Missed Window


It seems we have missed yet another window in returning to China. Back in September, China decided to open the door to workers that had already been working in China. Despite most foreigners having expired visas and residence permits, the government decided to waive all that to make it easier on Chinese companies that depended on foreign employees. That would have been great except...

Except that we had sent off our youngest daughter's passport to be renewed. Why would we do that? Well, because her passport would expire in October of the following year. Not really a big deal except for the fact that renewing (or technically applying for) a new passport while you're out of the US is a real pain in the tuchus. It usually means a trip to the US embassy in Beijing to appear in person to start the application. Then you go back to wherever you were living to wait for them to complete the process. THEN you have to return to the US embassy in Beijing to pick up your passport. While not horribly expensive, you still need to either fly or hop a high speed train to get there (if there is high speed train transportation to Beijing from your city). It's not terrible, but it's at least two full days off work and paying for tickets. Still, a quick trip to Beijing would have been much easier than dealing with putting our lives on hold for yet another few months. It's likely we could have spent Christmas in China this year. That reminds me. We never took down our tree from last year. 

Yes, that live tree is still sitting in our living room in China, though I suppose it's not so live now. 

ANYWAY, we've started paperwork for new visas for our return to China. There are some advantages, I suppose:

  • Christmas in America with family
  • Missing an extra cold Chinese winter 
  • Seeing homes and malls decorated for Christmas 
  • More time off work over the Christmas holiday  

...and the process continues...

Moving Out of Your Parents’ House Over 50


We all have to spread our wings and fly at some point so finally moving out of your parents' house when you're over 50 is quite an accomplishment. It's even more of an accomplishment when you're paying rent on an apartment you can't live in because you're locked out of that country. Anyway, it's not that my parents are difficult to deal with or that there were any problems. It's just that we'd like to keep it that way. That's what brought us to a nice house just down the road from them. It's not a permanent arrangement so that's why it's so affordable at the moment. Should we find ourselves in the US long-term, we'll have to find yet another place to live. 


We've been buying and borrowing furniture all over town and moving it in whatever vehicle we can find. Yeah, the vehicles are borrowed, too. The nice thing is the furniture and other household items that we "borrowed" are pretty much ours to keep. In our current situation there's the potential for us to be told that we need to up and leave in a matter of weeks or even days and adding the nightmare of returning all sorts of items to people all over town in borrowed vans or trucks might push us over the edge. Our friends and family have been more than generous and we are unbelievably grateful.

I will not complain much about having both of our girls at home studying. However, that's selfish of me. They would both much prefer to be in a physical classroom space, especially my older daughter who is majoring in dance. She spent the end of last semester dancing in her grandparents' living room, but now she's found a good sized studio where  she can spread out and not fear crashing into a wall or window. Still, dancing alone is... lonely. My younger daughter would love to be with her friends and have classes with a larger group. Her school is also dealing with going online with kids and teachers in multiple time zones in multiple countries. When do you meet when the time difference can be up to 16 hours apart? Which side of the International Date Line do you use to decide which day an assignment is due? Believe it or not, those are some of the least complicated questions to answer.


My wife found a long-term sub position and I'm looking for online work I can do from the house so I don't have to leave our youngest alone for the entire day. I've got a few leads, but nothing great just yet. As for China and a return, that seems like a surreal and distant dream.


Still In A Holding Pattern… Sorta Kinda Employed/Unemployed

I can't believe it's August already! Most teachers I know are somewhere in-between normal and abnormal stress right now as they are gearing up for the fall as usual, but trying to figure out how they're going to do it with the added responsibility of keeping kids virus free. They already act as counselor, psychologist, nutritionist, judge and jury in disputes, nurse, doctor,  and generally  in loco parentis, so why not add epidemiologist to the list.


As of now I won't be doing any of these things this fall. Do I miss it. Absolutely! No, I don't think I'd want to be the one dealing with the couple in the principal's office who have pledged their eternal love to each other by trading masks (yeah, try and tell me that won't happen), but I'm so used to August being the time for course prep that I actually feel stress by not getting ready. 

No, I haven't decided not to return to China and it's not that China has  kicked out all of the foreigners. If anything, my school wants both my wife and me to return because without us they're now short two foreign teachers. The problem is foreign English teachers are now at something of a premium in China since the government is not letting foreigners in or out. Normally I'd just renew my residence permit in a simple process and be able to come as go as I please, but since it expired before I could get back  I'll have to go through the entire process of getting a new visa in order to return. I won't be able to do much of anything about that until the Chinese embassy in D. C. opens their visa office. They closed back in April and I've heard they're not  likely to open again until October at the earliest.


