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Relocating in a pandemic

Mike Groves

Dalian China

In January 2020, I accepted a new job in China, working for a Joint Educational Initiative between the University of Surrey and Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian. Around the time of my interview, I started reading about a new epidemic in Wuhan. It interested me, because I had visited Wuhan a number of years earlier- and I thought that the epidemic might cause a few weeks, or at worst, months delay to my travel. So, I planned to work out my notice of resignation with my employer and travel three to four months later to take up my new post.

As things turned out, it was actually 18 months before I flew out of the UK in September 2021. In the intervening time, I was still in the UK and teaching, as well as leading a team, remotely. Because for most of this time the students in China were on campus and classes were synchronous, I had very early mornings, but it was easy to get used to, and I quite enjoyed finishing the day relatively early too.

There were long delays getting my paperwork together for the needed visa and work permit. This was caused by problems getting my invitation letter from the local government, delays getting documents notarised and legalised in the UK. I took my documents to the visa centre in November, and when I went back a week later, the government had cancelled all visa applications. I, and a long line of others, had the documents returned untouched. The visa centre didn’t reopen for another 4 months.

Finding a flight was also tricky. There were no direct UK to China flights. In addition, there were only certain routes open, since they had to include a Covid test at the transfer airport airside. In the end, I flew via Helsinki. We arrived in Helsinki at night and queued up for a test. After the test, we slept (sort of) in the departure lounge and were given our results the next morning. These were then submitted to a Chinese government website, and a green code in the Chinese government app turned green a few hours later. It was a little nail biting, but it all turned out OK. The staff at Helsinki were great- they knew exactly what they were doing, and if I had to spend another 24 hours in a departure lounge, I could think of a worse place than Helsinki. There were even showers open for a couple of hours in the morning.

After a comfortable flight with Finnair, we arrived at Shanghai. Every single official was in full hazmat suits, from the baggage handlers to the immigration officers. We were shepherded very efficiently through another covid test, through immigration, baggage reclaim and customs, and then told to line up. Batches of people were taken onto buses. There was no choice of which bus you got on; we just had to wait in line until it was our turn. It took a couple of hours to get out of the airport, and then another 45 minutes on the bus until we reached our quarantine hotel. After a little more queuing, I was shown my room. It was actually surprisingly nice. It was the type of hotel you might expect to host an academic conference- with 2 comfortable beds and a nice bathroom. The internet was generally fast and reliable, and the room was clean. Three times a day there was a knock on the door and a tray of food came, with rice, meat and vegetables It was a little “samey”, but perfectly palatable. Colleagues in Dalian also arranged for some coffee to be delivered- and I am sure other snacks could also be arranged.  Every couple of days I had to do another Covid test.

I won’t pretend that it flew by- but it was OK. I had filled up my laptop with Netflix downloads and my Kindle had enough to keep me going. I was also working at the same time, and even the weekends didn’t drag too badly.

At the end of the two weeks, I was let out of the hotel, and had ordered a cab to the airport. I flew to Dalian, and had a similar experience- but there were only a few people flying in. The local health staff were expecting me at the airport and took me to the next hotel for another two weeks. There were two other people in the bus who had been working overseas, and it was good to get to know them.   The room wasn’t quite as nice, but I have stayed in a lot worse. Finally, after another two weeks, and a few more Covid tests, my health code turned green and I was let out.

I have now been in Dalian for 9 months, and life is fairly normal. We have not had a lockdown of the severity of Shanghai. There have been a few weeks where gyms and cinemas have closed, and one period where restaurants were only doing takeouts and deliveries- although I do understand that some neighbourhoods were locked down before I arrived. The food markets, cafes and supermarkets have remained open throughout my time here, and even the malls are open. You do need to show a green code on your government app to go into most places like a mall, or the subway system. This is very easy, once you get used to it.  In order to maintain the green code, you need to do a Covid test once a week; this is organised by my apartment building committee. Men are tested on Tuesdays and women on Thursdays- apparently so that most households are tested twice a week. It takes about 20 minutes to queue.

The biggest issue has been the campus closure. The students are on campus, but teaching staff have not been allowed onto the campus for the last 10 weeks. Instead, we are teaching over Zoom. Term dates and teaching schedules can change with little notice. I have to say that the students have dealt with it with admirable resilience, but it is a challenge and I am very much looking forward to getting back to teaching in three dimensions. One particular challenge has been that the students generally join the classes from their dorm rooms, and generally students in the same class are allocated the same dorm room. Therefore, breakout rooms can be quite noisy, since you can hear all the other groups. One solution is to stop saying “get into breakout rooms and work on this task”. Instead, you say “turn around and work with the others in your room.” You do occasionally get a bleary-eyed roommate tumbling out of bed behind another student half way through the morning classes.

Overseas travel is still out of the question, domestic travel is tricky, and it looks like this won’t change any time soon. I’ve given up on predicting when things will change. However, the sun is shining in Dalian, and there’s a delicious bowl of noodles close by with my name on it.

Mike Groves is the director of the Centre for Academic English at the Surrey International Institute, Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian China. He has previously taught EAP and led EAP teams in the UK and Malaysia.

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