Teaching in China during COVID-19
UKZN alumni Ms Christen Rao and Mr Armandt van Zyl arrived at their teaching posts in Guangdong province, China on 14 March 2020, days before the COVID-19 lockdown started in South Africa.
The LLB graduates from Durban had set their sights on teaching English in China in October 2019, months before the first case was reported in Wuhan. ‘We were supposed to leave at the end of January so we had everything prepared and were already packing when news broke that flights were grounded and we could not leave,’ said Rao.
After they were assured that Zhongshan, at the time, was safe, they made up their minds to take the plunge. ‘We knew to practice basic hygiene and social distancing. The death toll was quite low when we left and most of the cases were in Wuhan, which is very far from Zhongshan and Wuhan was in lockdown,’ said van Zyl.
They were concerned about leaving their family and friends during a pandemic, but managed to stay in contact with them throughout their time abroad. The pair also felt some trepidation about how they might be treated as foreigners because of misinformation spread about COVID-19.
‘The flight to China was very stressful; everyone was silent and in masks. No one was laughing or talking. We had to go through multiple checks after we landed, and spent three hours on the plane so that the medical team could check everyone. We then spent a further four hours at the airport completing various health checks,’ said van Zyl.
‘We were taken to a government hotel for a night to be tested for COVID-19, and completed the rest of our two-week quarantine in our apartment. Food was delivered every day and we taught our students online during this period,’ he said.
‘All in all, the experience has been nothing like a pandemic here. We missed the main panic and fear in China as their main lockdown happened in February. We also missed the lockdown in South Africa. We are grateful to have left when we did so that we could have this experience,’ said Rao.
The twenty-three-year olds teach conversational English at Jizhong Sanxin Kaiyin Primary School in Guangdong province, a coastal area near Hong Kong. ‘Our job is to give the students a chance to practice speaking English to actual English speakers so that we can correct their grammar and pronunciation. We integrate music, art and Western/South African culture into many of our lessons,’ she said.
The expats love travelling, being independent and immersing themselves in a new country. ‘It is very safe here; we frequently take walks after midnight on the streets which are very busy. It is wonderful to engage with a new culture and experience China as a local and not just a tourist,’ said van Zyl.
While they enjoy living and working in China, they do miss their families, friends and the amazing food in South Africa. ‘We miss the food so much. The food is beautiful in SA! There is so much diversity and flavour. We miss Durban curry, boerewors, rusks and gem squash the most,’ said van Zyl.
‘We miss the people; we are so friendly in South Africa. You can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. It is lovely to hear everyone speaking in different languages, expressing their thoughts and opinions openly, loudly and proudly,’ added Rao.
The experience has taught them to be more patient, humble and empathetic. ‘We have both grown massively in confidence through this experience. It is very difficult to stand up in a classroom and have 50 students stare at you because they cannot understand a word you are saying,’ he said.
The varsity friends and now colleagues have also taken to bargain hunting and have spent a few Yuan on online purchases. ‘There is an app called Taobao here, it is like Takealot but on steroids! It is very addictive,’ said Rao.
They offered this advice to fellow UKZN alumni looking to travel and teach, ‘Do your research and be prepared. It is so important to thoroughly research the city and school you want to work at. Message the foreign teachers who work there, find out what you need to be legal in the city and be prepared to network with the locals to fully immerse yourself in the culture. You will have a far more fulfilling experience abroad if you adapt to the culture. Be prepared for differences and culture shock.’
Their plan for the near future is to save enough money to travel to multiple countries. ‘We would like to stay in China for a while and travel from here to places like Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Europe. Once we have satisfied our wanderlust, we would ideally like to pursue our LLMs or settle into our law careers,’ said van Zyl.
Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer