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An Unwelcomed Journey Out of China

On January 23, 2020, my family and I arrived in Thailand from China for three weeks of vacation. Chinese officials locked down Wuhan on our first day in Thailand. We never returned to China. On March 31, 2022, after nearly 12 years of partnership, we exited our organization.

The 26 months that elapsed between our departure from China for a vacation to our departure from China indefinitely continue to bewilder me. Like many others, we lived under the heartache of watching the timeline for return to China stretch from weeks to months to years. Each delay required my wife and me to make difficult decisions. The journey remains emotionally complicated. We have so much for which we give thanks; we have so much for which we grieve. I offer here a few insights into the circumstances that led to our permanent departure from China, our undesired exit from our company, and our unexpected re-settlement in our passport country. I pray this helps others in similar circumstances navigate the complexities they face as they make decisions.

  1. China’s COVID-19 policies at the national, provincial, and local level. For most of the people displaced from China, especially families with young children, the door remains closed due to the many taxing and obstructing policies in place.

  2. We departed China for Thailand with our one-year-old and welcomed our second child in March of 2021. For us, the growth of our family trumped our determination to return to China. My wife and I decided we would pursue having more children amid the displacement and address the challenges this created for us to return to China as they arose.

  3. We had only lived at our location in China for five months when we departed for Thailand. The location we most wanted to live, where we had spent the bulk of our years in China, was no longer an option. Our attachment to our new location, though deepening, remained relatively shallow.

  4. Our employing school opted to not do online classes. Though the school paid me for the remainder of the 2019-2020 contract, after July 2020 I no longer received a salary, and the school declined to commit to anything for the 2020-2021 school year. This severed us from a stable connection to China. By default, our daily focus shifted to the US.

  5. The pandemic erupted at a time when my wife and I had little margin. The pandemic’s many stressors only shrunk that margin. The toll of shifting to a different country would have deleteriously impacted us. We choose to safeguard our wellbeing by not shifting to a different country.

  6. We sought to pay the cost in money wherever we could, especially when we had the financial means to do so. We lived with my wife’s parents during the initial months of our displacement. Though a workable situation, we experienced the small strains it caused. For a short time, we could endure the challenges posed by living in a shared space, the need to submit ourselves to the rhythms of others, and of having no connections to the community in which her parents lived. As we realized that our displacement would persist longer than we imagined, we knew that living situation would exact more from us. We moved back to the town where we had community and rented a basement apartment, initially for six weeks. We ended up staying for six months. This cost us financially and required me to work in the US, but it blessed us with the stability and autonomous space we needed.

  7. I could easily bridge my education, training, and line of work—education—between the United States and China. As we waited to see what happened with China, I substitute taught in our local school district throughout the 2020-2021 school year and formed meaningful connections. When we received word that we would not be able to return to China for the 2021-2022 school year, those connections helped me get hired for a full-time teaching position.

  8. My wife and I had long had the goal of purchasing a house in the United States and we had been saving for a down payment. We envisioned that event happening much further down the road. We realized, however, we were well-positioned to purchase a home in the fall of 2020. We knew that homeownership further complicated our ability to return to China, but we again prioritized stability over flexibility. We purchased our townhome in December 2020.

All of these factors converged in January of 2022 when we received news that China would likely remain closed to most everyone in our organization displaced by the pandemic. At that point, we were on a leave of absence, homeowners, and I was employed full-time as a middle school teacher. We had just received the first of ten boxes containing our belongings shipped from China. We were slowly building our connections to our local community. We were pursuing a third child. We were finally stable enough to contemplate plans for the future and goals for the present, to process the last two years, and to shift out of survival mode. Every decision we made in response to the interminable delays had moved us further from China and reduced our flexibility. We had resolved to hold out for news about the 2022-2023 school year before making a final decision. The door remained closed. For us, the choice was clear. We made our exit.

On numerous occasions since that exit, grief has tempted us to second-guess the decisions we made. Each time the Almighty invites us to trust and remember that he appoints the when and where of our life. We struggle in faith to respond as Job did in the face of his own adversity: You brought us into China, and you brought us out of China. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Image credit: Piqsels

Jason Odell

Jason Odell (pseudonym) moved to China in 2010 to work as a university English teacher. Over the next ten years he lived and worked in cities in the northeast, central, and southwest regions of China. The COVID-19 pandemic displaced his family and him back to the United States. They do …View Full Bio

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