Camila Kemeny, a Chilean expat living in China, was traveling in Thailand with her son during the initial outbreak of coronavirus and has not been able to return to China. Instead, she and her son have been traveling ever since. In this interview she shares her story of how the coronavirus has uprooted her family and temporarily turned them into nomads.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Could you tell us a little about you and your family?
We’re a Chilean family living in China. I moved here as a single mom with my now ten-year-old son to work as a teacher. We live in a “small” city in mainland China (a city with over 7,000,000 people for Chinese standards is small). My son is basically the only foreigner in his class. We receive a lot of stares, but after three years we are used to it by now! My mom works here as well, making life here more familiar.
Where were you when the coronavirus outbreak started?
We were still in China, yet unaware of it. I still don’t speak Chinese. VPNs, which are used to follow foreign news, are harder to come by everyday.
My son and I went to Thailand for our Chinese New Year holiday break on January 20th. I received a message from my older brother in Chile saying, “Hey guys, take care in the airport, remember to wash your hands!” To this my reply was, “Umm, thank you for your concern, but what are you talking about?”. That’s when we learned that we had traveled during the peak of the outbreak! A few days later we learned that the virus was in China, Thailand and the Philippines already.
How and when were you informed of your inability to go back to China? Did they give you a timeline?
We still don’t know when we can go back! At first we weren’t very concerned about getting sick and didn’t mind going back home to China. We still aren’t very worried about the illness. We planned to take a 14-day trip, but as the end of our holiday neared, we started getting bad news from our school’s WeChat group. Things were getting worse. Schools were starting to close, so there was no need to return just yet. We were happy to extend our holiday a few days, but never imagined that over 7 weeks later we would still be in kind-of-a-homeless situation.
Schools in Shanghai extended their start date to February 19. However, my province did not receive this information. All schools are simply closed “until further notice.” It has been over a month and we still have no idea when we will be allowed to return.
It’s not that we aren’t allowed to return; there are several factors to take into account.
First and foremost, we were asked not to come back because they are still getting the situation under control in China. They don’t want to risk things worsening by allowing unnecessary travel into the country.
In addition to that, I have already changed my tickets twice. My company asked us to officially return in March. The next day they asked us NOT to return in March. So I won’t risk buying tickets again until we are really sure!
Finally, we have been informed by our school district that if we return, we must stay in quarantine in a hotel that they choose. We must pay for those 14 days ourselves. I would rather extend my stay abroad and wait for everything to calm down than have to go through quarantine that way! It may still be a possibility, however.
Apart from that, we also received notice that my apartment compound is not receiving “foreign visits”. Anyone who has not been inside the buildings in the last two weeks is not allowed in. I am not allowed back into my building for the time being.
I know you decided to keep traveling in South East Asia, where did you go?
We ended up staying over a month in Thailand. We got a chance to stay longer in a few places we loved. We added new places to our itinerary, which was totally bittersweet!
However, just when I was starting to fear how long I was going to be in this situation, I was lucky to receive an invitation from a friend in the Philippines. So we are staying in a small town where things are pretty calm.
How did the outbreak affect the area you visited? What was your experience?
From what I saw in Thailand, things were pretty calm. People didn’t seem too worried. The tourists seemed to be the only ones wearing face masks outside of Bangkok. Watching the news was especially scary, because we came from the country of the outbreak and were visiting the only other country that had had the virus at that point. I felt like I might have the virus, with no symptoms, and I was contaminating everyone! But that was just me being a hypochondriac. I realized that the best thing to do was to turn off the TV.
Bangkok had more precautions. From the start of the outbreak until I left, they were measuring people’s temperatures in the subways, malls and airports. Hand sanitizer was everywhere and masks were out of stock in every 7-Eleven and pharmacy. As always, big cities get a little more apocalyptic, in small towns you didn’t really feel it. There were no signs and posters in smaller towns like there were in Bangkok. When speaking to many business owners, they were a little worried that they had fewer Chinese tourists than normal during their peak season, which was bad for business.
I have had a few negative experiences while traveling, but probably not as many as Chinese travelers have had. On one occasion, when checking into a small home-stay in Amphawa, Thailand, the owner’s mother heard from my taxi driver that we lived in China. She came out screaming at us in the few English words she knew: “You China, you virus, you not come, why you come here? No China, no China, no China!” After explaining to her, with the help of the driver, that we had been in Thailand for over a month and had no fever, she calmed down. She still made sure to stay away from us during our entire stay. It was a silly situation, but I really felt bad and scared for a moment because she was kicking us out. The owner apologized and the next day she took us out to the biggest vegan breakfast I have ever had, plus a free bike tour through the town.
From that situation on, I made sure to only tell a few necessary people that we came from China, just to avoid going through a bad experience again. We have had other minor situations. A few people were afraid of coming near us, or just made shocked faces if they heard where I work. We just started avoiding that conversation altogether.
Is your son aware of the situation?
My son is very aware of the situation and can’t wait to go back home. He also knows not to open any conversation with strangers about us coming from China. He was a bit confused at how we were treated in the home-stay in Amphawa. We have been taking it for what it is though, a new flu. My best friend in Chile is an ER doctor and she has done a great job explaining the virus in a child-friendly manner to both of us. She has been a great source of calm, putting things in perspective.
In the end, the mortality rate is low and we aren’t an at-risk part of the population. She insists that if we really are worried about dying from a flu, we should get Influenza shots, because it kills way more people. It has been a great educational moment for both of us.
