On January 15, there was an email in my inbox from the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in China. This was not unusual. I never unsubscribed from their emails for U.S. citizens in China, even though I moved back to the U.S. in 2014. Most of their notices were about changes to local visa regulations and worldwide travel alerts. This time, the email was about an outbreak of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan. I did not have time to think too much about this email. The following day was a big one. It was our initial state inspection for the first Chinese immersion preschool in San Antonio.
Modern China is a noisy place. People lean on their car horns when changing lanes, firecrackers announce the opening of a new store, and workers constantly tear down and put up buildings. During the days around Chinese New Year, however, it gets very quiet. The streets empty out and people return to their family homes. The days leading up the Chinese New Year, I watched YouTube videos filmed on the streets of Beijing. Things were very quiet, but it was not clear whether it was because of the holiday or the fear of the coronavirus. People were wearing masks, but seeing folks wearing masks in China has never been unusual.
At school, I handed out red envelopes filled with stickers and chocolate coins to my students for the holiday. I made uneasy jokes about “not picking a great time to open a Chinese immersion school.” I texted a friend to ask about her family in Wuhan. Her mother had already left to another city before the lockdown of Wuhan. No one else from her family was still living there.
By February, several of my former students had been sent back from their study abroad programs in China. I checked the rosters for my adult classes, usually filled with students preparing for a big trip. The enrollment was slightly lower I had seen over the past ten semesters, but not unusually so. By the first day of classes, 50 percent of my beginner students canceled their trips. I texted a friend who lives in a city over 350 miles away from Wuhan. Her son never went back to school after the Chinese New Year break and she was working from home. She told me she had to book a time slot online to go pick up her groceries.
None of our students’ parents mentioned the virus as a concern, but our phones were not ringing off the hook either. The not-quite jokes about opening a Chinese immersion school in the time of coronavirus started to seem like a prophecy. Reports of anti-Asian bigotry made it to the news. I worried that the golden age of building connections with China was over; people were pulling up the drawbridge.
As a licensed child care center, we received an email from Texas Health and Human Services in early March. Their instructions were to essentially just follow the State Minimum Standards on health and hygiene in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was starting to seem like none of our leaders were grabbing the steering wheel.
On Friday, March 13, a parent picked up her son at the end of the day. She wasn’t in uniform, as I had seen her that morning. “The [military] bases are closed,” she said, “I haven’t seen anything like this.” She seemed unsettled. The next day, I kept up my streak of bad timing and came down with a cold, I never returned to our campus. By March 17, it was clear that we needed to close the school temporarily. At the time, I am sure that we called it “a difficult decision” in our communications. Looking back, it was the only decision we could have made.
Around the same time, my friends in China started checking in on me. I received a series of persistent messages about sending us face masks. I demurred until we contacted a family member who is a physician in Los Angeles. He had been using the same PPE for three days. It was time to take my Chinese friends up on their offer. The first time I sent a package from China to the US, I think it took two months for a broken teapot to arrive. This time, a package of 100 face masks arrived in four days. We sent most of them on to LA and kept a few for ourselves.
Although the preschool was closed, we still had some classes that we were able to move online. Our school’s founder and I made plans for different possible reopening scenarios. Working from home without going out turned time into a gelatinous soup. Sometimes parents missed classes. For the most part, however, they clicked the links to our virtual classes and we have been able to continue on with learning.
Regan mian or “hot dry noodles” is the signature dish of Wuhan. Last time I was in Shanghai, spotted a tiny storefront selling them through a taxi window. I asked the taxi driver to stop so I could buy some. My husband was not thrilled with me, but the driver didn’t mind. When I picture myself dashing across the road to grab a bowl of $2 noodles, I marvel at how carefree that moment was.
I don’t know if I will be able to travel like that again in the near or even distant future. We will have to see how the world puts itself back together again. I do know that our school is still here and we are still receiving inquiries about our Chinese and French immersion programs. We will open for in-person classes in June, camps in July, and the preschool will start in August.
As the lockdowns in China have been lifted, I’ve been asking my friends what life is like over there. Just like everyone else, I want to get a glimpse of the future. The other day I asked my friend if her son was back at school. He is back now. He and everyone else have to wear a mask to school. According to his mom, it is better than him staying home where his day is too “unstructured.” I am cautiously optimistic about our schools reopening here in the U.S. We need responsible plans and preparation for reopening of course, but we also have our great human resilience and ingenuity to keep us moving forward.