In the winter of 2020 Ari was approached by a Chinese recruitment agency, specializing in assisting native English-speaking teachers obtain work contracts throughout China. With the current political relations between China and the US, as well as the looming 2020 US presidential elections, the agency was actively seeking teachers who had previously worked in “difficult” political climates. Presented with an opportunity to live and work in Hong Kong, Ari and her husband eagerly began planning to move their life over-seas. What follows is Ari’s account of their experiences once they landed.
Upon arriving in China I attempted to contact the agency that sent us, however without the proper approved phone applications it was essentially impossible. We waited in the airport for a little over 9 hours until a car was sent for us. We were whisked away to a hotel. Once there I tried to make contact with anyone I could back in the states.
To connect to the hotel Wi-Fi one needed to have a Chinese phone number. From there a message would be sent to with a code which allowed free to use the internet. I was able to get a code from the front desk but even so I wasn’t able to get any messages through. The only apps that I could download were Baidu and WeChat. WeChat is one of the most widely used apps in China, with most people linking their bank accounts to it and scanning the screen to pay for just about everything. To be able to use WeChat we needed two people who had accounts for over 6 months to scan our phone and verify our identities. Baidu works like Google, but is much less discreet in listening to conversations. Moments after you talk about something ads for it start popping up regardless of whether they were mentioned in English or Chinese.
I eventually got to my wits end trying to message anyone in America. Defeated, I came to terms with it. We would just go dark and be lost to the world for a little while. Or at least until we started work and could ask other foreign teachers how they were staying in touch with their home countries. The lack of access to the outside world eventually came to have unforeseen consequences.
My husband and I took a train from Shenzhen to Beijing. During the trip we traveled through Wuhan. In Beijing we didn’t wear masks and traveled to the forbidden city and Tiananmen square, both typically very busy tourist destinations.
Shortly after this trip, with quite a bit of research I found a VPN which I hoped could help us contact the world outside China. It wasn’t a good one by any means; through it I could do little more than search Google and YouTube. But what I discovered was concerning. I looked into recent events, assuming that I could not have missed much in the time we had been away. This was the first point I heard about the coronavirus.
The company we worked for told us we should get masks and “not go out as much”, but that was all. Once we had access to news, we found that two days after we had visited both the forbidden city and Tiananmen square had been closed to the public. We learned that public transport no longer came to or from Wuhan for fear of spreading the virus. This city where passengers had boarded our train and been in close quarters with us.
In a last-ditch effort, I tried to send out emails through an old school email. I hadn’t used it in a little over a year and struggled with the password, but it worked. The site wasn’t blocked and I was able to get messages out to my family and friends; letting them know we were no longer in Shenzhen, that we were safe and for the first time in almost a month were able to get news of what was really going on around us.
All but one entrance to our apartment building has been closed. To leave or come back into the building we need to have our temperature taken, as well as to enter any store or public transport. We are seeing fewer and fewer cars and people out with each consecutive day, but for the first time we know why.
Ari is a psychology major at UO, taking a gap year to teach abroad. She is currently living in Beijing under quarantine.