Year of the Rat and Snap Decisions

Every 12 years the animal year that you were born in is supposed to be good luck for the person born in that animal year. This is Eleanor’s year and so far she doesn’t feel lucky.

Back in May, it was noted that Chinese New Year holiday fell 2 weeks after the Christmas holiday and that it would be a rush to have our Term 1 exams, have them marked, transcripts to be updated and sent to US universities, therefore a couple of us were asked to work the first week of the Chinese New Year holiday to get those documents sent before the deadline that many US universities set for the end of January.

We got the transcripts sent and then both of us waited for the end of the week when we had seperate travel arrangements. However in the middle of the week, my holiday got cancelled due to the Corona virus. It was cold, wet and high pollution in Suzhou, so I decided to take Eleanor and go on a mini break to Bangkok. The flights were not cheap, but we didn’t have to pay for accommodation as we were going to stay with an ex-colleague. We left Martin behind as he had a marking contract to complete and preferred to mark without interruption. Snap decision number 1.

On the Saturday we left for Hongqiao, on the train. The first day of the Year of the Rat, the train station at Suzhou Yuanqu Station was empty. The train was empty and on arrival at the train station in Hongqiao it was also empty. Whether it was empty because of the virus or because it was the first day of the new year, who can tell.

We had raided our nurse’s station in boarding and got surgical face masks. Both of us have a small face, and while not tight on our faces, it kept us from standing out as people not wearing them were definitely in the minority. A guy came to check in for the flight in mask and his swim goggles. He may have looked ridiculous but he was definitely safe.

Temperature checks occurred in Hongqiao airport before we got to immigration. We boarded the flight to Hong Kong then transferred to Bangkok. We kept our masks on for both flights.

On the Hongqiao to Hong Kong flight we were all given a health declaration form. I duly completed it, even including Eleanor’s chesty cough but at Hong Kong no one asked for it. I assume it was because we weren’t travelling into HK but I had assumed that no matter the destination, this information would have been useful.

Landing in Bangkok at 4am there were no visible temperature checks, no one questioned us as to where we had come from and so on we went our merry way and subsequently got scammed by our taxi driver – I forgot to ask him to the put the journey on the meter. So what would have been a 200 Baht taxi journey was a 700 Baht flat fee.

At the airport I had also hired a pocket wifi device which was necessary for both Eleanor and I to navigate our way round Bangkok and keep in touch with Martin.

We were to return on Friday 1st February ready for term to start on Monday 3rd February. However during the week, we got emails both from Eleanor’s school and my own school confirming that school would have a delayed start, there would be online learning. Teachers were expected to return by 10th and face to face lessons would be from 16th.

Snap decision number 2 was changing our flight from Friday to Tuesday 4th. It would give us a couple more days of sun, and catching up with friends. We even said to Martin to come out and join us because his marking contract had not happened as he thought. But he confirmed he would still stay and get his masters assignments done and get a head start on the online lessons that would have to be delivered.

A couple of days later, school was delayed to the 18th and staff back by 16th. But when I had phoned to change my flights had told me that was it – no more changes. They had also given me the option of cancelling the flights completely, but I explained I needed to go back to China as I lived there, and cancelling was not an option.

On the Friday we went to the second oldest Snake Farm (Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute) in the world, I faced my fears and held a snake with Eleanor by my side.

Shortly after this photo was taken, the email arrived from that our flights on the Tuesday had been cancelled.

Snap decision number 3 – not to ring and try to organise a flight through Hong Kong instead Martin looked at flights for the two of us to the UK.

2 hours later we were booked on flights to Belfast leaving Monday night. On arrival back to Bangkok airport I handed back our pocket wifi, and despite keeping it for an additional 4 days and losing the plug I actually got some money back from the deposit!

On arrival into Manchester, there was a flyer on the border control desk. There were no questions as to where I had come from or anything. To be honest I expected a little more.

We landed into Manchester at 6am and by 7am I was tucking into a bacon and sausage bap on a video conference with my 11 counselling colleagues through Microsoft Teams. Two of us were in the UK, one was still in Thailand and the rest were in various parts of China. I muted both microphone and camera for the part where I was eating!

