02 Oct A South African In China – Facing The Pandemic Abroad
A South African In China: Facing The Pandemic Abroad
Rand Rescue has heard many stories from friends and family in different parts of the world and how they’ve faced the many crises of 2020.
Some of these accounts are heart-wrenching, others are heart-warming and enlightening, such as the story of former South African radio presenter Christelle van Tonder who arrived in China two days before Covid-19 would rear its head.
Through a twist of fate and choice Christelle would find herself in the heart of the crisis as a virus which would hold the world hostage changed her itinerary and led her on an unexpected detour.
The land of Ice and Snow
A family friend once told me that when the west sits, the east stands. I laughed and I believed I knew what she meant.
The love of travelling had always been part of my marrow. Experiencing different cultures, eating interesting food and that strange, electrifying buzz of discomfort. Because that’s what travelling does. Well, if you do it right that is.
This new journey, however, was about more than just travelling. As one matures, the transience of travel starts morphing into dreams of something more permanent and enduring; I envisioned a life abroad, somewhere in the east, teaching English.
The journey begins at home
After completing my studies I landed a great job at the SABC as a radio presenter at a national radio station where I worked for eight wonderful years. Nevertheless, there was a restlessness in me which would not unclench its grasp from my heart and mind. The east was calling and if I was going to make a move it had to be now.
What followed was eight months of thorough research. Now that I was turning 31 I knew why I was going, and the ‘why’ was no longer rooted purely in adventure: there was a big financial component to it. We (myself and my partner Betti) wanted to make sure we didn’t get scammed or end up at a school we hated or, even worse, stuck with a contract we couldn’t get out of.
No amount of research could have ever prepared us what was to come. But more about that a later…
Prepping for departure
We decided on China fairly early on as they pay really well. Our qualifications and experience secured our positions at an international school in the north-east of China, in a city called Harbin.
Harbin is the 3rd coldest city in the world. Winter months average -20 degrees Celsius. Why would we choose a place that cold you ask? Because even though we went with a plan to make money, the inherent drive for adventure remains an integral driver behind everything we do and all the choices we make. If we could make it there, we could make it anywhere.
After signing the contract with the school we started selling our belongings. Everything we owned was sold, save for a few pieces of furniture. We gave our months’ notice at our jobs, went on a last vacation with our families and left everything we knew behind.
Into the unknown
We have both travelled and that feeling of boarding a plane to the unknown is addictive and exhilarating – it’s something which will never change. You are scared, but excited. This time round, however, the feeling was different. With travelling, you have a return date. This time we had a one-way ticket. The adventure of a lifetime had begun and a new, anxious energy fused with anticipation in the pits of our stomachs.
The layover of our flight was in Singapore. If you have never been, put it on your bucket list. We left South Africa on a lovely summer’s day, arrived in Singapore during their summer, and were heading to Harbin, in the frosty dead of their winter.
We were the only foreigners in the second leg of the trip as all the locals were returning home for the Chinese New Year. As we were approaching Harbin we woke up to a rustling, chattering and shuffling as other passengers fiddled and fidgeted with their hand luggage and the contents inside. They were changing their clothes. Scarves, beanies, jackets, snow boots – layers and layers of clothes were being piled on. You could barely see the children’s eyes under all the winter layers. We looked at each other and laughed nervously, knowing right then and there that we had no idea what we were in for. The only option was to follow suit.
We changed our attire and held thumbs that we were prepared enough; if we could just make it into the airport we would be fine, surely?
Brave new world
Strange to think that the ‘New World’ in historical context is synonymous with the western hemispheres and the Americas. For in the 21st century, the new world was truly synonymous with the east for these two South Africans.
The plane descended on Harbin and a snowy white blanket covered every inch of landscape as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful. Blinding white snow assaulted our senses. What followed was a whirlwind of emotion and excitement. We were here.
After sleeping off the jetlag at the hotel we were taken to the school to meet the teachers and principal. We got a local sim card, got taken for medical tests and completed a bunch of admin to initiate our new life in China. It was crazy, overwhelming and, at times, I would think to myself, “what have we done?”. But that thought dissipated in the blink of an eye – in the fog of breath that passed our lips and joined the frigid Harbin air.
Harbin is considered a rural city, but unlike rural areas of South Africa it houses 10 million people. Mostly Chinese citizens. The expatriate community is relatively small in relation to bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, which means not a lot of locals speak English. It goes without saying that other South African languages would not be heard again in this brave new world.
A virus goes viral
Two days after our arrival in the city of snow and ice my father called from South Africa to inform me that there was a virus in the city Wuhan. Wuhan is 2 000 km from Harbin so we didn’t think much of it and the other teachers didn’t seem too worried about this either.