So, my son knows there’s a virus that has to be contained and that we must take all the precautions we can so that we don’t infect babies and old people, if we get sick. I have made sure he understands that it’s similar to a flu and we aren’t people at risk, but we are travelers so we must make sure to protect those who might be at risk. I have never had such a great response to “wash your hands, it’s dinner time!”
How is the situation in the area you are staying now?
They are taking great precautions in the Philippines. The first death outside of China occurred here, of a tourist from Wuhan. You can imagine how people feel about it. I have been told that we are close to the village nearby that has been turned into a quarantine zone. At first people were scared of bringing the virus to town. Now the neighbors are taking it with humor, and a sort of pride, for opening their doors to help fellow citizens.
Last week a confirmed case arrived in metropolitan Manila. After a few more cases were confirmed, they closed some schools there for the week. Every day there are a few more cases, but not at the rate we saw in Wuhan. It seems like the cases are pretty stable here with very few exceptions. In general things are very calm in the small town where we are staying. The news of the coronavirus feels very removed from the families living here, even if we are living near the quarantine zone, close to the hospital where more cases have been confirmed.
How has your son’s education been affected?
This is a really interesting question because we are still kind of figuring it out. For us, vacation time is always an opportunity to explore with unschooling and world schooling. As classes initially got canceled, I was excited to continue my son’s education with this trip. It was never on pause.
However, his school began sending homework for regular subjects including music, physical education, and art. They began an online class schedule where we have to log on every day from 10 am to 2 pm to have those online video classes. Honestly, as a student, it’s tons of work. It’s also exhausting!
My son goes to an international school, so thankfully it has not been as demanding as other Chinese schools in terms of workload and homework expectations. China has a very strong homework culture where homework is very highly regarded as a crucial part of learning.
Just yesterday I saw news of how Chinese students had coordinated to try and get their remote learning app out of the App Store by giving it negative reviews. I completely understand them!
While his homework has not been as demanding as others in the country, it has been really difficult to keep up with all the work that is being sent. Although, I am not going to worry too much about it. After talking to his homeroom teacher, he fully understands and supports us.
His real life experiences are much more practical and beneficial anyways. Counting mom’s change is better practice than a math worksheet. Skip counting in hopscotch makes more sense than skip counting in his head. Taking a hike is a much better form of exercise than jogging in place in front of a screen. Going to a concert is so much more entertaining than watching a recorded one. The list is endless, really.
We do what we can and attend all the online classes we can, but we also continue our learning at home with different activities that emphasize the lessons. I don’t feel like we are missing out on his education at all, but I understand how other parents may feel otherwise.
The school is already paid for, so I feel like schools have a strong need to comply. It’s a business after all that must be kept running.
Has your job been affected by not being able to reenter the country?
Thankfully, I am still receiving my paycheck every month and hopefully it continues that way! We are still working remotely sending online classes to our students through an online platform as well as through WeChat. WeChat has also added a distance learning function which has been working pretty well.
However, as I mentioned before, Chinese students are being given heavy workloads. So, it has been testing my creativity daily. How can I give meaningful classes and a justifiable workload with all that’s going on? Also, how do I do all of this remotely in the best way possible? It has been a challenge, a pretty fun one actually and a great learning experience for me as well.
Work has been a lot busier in terms of adding a lot more thinking, planning, and creating extra engaging content for students. The silver lining to all of this is that I am getting to interact more with my students on an individual basis. I’m also connecting a lot more with parents, more than I ever did before thanks to WeChat. I have a lot more time to answer individual questions that sometimes they may have been too shy to ask face to face. Or didn’t know how to ask due to a lack of vocabulary or language skills. I think WeChat is definitely a tool that I will try to add and incorporate more in my classes. I think all workers in China have had to get more creative and that is an amazing thing!
When do you think you will be able to get back into China?
We don’t know. We heard a rumor that school will not start until possibly mid-April now. It’s not uncommon nor unexpected in China to be given really short notice. In any case, we are prepared to be back in China whenever they let us come home!
Anything more you would like to tell us about this experience?
In general, we have been calm and constantly trying to put things into perspective. Though the global panic obviously gets to us! Influenza, AIDS, diabetes and cancer kill more people daily than this virus ever will. We are scared of something that might never actually kill us. Yet we smoke, drink, and have terrible eating habits that will most likely kill us in a heartbeat!
I do feel for all the deaths and cannot help but being shocked about the terrible fate that Wuhan had to face. However, my friends who are still in China are not worried and completely trust their Chinese government. They are just very bored in quarantine with little to do outside of the home and are ready for everything to return to normal.
More than once I’ve had a hard time understanding the way China works. So many things just don’t make sense to me about how they work or the different things they value and don’t value. China really is a world of its own that maybe I’m just not meant to completely understand. The same way my students have a hard time understanding some of the weird western things I do.
Regardless of how many times I feel like grabbing my bags and going home, China is truly awesome and I feel incredibly lucky it opened its doors to us and allowed me to have a great job there. I do hate how this has fueled racism and I fear it might make China become even more closed off than it already is. It truly is an amazing place where everything works, (strangely in my eyes) but nevertheless, works!
Wǒ ài nǐ zhōngguó (I love you China) and jiāyóu (add oil)!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual, not of a medical professional or of Bébé Voyage unless specifically indicated to that effect.
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