sitter since January. We find out my favorite uncle died of COVID. I continued to read anything and everything I could about COVID, China, and when the borders might open back up. My reading was becoming obsessive, and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop.
May 2020 – New month, must be a new location for the Mathews!
We’ve moved again and are in Florida. More expense. More planning, More stress. No idea when we get to go home. Thankfully we will stay in Florida until school ends in June. We have to move locations before then, but it will be in the same city, so no airfare or time changes. We got to see some of our grandchildren – which was the biggest highlight. I was terrified of getting the virus. I have pre-existing conditions. My husband has pre-existing conditions. And we still didn’t know when China would open. We didn’t want China to open and then we missed our window because one of us was sick. We were still waiting for the news to return.
It was also around this time that George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, sparking protests throughout the US.
June 2020 – Finally, the end of our first school year as “expats”
Are you still an expat when you’ve been out of your new home, China, as much as you’ve been there? I have never been so happy for the end of a school year. I don’t do well with so much unknown. It’s been months and months of extreme stress. And still, no idea when we can go home. I keep telling people I’m fine. I mean, this is hard for everyone, I’m not special, and so, I’m fine in the same way everyone else is fine. Plus, if I keep saying “I’m fine,” then maybe I will be ok? Power of positive thinking and all that.
One thing I’ve learned about myself: I’m not good as an “at home” worker. I learned this several years ago; I work well at school or somewhere like a coffee shop. With everything closed, there was nowhere to go to work. The combo of not being even “at home” and nowhere else to work was challenging for me. I know some people thrive in this type of situation and working at home. I am not one of those people.
Summer 2020 – Some stability, and finally, good news!
We arranged with friends to stay with them starting in July and they said we could stay until China allowed us to return. So grateful – staying with wonderful, kind, gracious friends and don’t have to move again. I think I slept A LOT the first couple of weeks. Then we were able to get into somewhat of a routine, which I needed.
As we continued to wait on when we could return, good news started to arrive! Beijing was starting to issue PU letters (like an approval letter) for international teachers. Our school announced that the letters would be in waves, according to the government. While we didn’t know which wave we would be in or when it would happen, at least the process was starting. Colleagues were making it back to China!
September 2020- The return!
It was finally our turn and we arrived in Shanghai, China on September 17, 2020. I’m back in the classroom teaching high school math – it’s good to be with students! We left on January 22, almost 8 months earlier. We had to do a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine at a hotel that was not of our choosing and were released on October 1.
We moved into our “new” apartment on October 15, 2019. We were gone for 2 weeks at Christmas and then left on January 22 for CNY. In the first year we had the apartment, we were in it for maybe 3 months.
We arrived in China on July 31, 2019. When you count the time out of China for conferences, travel, and COVID, we spent less than 5 months in China in our first year as “expats”.
While our first year as expats (or even our first 2 years!) was not what we planned or expected, I have learned I love the expat life. I feel so fortunate to be at our school; not all international teachers had the type of support we received during COVID. I’m learning to be better with the unknown. I’m learning more about different cultures & faith practices from my friends, colleagues, students, and Chinese society at large.