The Chinese New Year started a few days after our arrival, and everything closed. It’s the equivalent to the western world’s Christmas week. We wanted to spend this week getting to know our city. Before immersing ourselves in our work we wanted to play the classic tourists and see everything there is to see as visitors. Harbin houses the world’s largest Ice and Snow Festival annually. Thousands of tourists from around the globe flock here solely for the festival.
You can expect two divergent experiences depending on the time of day you attend. During the day you are wooed by the winter wonder of innumerable white sculptures, and at night the icy artworks transform into the most exquisite lighting displays. We opted for a night visit on our first trip. I was so overcome with emotion that I burst out in tears. The enchantment of the art, the splendour and the mere fact that we were there to witness it in person evoked such intense emotions in me, my eyes brimmed with tears without relent. If it’s not already on your bucket list, this is another experience you must add to your itinerary.
A country comes to a halt…
What we didn’t realise at that stage was that the festival would close down two days later as a virus we knew nothing about had swept through the country, traversing the 2 000 km which had separated us. This strange and destructive viral visitor had assailed our city.
The Chinese New Year celebrations came to a standstill as the country went into lockdown. The shops and services which had closed for celebration would remain closed, as celebration morphed into an eerie gloom and the world around changed into a wintry ghost town.
We still didn’t make much of it. We weren’t scared, we wore our masks, washed our hands, and enjoyed our new home. We visited those few places that were still operating (and there weren’t a lot). This included some bookstores, international clothing shops and selected restaurants. Slowly but surely, however, those feeding spots also shut their doors. I’ve never been a fussy eater, but finding something to eat in a deserted new world was one of the hardest experiences. The hotel room didn’t have a fridge or a microwave so our choices were extremely limited.
It’s no secret that the Chinese have strange eating habits or, should I say, different eating habits to the west and two saffas acquainted with 24-hour drive-throughs and braais. Every trip to the grocery store or a restaurant was fraught with frowns, confused staring at labels and pictures we couldn’t contextualise, and a whole lot of Google translate. A few times frustration would win over and we’d simply get up and walk out.
When the west sits, the east stands
Exchanging a life of comfort for a life where every day is filled with the unknown requires an open mind. We knew this before setting off, but realised early on that even our preconceived notions of an open mind were inadequate. This new life didn’t merely require an open mind, but forgetting everything we deemed normal. The new normal was a rewriting and rewiring of our minds and perceptions, our habits, lifestyles and comforts.
Our families back home were frantic. The media in South Africa were reporting about a novel coronavirus – our families were concerned for our health and safety. We received multiple calls and messages per day.
Here we go again
We were forced to get an apartment after two weeks as our money ran out and we could no longer stay in the hotel room.
Again everything was closed but the school managed to get a realty agent to lease us an apartment. Everything in China is electronic so not having a bank account had become a serious problem – one of the many problems we were experiencing at that stage.
The news broke that we weren’t going to get a full salary due to the pandemic. Suddenly we were ‘jobless’, with no prospects of anything opening up we could not get our work permits or open bank accounts. We were faced with the difficult and heart-breaking decision to pack up our suitcases and the ‘new life’ hadn’t even had the opportunity to start yet, and return home.
It was emotional, it was sad and it was uncertain. Only three weeks after we arrived we were forced to return home. Not because we didn’t enjoy it. Not because we couldn’t make it work. But because of something completely out of our control. Eight months of research could have never prepared us for this experience. At this stage we were still wondering if this was the best decision – we still felt a personal sense of failure at leaving so soon. Of course we couldn’t have known what a toll Covid-19 would take on the world in months to come and looking back now, it certainly was the best decision.
We bought tickets home and unknowingly took what would be the last allowed flight out of Harbin before the city went into lockdown.
We arrived home safely. But what now? Our bodies were here but our minds knew we were meant to be elsewhere. With our limbs back in the land we’d left behind we were stuck in a perpetual limbo. But if we could survive in Harbin on the eve of a pandemic, we could surely survive the hiatus of dreams on hold. Millions of people worldwide have had to place their plans on the backburner and wait out this global storm in a strange and isolated solidarity as unforgiving as the Harbin winter.
Life in limbo…
We will return to our new home again, once the dust has settled. We will get our chance to restart our new life in the land of Ice and Snow. Our adventure has just taken a detour, and what a remarkable learning curve this short stint abroad has been.
Perhaps the most pivotal lesson is that a crucial part of planning for a new life is accepting that the journey which leads us there is often the greatest unknown, and the flaws in our best laid plans will be laid bare by the confluence of things beyond our control. If we lament the hurdles placed along the way we miss out on that part of the adventure we’d not calculated for.
Our journey to a new life had simply taken the sho’t left with a road map all its own; it had excavated and illuminated a dormant resilience in us we would not have discovered any other way.
We’re coming for you Harbin, just you wait!
What are your plans?
With borders slowly opening up around the world many South Africans are eager to start their new lives abroad. Remember to call on Rand Rescue if you need help with your cross-border finances. Just leave your details below and we’ll get back to you.
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