再见 Suzhou (Goodbye Suzhou)

Image thanks to Martin Crozier

In September 2022, we went through some fairly tough times. Mental health was affected and with no sign of what was to come in the past week of China seemingly throwing out zero Covid, my resilience had finally run out. By mutual consent, we shortened my contract to end in December 2022. 

This sent shockwaves round the school, I have been there since 2015, and some strong attachments have been formed. Eleanor has been at her school since 2014 and has grown up at Dulwich College, Suzhou, but times have changed. Suzhou is no longer the place that we fell in love with, I have been in crisis management for over 2 years and Eleanor is surviving – not thriving. 

The demography of the city is changing. Partly to do with tax laws and the prospect a couple of years ago that companies could no longer pay for children’s education, this reduced the number of incoming families as no longer was there sufficient clarity about school fees and whether the company would pay these outright; combined with not many families moving into China because of the leaving and uncertainty surrounding returning and its ease, and to those who stayed, the frightening elephant in the room of what would happen and where you would go if there was a positive test result. It made many re-evaluate whether China was indeed the best place for them. The tax change has been delayed thanks to a lot of lobbying by various chambers of commerce and of course China is looking to open up, which is just mind blowing from where we were even a month ago and no longer is there the threat of being removed into centralised quarantine if positive. But in September, there was very little optimism for our family.

Last February 2022, we held a dream that we would return to the UK for the summer. But on the first day of lockdown in February, Martin and I were told that it wouldn’t be advisable. As a family – two of us are more risk adverse than the third so the prospect of getting Covid-19 in the summer in the UK, meant that if the tests came back as positive before flying back to China then we had missed the opportunity to return to school for the start, and if that happened, there would be no pay. Ironic as I am currently facing 7 months of no pay – this time – my choice. 

Most of the staff who took the calculated risk at the end of the school year in June returned mid-July. Quarantine also reduced during the summer from 28 days to 14 days plus 7 days (14 central quarantine and 7 days home) and then to 7+3, This became much more palatable for many, but by the time change happened, it was too late to book flights. (Oh and flights were extortionate – though covered by a very generous flight allowance). For one staff member, the couple of weeks turned into a couple of months. Catching covid, getting rid of Covid, but then the flight was cancelled as it was part of the circuit breaker – so if a number of people tested positive on arrival in China then the flight would be cancelled for a number of weeks. There was then a chartered flight arranged by the company from London, but that staff member then tested positive at the airport, and so waved goodbye to that flight.

A further attempt was made and they got as far as Helsinki, but having tested negative at Heathrow, the Helsinki airport test returned positive – so back to London and start the whole process again. Finally back in school late September, and several hundreds of pounds running probably into 4 figures lighter. This obviously isn’t my story but this reality could have been multiplied by 3 if anyone in our family had tested positive along the way. Being risk adverse has its benefits sometimes!

Hindsight is wonderful, yes we did have a lovely summer seeing more of China, but we needed our own circuit breaker of grandma hugs and seeing friends and family. Our circuit breaker is now 7 months not a couple of weeks.

Quarantine
Currently quarantine is 5 days plus 3. For some staff who have not seen families since 2019 or 2020, they got on the first flight on Friday 9th December when term ended. Early Christmasses are being had, as these people have to return before 25th December in order to fulfil quarantine and return to school on 3rd January 2023. The rumours are that shortly it will be 0+3 (0 days in central quarantine + 3 days of health monitoring at home), and possibly after Chinese New Year it could well be 0+0, which is the announcement that Hong Kong made on Monday, 12th December 2022. These days, China is dropping its Covid policies overnight. The fear that has been created over catching covid, is not to be sneezed at. It isn’t really fear of catching it – more fear about where you would be taken. But… now with no mass testing who knows what the figures are. The narrative is changing – from how many have Covid to how many deaths there are – of which they hope there won’t be many. The PR and propaganda machines will be churning. 

The race is on though… who will get Covid first. Me/Eleanor – going back to Northern Ireland where most people have had it or Martin? We have all been vaccinated, and as adults we have had our booster but our immune systems are non-existent having lived in a sterile bubble for the last 3 years. As we boarded the flight on Tuesday 13th, we heard of our first staff case. 