What about online teaching? No, that's not going to happen. Unfortunately neither the parents at the school nor the local education department are willing for their students to have any more online education. If they want to do it on their own that's fine, but as part of their formal education it just doesn't cut it. This fall all of the kids in China will be back in their classrooms with real live teachers standing in front of them. 

That means for now I'll be looking for something to fill in the gaps (and my bank account) until I can get back to China. The hope is that my family and I will get back sometime before January. That might make the visa process a little easier since my wife and I won't be considered new hires. When/if we get back, there will likely be a 14 - 28 day quarantine and even after that life won't be anything like it was before we left, but where in the world is life going to be anything like it was for the foreseeable future?


For the moment there's not much I can do other than move forward as much as possible and enjoy what I can of the moment. I have both of my daughters with me. That's only going to become more rare in the future so I should enjoy it while I can. I'm able to be with my parents. I doubt they'll be making many more trips to China so why not make the most of the time I have here in the US with them? It's important to look and plan ahead, but it's equally important (and possible) to make the most of what's here and now.

That’s it?

I just finished my last two classes tonight (or this morning if you consider it's 3:00 AM. There was no big fanfare. None of my students said a whole lot at the end of class. They were nice and said goodbye and a student did mention that it was sad I'm not able to get back to China for a while. I won't miss teaching online. I won't miss being up until 3:00 or 4:00 AM. I will miss my students. 

I'm not totally finished with school since there are a few little things to take care of yet. I need to set up some online exams for next Tuesday and enter a few more grades (and I'm always behind on that). I also have a couple of Chinese classes to finish next week. Yes, our school requires us to take 2 hours of Chinese each week and just because we're not in the country doesn't free us from that responsibility. I usually enjoy it, but right now I can't exactly go out an practice it on the street. 

It all feels very anticlimactic. There are other things I have to deal with that I'll share at a later date, but that's it for now. It's almost 3:30 in the morning now and I'm tired. That's when I start rambling.

Planning Ahead and Marking Time

When we return to China our youngest daughter will need to attend international school instead of the Chinese school where I teach so I just went to the bank to pay her registration fee. We have to do it via international bank transfer instead of just writing a check or a US bank transfer. They also don't take credit cards or bank cards so there's usually a small fee. Her tuition is due in another month or so, but the school is being pretty flexible with families since they know so many people are up in the air about returning.
My wife and I are still slogging through online teaching and grading. We think we'll be done with classes by the end of June or the first week of July. I think we're both ready for a break. We've been at this with only a few days off here and there and didn't really get our full Spring Festival vacation back in January. We've let many other regular life things slide like exercise and Chinese study. Our school does require two hours of Chinese classes a week, but I'm not putting much effort into it, especially since my textbook is back in China. I can't remember the last time I did any kind of professional reading about education or even just picked up a decent fiction book. I'm really looking forward to spending a few days doing nothing. I may spoil myself by ordering a book or two on Amazon just because I can here in the US, but I doubt I'll dig into it before my second week off.
I believe I started this off with "When we return to China..." That's starting to look more and more distant. While we just signed papers for renewing my work permit, it seems that we're going to have to get completely new visas since we're not in country. Normally we'd just renew our residence permits, but that's not happening since we're not there to do it in person. Getting Chinese work visas is  an expensive and somewhat time consuming process. To throw another wrench into the gears, I just got an email from a contact I have near the Chinese embassy in DC who told me the visa office is closed until further notice. Our school wants us back since foreign teachers are at a premium right now, but we have no idea when or how that's going to happen. I guess that means more waiting.

I Just Lost a Few More Students

My 12th grade students are graduating so I gave them their final exam in health. Just so there's no confusion, I mean health class. I'm not a doctor and did not give anyone a physical exam. We only talked about diseases and sweating and BO and all that gross stuff. They all passed. 


The health class is still continuing online without the seniors which has created a little confusion and I've discovered the school's network seems to be the culprit in our Internet issues. How are those two related? Well, a couple of nights ago I started a video call with the health class and the connection was terrible so I hung up and tried again. This time no one answered for a while and then suddenly I saw that one of the seniors answered. 

"Teacher, we're finished with class. Why are you calling the class?"

"I know you're done with class, but the others have to finish up the semester. Where are you since I know you're not at school?"

"Oh, I am at the beach with my dog. Here, look at him."

"Wow! What a cute dog. Wait, you're at the beach? 不公平 (No fair)!" 

"Ha ha! Oh, I got a new haircut! See?" She then flipped her camera to selfie position.

"Wow, it looks good! You've got a great signal for being at the beach. The picture and sound is perfectly clear. I guess the network problem is just at the school."

"Oh yes, the Internet is terrible there."

