“Hope you have a great trip. See you next semester.”
It was late December 2019 when I said goodbye to my students. We had just finished a lunch of rice pilaf and hand-pulled noodles at a favorite restaurant near campus. It was a satisfying way to end another very normal semester of teaching English at a Chinese university. The following day I boarded a plane with my wife and kids for Southeast Asia. We had planned to vacation for a few weeks, attend a conference, and return to our home in China. But God had other plans— plans that would alter our lives and the lives of countless others in ways that are still unfolding.
News of a novel coronavirus began trickling out of China in late January. I immediately thought back to 2003 when I was living in southern China at the center of the SARS epidemic. There was a palpable fear then, but it was tempered (social media had yet to emerge). Some people wore masks and stayed a bit closer to home than normal. And to disinfect the air, my Chinese colleagues used rice cookers to boil white vinegar in our school offices. Eventually, American English teachers working at my school were called home for what turned out to be a few short months before returning to China and to pre-SARS outbreak normal. Little did I know how different things would be in 2020.
In February it became clear we would have to extend our vacation. By mid-March it no longer felt like vacation. Sure, we were living in the tropics, swimming every day to keep cool, but when you have to make a ten-hour border run with your wife and young children to extend your visa in a foreign country, wondering if you will be able to get back into said country at the border crossing—it’s just not the same type of vacation. Soon after, the US State Department issued a travel alert urging Americans abroad to return to the States while commercial flight options remained available. We had already been living out of a suitcase for nearly three months and we were determined to get back to our home and life in China.
Also on our minds was the real possibility that we could make the long and expensive journey back to the US only to turn around a few weeks later aboard another trans-Pacific flight. Such was (and still is) the difficulty of making decisions in the days of COVID-19, particularly for expats living overseas. We contacted my university one last time to request permission to re-enter China. To our disbelief the answer was yes. The following day, however, the answer was no. Reluctantly, we stepped out in faith and bought tickets, praying that our flight would remain on schedule. Thankfully, it did—the airport closed later that night to all transiting passengers.
In late March we landed safely in the States. Days later China officially closed its border to foreign nationals. But it wasn’t as if this validated our decision to return. Questions began cropping up. What if we had pushed harder to get back to China early on during the outbreak? Did fear, rather than faith, drive our decision making? Should we have waited longer in Southeast Asia?
It’s now the middle of September. Weeks have turned into months with no clear end in sight. Along with hundreds of English teachers our lives have been suddenly and significantly altered. Most teachers have been abruptly thrust into the world of online teaching and, in some cases, asked to work nights to accommodate time zone differences. Several, including myself, have lost our teaching jobs altogether as some universities are simply not interested in retaining contracts with foreign English teachers that cannot teach in person.
Relationships have also changed. I used to share meals with students. We used to host local friends in our home. During her weekly visits to the local market, my wife used to chat with vendors who had become friends, and my children used to gather daily in the courtyard of our apartment complex to play with other kids their age.
We have also lost nearly all our earthly possessions—at least for a season. My computer is still inaccessible as well as most of my wardrobe. You can only get so far with a few t-shirts, some shorts, and one pair of pants. And what about the hard to replace stuff like marriage licenses, birth certificates, scrapbooks, favorite toys, and holiday decorations? Or the rhythms and routines of life that become more meaningful when you lose them? Without a doubt God has provided for the loss beyond what we could have hoped or imagined. But the loss is still real and sometimes we feel it.
Thankfully, who hasn’t changed is our great God. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He remains sovereign, working out all things according to the counsel of his will. I know this is true because Scripture is crystal clear. I also know that the Lord gives and takes away and that I am not my own, but rather bought with a price. Furthermore, I know that for those who love him all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate me from his love.
Yet, perhaps more than ever this unexpected season of change and uncertainty has taught me that theology is not merely understood, but lived. I don’t feel as much like the man looking down from his balcony discussing what is happening on the street below, while not actually experiencing the street (to borrow a metaphor from the late J.I. Packer).
Rather, I feel a bit closer to the road now. I’ve asked God during these days if he really is completely sovereign and he has answered clearly that he is. I’ve asked him if my identity is truly secure in him and not the work and life I suddenly lost. It is. I’ve asked him if all of this could really be for my good. It is. And I’ve prayed that he would help me say blessed be the name of the Lord. He has.
Mark Totman (pseudonym) is an expat with over a decade of experience living in China. He enjoys writing on a wide range of China-related subjects including language, culture and history, particularly as these subjects facilitate greater understanding of the Chinese context and encourage beneficial lives of cross-cultural service.View Full Bio
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