It was reassuring to see the department on line. Everyone was upbeat and up for the challenges that this situation has landed us in.

Then we landed in Belfast. And another flier just posted on a pillar.

As we left the airport with our one suitcase in the only winter clothes we had, we walked past an employee stopping everyone who was not ethnically white and asking them if they had brought any food in. It struck me that that should not be the only question being asked. They should be asking given the current situation where our journeys had originated from.

We have now been out of China for more than 14 days yet the local education and library board refused us permission to attend a local primary school asking for us to be out another two weeks. Where the medical evidence is for that I just don’t know. I understand their concern but when people are treating you as social pariahs just because of the country you live in when there is nothing wrong with you and when you have followed WHO advice it is frustrating.

Martin remains in China along with plenty of other staff from our school. If he left now there would be a 14 day quarantine placed on him and that is no fun for anyone. He runs daily, and walks too. He has been asked to leave school though as the heating and air purifier system has been switched off. He is now in a serviced apartment with breakfast delivered and a cleaner coming in daily. Public transport in our city is on a reduced service and no one is allowed on without a mask. Martin found this out to his detriment when one day he travelled on the metro without a mask and on his return journey found he could not get on the metro as he didn’t have a mask with him. Martin and a student teacher and boarding assistant are living next door to each other. So they keep each other company and have done so since I left. They are both upbeat!

School is now closed until further notice. Our ticket to Belfast was one way. Eleanor and I had to go clothes shopping as we didn’t have any winter clothes. I am in my Mum’s coat, gloves and hat. We hope that we get back to China at the end of February. But who knows.

While school is closed, we are being paid a salary. We are still expected to work full time. Routines are important and so I am still getting up and working from 8am. (4pm China time). We can now say that we provide a 24 hour counselling service. In Life Skills we are providing readings which the students then respond to detailing their personal experience on a forum. This week it is looking at the role of media/social media when there is global bad news, last week it was looking at strategies in coping with the stress of what is happening.

Teaching for the academic subjects is happening and as I have said to my year 12 counselling students, the teachers are on a learning curve too, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Martin is in his element as he worked for the Further Maths Support Network before we left China which was online. He also taught online for those who couldn’t get back after the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, in 2010.

Of course there are those teachers, me included, that didn’t bring their work laptop with them. Thankfully I brought my own laptop with me to Bangkok and I am now using it for work for the foreseeable future. However, I am having to share my laptop with my daughter!

Online learning is also happening for the junior school, and while everyone is doing their best given that the online platform for junior school is Seesaw, there is no substitute for social interaction with other students. Being with my parents is great as I can work and Eleanor can work then do something with the grandparents. Others are not so lucky. But having moved from Northern Ireland when I was 18 I have really lost touch with school friends who have stayed here and settled down with kids. Our friendship group is on the mainland, in Somerset. So next week when it is half term in England, we are getting a flight to Bristol and staying with 4 sets of friends in England and then in Wales. We will of course have to work during the day but social interaction is so important for our wellbeing.

Every so often we are being surveyed by both our schools as to where we have been in the last 14 days. This information goes to the local education bureau in our city. Everything is being monitored which makes me feel safe in the knowledge that Martin is fine remaining in China. Those that have stayed believe the reaction from the UK FCO was over the top for people not in Wuhan or Hubei province. It is over 700kms (450miles) away which is 8 hours drive away. We are not next door to it.

So all 3 Croziers are safe and well. We are open to visitors. China has a population of 1.3 billion. Our city has a population of 12 million. We are not worried.

Our friends who have stayed still have food, supermarkets are open, restaurants are still open. As China goes back to work after its extended Chinese New Year holiday time will tell what will happen. In the meantime hygiene standards will be the best they have ever been – and as to wearing a mask – I am not tempted to wear it in Northern Ireland. It stopped Eleanor and I from touching our face and it stopped us breathing on others but is it truly effective – well different studies say different things. But a mask is only effective of worn correctly- I saw one woman in Bangkok wear it over her mouth but her nose was free! 😳 kind of missing the point.