Handovers

This is not the first time that I have given my employers 3 months notice of leaving. Martin and I gave 3 months notice leaving the UK, and packed up our house and moved out within that time. Thankfully, and bitter sweetly, I have left Martin behind in Suzhou. 

It isn’t great that having lived in boarding for the last 4 1/2 years that Martin has to move out – but the house came with my job and so, now that I have left, he has to vacate and downsize! I have got rid of a lot of my clothes, and we have got rid of some of our furniture… but we left a lot. This will be the first time in the 5 moves we have done since being married that we have someone coming in to do the packing and moving! Eleanor and I left China with 1000.5kg worth of stuff and most of that will be left with my parents as it is our winter gear… and as I check this blog before posting – Martin has overseen the packers over 2 days, bubble wrapping everything… 

Individually wrapped Starbucks mugs (not all 104 shown)

Since deciding to leave in December, I have had to hand over 3 jobs and try to get rid of a lot of belongings, The juggling of everything was actually too much.

In August I was asked to come back into the counselling department due to an early staff departure. I had 8 students applying to America, Canada, Hong Kong and UK. It turns out having given counselling up in August 2020 for Head of Boarding, I really missed it. Working with students looking at their future, reading their essays, meeting their parents and talking about their hopes was positive, though it meant I was juggling even more. 

Counselling meant less lifeskills, and the year 13 class I was given was great. Sadly I haven’t done all the relationship stuff with them that I enjoy doing in year 13, but we had great discussions, our last being Turkey at Christmas and other traditions – including why Boxing Day is not about boxing. 

While no one is replacing me just yet in boarding, school have made a Deputy head of boarding who is acting Assistant Director (Boarding). I am so pleased for my “replacement”. She was a boarding tutor while working for one of the outsourced companies at school. She then applied for a boarding parent job while working as PA to the Deputy Directors and now she is recognised for her boarding skills as Deputy Head of Boarding. She just needs to remember to take time out!

Jobs…

To stay in China or not was the biggest decision that was out of our hands. Since we handed in our notices in the middle of September, the application season was a test of our mettle. Middle East jobs are advertised in April for August/September start, European jobs similar and the rest of the world from November really.  Singapore or Hong Kong would have been ideal. But a Head of Maths, author and trainer and a jack of all pastoral trades was going to be tricky. 

Martin did super well, he was longlisted from 300 down to 12, but sadly didn’t make a shortlist in Singapore. I was interviewed for 2 jobs outside China. One in Japan, and one Singapore.  Japan – I shot myself in the foot by calling the school the wrong name… and Singapore… I still haven’t been officially told I haven’t got the job some 6 weeks later. 

On the flight back to Dublin, the flight attendant asked me would I recommend China – and for everything that is going on – I said absolutely. And it is that love for this country that will see us return.

But out of the 4 interviews I have had, (2 in China), the recurring question is: What is my passion?

What is my passion?

Working with and helping students is the overarching theme. Boarding – I have thoroughly enjoyed but boarding in China with lockdowns has tested me and our family to the limit. And actually, when school went into its last lockdown – it isn’t the actual lockdown with students that is the problem, it is getting students out of boarding and then not being able to leave campus. Others outside of campus usually have had choices to leave their apartments or not, but for us in boarding, we can’t leave, can’t get food deliveries, and can’t switch off after online learning since we have students. As policies change it is looking more likely that lockdowns will be isolated to floors of buildings or classes or year groups. Positively though the lockdowns have generated and developed special student staff relationships and also better staff relationships because “we are all in this together” (thanks Disney).

But my true passion, is our daughter, and she was front and centre in our decision making. 

We had a choice of a schools one close to Suzhou, but it was boarding. And while everyone lived in boarding and lockdowns weren’t really a thing, it wasn’t in a city that would have given us a social outlet and the other in south China.

Next Steps

So we are heading to Shenzhen. Shenzhen, a city we went to in December 2014 as it was cheaper to go to for a couple of days breaking up a birthday and Christmas treat for Eleanor across the boarder in Hong Kong. If things are going in the direction of opening then Shenzhen is a great city to in. It gives Eleanor (and us) two vibrant cities to explore, while being on the doorstep of Hong Kong – which still has a Marks and Spencer (the little things in life), the school impressed Martin and I and we have friends who work there and other friends who live in Shenzhen. 