"Speaking of school, I'd better get back to the class. They're probably wondering why I haven't called back. Have fun!"

I then hung up and tried to call the class again. After having the class move to a different location in the school we eventually got it worked out. We lost over half an hour of class time, though. While interruptions in class happen from time to time under normal circumstances, this is really starting to get out of hand. 

Taking Care of Business


WeChat - The App I Love to Hate

There are some very practical problems with being stuck living outside of the country you have chosen to live in for over four months. A big part of that is paying bills. How do you deal with rent? What about water and electricity? What do you do about your natural gas bill?
This is where WeChat comes in. If you know anything about life in China, you've heard about WeChat. It's often referred to as the Swiss army knife of apps and that's pretty accurate. It does everything. No one uses their phone company to text anymore. You text your friends and family on WeChat. Need a taxi? Call for one on WeChat. Need to pay your taxi driver? Scan his WeChat QR code. Are you out shopping? Pay for everything with WeChat. You might even earn a coupon or discount while you're at it. Do you have a Taobao order (China's answer to eBay and Amazon)? Just order and pay through WeChat. Out with friends and want to split the bill like a rude American instead of being polite and fighting over who gets to pay? WeChat will even let you act like a foreigner and totally disregard local customs. Oh, don't forget to post a picture of your meal with a description of how much fun you're having with your friends on your WeChat Moments.
As much as I hate the constant alerts from WeChat 24/7, how it constantly intrudes on your daily life and business (WeChat for Work is even worse), and my concern over the consequences of having my phone stolen or account hacked, I have to admit it helped deal with some important issues while away from home. I just sent our landlady our next 6 month installment of rent (and it's rare you get to pay 6 months at a time instead of the full 12 months at once, but that's another story). We're all set. By the way, our  landlady was glad to know we're all healthy and plan to return as soon as we can. I also just paid for water, electricity, and gas. I was able to top up my Chinese phone service which is essential any kind of remote banking with two factor ID.
It's all done. Now back to dealing with remote teaching.

Headed Home? Not yet.

A day or so ago, my wife wrote our school to ask about plans to return. We've been a little worried because it's been over a month since we had any news about our work situation, when students will return, or when can return to China.
Their reply was encouraging. They thanked us for our hard work in continuing to teach and expressed their need for good teachers. It's nice to be needed and wanted. Unfortunately they have no idea about when we can return or what conditions we might be working under.
A return to work in China will surely come with some changes and there's plenty of uncertainty about what that will look like. We've had some seriously mixed messages. I've seen my kids online in class. Some wear masks and some don't. They do sit far apart from each other, though. At least one foreign teacher I've communicated with told me he can only travel to and from home during the week and is not allowed to meet with anyone outside the school during the week. He's not allowed on public transportation for now, but can have food and other needs delivered to his home. Others have talked about going to restaurants and being happy to finally see some of their friends.

For now things are incredibly up in the air and the possibility of a late night message from our school asking us if we can be on a flight next week is always present in our thoughts. At the same time, I just read an article saying China is only allowing one flight in per country per week to the tune of $8,400 per person. Flights are booked through the summer and it's mostly wealthy Chinese students that are desperately trying to get home. Here's the link:

So, our plan is to hurry up and wait, but be ready to go on a moment's notice.

Teaching and Network Issues

First, there's always about a full second or longer delay. I say something and the students hear it about a second later. Then they respond about two seconds later or longer. That's aggravating, but you get used to it and figure out how to manage. Now that all of the students are  back in their classrooms the school's network is being stretched beyond it's breaking point. There just isn't enough bandwidth to handle all the computers on at once. Last night the delay was even longer (three or four seconds). On top of that the network was completely breaking down to the point that voices were distorted or there was total silence. Did they hear what I just said? Did they understand it? Do I need to explain because they didn't understand the material or because it was unintelligible? How long do I wait before trying again?
Even more infuriating was the constant echo we dealt with. Most software like this is supposed to have echo cancellation, but it wasn't working well at all last night. Every word I spoke was coming back to me two or three seconds later. When the kids spoke, we quickly ended up with a feedback loop where every word they said echoed increasingly faster and louder to the point of being deafening. I wear headphones when I teach to prevent this on my end, but now that all of the kids are in class at once they need to do the same. They don't. I've told them they need to, but that hasn't been enforced by the school just yet. 
I keep telling myself this will pass. One day we'll all be in the same room and I won't be totally dependent on technology to work. That day hasn't come yet.

Keeping It Interesting

When I started teaching online, many of my students would use emojis and GIFS. I used a few and then decided it would be more personal if I made my own. This is what I came up with. I think the message each one represents is pretty clear and needs no explanation.