Life in Nanjing During Epidemic – Richard, Communication University

Updated 2020-04-30

There is a saying often attributed to the “Ancient Chinese” in English-speaking circles that goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.” It is interpreted as a curse. And despite the apocryphal origin of this phrase, it comes to my mind now as I collect my thoughts regarding my experience in China during the Coronavirus event.

The film studies majors in my IELTS classes were assigned to make a short film called “A Foreigner in Nanjing.” Since that is what I literally am, I ended up getting involved with two of these student film projects. This was just before the Chinese New Year break.

My students and colleagues occasionally asked me what my plans were for the upcoming holiday. I answered, “I plan to get a haircut and get to know Nanjing.” I am new to CUCN and my wife and I were happy to stay put and see where we were since we only had arrived in October. Looking back, that was the best thing we could’ve done.

The last “pre-Coronavirus” activity we did was to go outside at midnight and look at all the fireworks going off in the streets. Two days later on January 27th, Nanjing required wearing masks out in public. I suddenly remembered teasing some of my students for wearing masks in my classes. It is, as they say, karma. After that, the global epidemic unfolded through social media on our phones. It was an anxious time for us as flights of all foreigners were leaving China and then stopping all together. I wondered if I too should go. In the end, thankfully, we decided to stay. But then there was another problem. Where could we get masks to wear during our trips to the grocery store every third day? I kept asking at the pharmacy near our apartment. No masks. The grocery store we go to stayed open every day during the social crisis. But there were no masks on the shelves. Finally, I asked the two sisters who run the store and also work as cashiers if I could buy a mask from them personally. Of course, I was using a translation app to communicate with them. They responded by reaching under the counter at the check out and giving me two masks, one for me, and one for my wife.

It was like giving me gold! I wanted to pay them but they refused. This, to me, was an extraordinary act of kindness. Now I could go outside without attracting negative attention and looking like a foreigner who did not respect the local edicts concerning proper Coronavirus response. Now we could go out for walks and go to the store. That will be one of my lasting memories of these times: kindness shown to a stranger amidst a crisis. Now, sadly I’m watching my friends and family going crazy in the US over this global pandemic event. Now it seems China is actually the safest place I could be. Interesting times indeed.

And the beat goes on . . . line! One of the biggest challenges I faced during the Coronavirus outbreak was suddenly becoming a digital teacher. Along with spending a lot of time on social media, more than I ever have in my life, I had to convert to teaching in a vastly different way than I have been accustomed to. It was an abrupt departure from classroom teaching, where I can use student body language and change the proximity of my body to bring about responses during class. I used to be a radio announcer many years ago and this felt a little like that. But how to make it interactive? So many questions. I was extremely impressed by the round the clock efforts of many of my colleagues to bring about this sea change in normal operations. The Chinese can really move mountains when they are called upon to do so! March 2nd, 2020 I became an online teacher for the first time.

Virtual Comedy “CNY” is usually an abbreviation for “Chinese New Year”. But for me and Raisa, our first year in China is more like “CNY= Coronavirus New Year”. Anyway, I made friends with lots of people in Asia, not only on Mainland China (due to spending an inordinate amount of time on social media). I made the digital acquaintance of several Singaporeans, one of whom is the ever upbeat Alvin Oon. It’s refreshing to be hit with something so unapologetically un-ironic, if that’s an acceptable form of the word. I spread this musical parody to my Chinese colleagues as well as to my American and Armenian friends via social media. I also appreciated the people who were upbeat and positive during this time.

I also discovered a Chinese comedian who is a big hit now in America. His name is Ronnie Cheung. I posted this on my Facebook as well so that my American friends can see how US culture looks to Chinese people. So my time in quarantine was occupied by many funny and creative people. I will of course be glad to get back into the classroom and be closer to my students when the University sees that it is an appropriate time. So the Year of the Rat is still just beginning but it will never be forgotten. And I’m glad to be in China to dispel rumors for my American friends and to have come in contact with people in other Asian lands via social media.

(Richard is an English teacher currently working at Communication University of China, Nanjing)

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