Map of where Shenzhen is

The school is a boarding school – but I am NOT boarding! I am not saying no boarding ever again, but my family and I aren’t ready for that yet!

For the next 7 months? Well that will be another whirlwind. Living with my parents in Northern Ireland is going to be adventure enough. The last time we saw them was on 12 March 2020 when we left after 6 weeks. They saw us work and go to school remotely, we rode horses pretty much every day, and had lots of Mauds and Rinkha ice creams. This time, I am unemployed, and Eleanor will be going on a school in a neighbouring town. That will be a culture shock. She puts it eloquently “everyone will look like me, but they won’t be like me”. Eleanor is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) (a term coined by US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s). Growing up in a country that neither Martin nor I belong to either. She is about to go to a school for 6 months in a country that she has never lived in and that apart from my parents – she has no connection to. This will take a lot of courage, resilience, patience and a lot of ice cream.

As for me? Well I do have a Masters to finish. But more importantly I also need time to rest and press pause and be a Mum and a daughter. Of course we have some travelling to do and friends to see.

Reflections: 

Suzhou has been great to live in to give Eleanor her independence, she is able to catch a bus from school to the metro and go to the other side of Suzhou safely and for not very much money. Suzhou, has given us great memories and was a great introduction to international living and teaching. But everything must come to an end. 

My last three months were frustrating. Suddenly I questioned things like testing, travelling – even leaving campus and having friends round was not straightforward. Living in boarding hampered Eleanor’s life – and it was never meant to do that. 

I have parented 400 kids. They have been in the main, amazing and I have some great memories of my 7.5 years at the school. I have watched my counselling students go to Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial, New York Uni, Melbourne, Tokyo, Toronto to name but a few, I have watched some go on to Masters, and Doctorates, I have watched them go and do many varied degrees such as architecture, veterinary science, dentistry, gemmology and jewellery studies – no longer do I have students wanting to do accountancy but I have them following their passions (and occasionally their parents desire)

In life skills classes we have great discussions about everything – but a lasting memory was about relationships – including the shocking revelation that I don’t check Martin’s messages on his phone “But Miss how do you trust him?”

In boarding, memories are plentiful, and in my my last week, I had lots of messages from students telling me how much they will miss me. Including one who recalled I was the second person he talked to on his first day in boarding 3.5 years ago. This is really my extended family, and for some of these students, the care shown to them by staff is the only care they get. I am called their second mum, and that is really the highest compliment.

My Backpack

In a recent discussion I was asked what I was taking with me (and not the 4 suitcases) I didn’t want to leave with negativity because my life in Suzhou has been so much more that lockdowns and covid restrictions and testing. So I thought I would record it here for posterity:

Gifts:

Leadership

Resilience – through it all I still smiled (most of the time)

Relationships with students

Open, Curious and a listening attitude

Team Spirit

Shared vision

Sense of humour

Memories

Staff/Student football – played in all the matches since I started the school

Friendships with staff

Giving Eleanor a lot of money to to spend at Suzhou Centre and then going shopping with her (she now shops with her friends leaving me only to give her the money)

The Crozier Lounge (the most mentioned thing in my leaving video) and baking

The Raid

There are lots more besides, but it will take time to unpack and have more reflections. I hope that Eleanor’s backpack is as full as mine.

Inspiration for the The Crozier Lounge was taken from the Culloden Estate and Spa in Northern Ireland. That Crozier Lounge, just like ours is no longer in existence.

Who have we left behind?

Special mention goes to Martin. He is staying until June. The most asked question by the students, staff, family and friends when word went out that Eleanor and I were leaving was “were M and I ok?” Some asked it outright, some skirted around the issue. Are we ok? – Yes. Are we still married? Yes. Will Martin have fun without me? Yes. Will we have fun without him – definitely. Will this next period be difficult? Absolutely, but we have enough resilience to get us through it.

The mask has finally been ditched – but culture shock of not wearing mask is a thing!

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