China: Covid Lock-downs & Mental Health

by Anonymous International Teacher / ISR Guest Writer

On the 26th of March 2020, China instigated significantly restricted travel Visas for both exiting and entering the country. As of November, 2022, there is still no specific date set for the free flow of people into and out of the country.

As such, there has been a strong emphasis on educators’ inability to leave the country, but that is not the end of it. With the experience of living through some of the world’s most draconian lock-downs (known as ‘dynamic Covid’) in the world, what is not as clearly understood is the wide variability in people’s personal experiences in China during lock-down.

I personally know of people who have been teaching in-person safely and with the continued ability to travel around China. In contrast, there are examples where friends have had trouble getting essentials such as adequate food. This may have been due to having weak links to ‘group buying,’ common during major city lock-downs. Or, it may be due, in part, to a lack of Chinese language skills and/or little to no support from the school.

Something that I think has often been misunderstood is the chronic trauma and grief suffered by some fellow educators in China that still follows them to this day. Not being able to leave your home for months at a time can lead to major problems with social isolation. The students are also in the same boat, so our ability to look after our students was also mixed.

Administrators from outside countries, I also believe, paint teachers from China with a very broad brush stroke as “damaged goods” or have the attitude of “we went through the same in _XYZ_ country and survived, so we don’t understand your trauma as being that big of a deal.”

What would you like administrators to know about YOUR experience when they interview teachers who have been in China during Covid times? How was mental health addressed for staff in YOUR school while working in a city that experienced prolonged lock-downs? Do you feel that there is a discrimination, for or against, those educators who come from posts in China?

Comments? Please scroll to participate in this ISR Discussion

32 thoughts on “China: Covid Lock-downs & Mental Health

  1. Well, for starters, I have a colleague who honestly says he enjoyed his lockdown experience. Personally, I wouldn’t give up my lockdown experience for anything. One of the big reasons I decided to teach internationally was because I enjoy experiencing other cultures and living in the rules and laws that govern those places I choose to live in, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Shanghai lockdown was a truly once in a lifetime and unique experience and may never be replicated. It’s an anthropological treasure trove as it’s so unique. I saw how people banded together to find innovative ways of helping each other (group buys), how barter systems arise naturally, how top down command and control dynamics play out in real time, and how humans are capable of a totally different way of collaborating under extreme conditions. Many people forget that the whole idea of “lockdown” originated in Wuhan in the very beginning of the pandemic, and that idea was imported by many other countries, even if it didn’t match their own ideals, constitutions, or values. For China, this was the standard game-plan from the very beginning, so I wasn’t surprised when it happened in Shanghai and was more than ready mentally and with food supplies stocked. People also discredit China’s approach as being draconian (and it IS extreme) without looking at the number of lives the approach saved. They also forget that China has not shown the world how it plans to see its way out of the pandemic, and so, it’s too early to judge whether the social “cost” of the lockdowns was worth it or not. It’s not like the rest of the world didn’t go through tough times as well. In China, I remember nearly 2 years where China was completely normal while the rest of the world was being ravaged by the pandemic. All was calm in China at the time. So, it’s important to see things from the perspective of the people that lived inside China at that time to have a measured view on it. All this to say, this was my own experience, and I realize that many people had a very difficult time, either mentally, or physically, and their experiences should be respected and not discounted. Every person had a different experience, not just in China, but globally. Let’s continue to be kind to one another.

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  2. I disagree with the article. Most people who work in a communist country with a totalitarian regime understand their personal freedoms can/will be severely restricted at any time.Therefore they are not traumatised. Anyone working overseas needs to always have 3 months of nonperishable food and drinking water laid aside because one never knows when war, waves of disease, etc. can strike. I always had 6 months of both. Yes, I lived in China when COVID struck and we were locked down for a very long, long time. During my career overseas I was in Africa during ebola, India during a cyclone hit, Japan (numerous earthquakes), etc. Stuff happens. Also make sure you get your money out on a regular basis to a bank in your home country because guaranteed, in times of extreme crisis the banks do close. Keep a few thousand in small bills on hand in case you have to “bug out” or pay bribes while bugging out or pay for serious medical care. In many countries no care without being able to pay the medical bill before treatment. Living overseas can be wonderful but things are not quite like they are in your home country so best to be prepared.

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    1. “Therefore are not traumatised” seriously what is wrong with you. Your personal experience does not account with other teacher’s experience. If we are not traumatised then why are thousands of teachers breaking contracts and leaving the country at the first chance they have, your comment is simply disrespectful to any other human and negating they trauma makes you a horrible human with little empathy, i feel for your students.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. “Three months of non-perishable food and water.” Are you kidding me? Maybe if you’re Mormon. I’ve worked overseas 25+ years, even in some dodgy places, and neither I nor anyone I know has ever done that.

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    3. This is very good and practical advice imo. I usually do one month of food reserve, unless I feel like something bigger might happen, then I up it to 3 months. I haven’t lived through things like you have though, but it’s good to take advice from people that have.

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  3. I work in China and have since 2018. We haven’t been able to leave the country since January 2020. I’m currently on the job market because we’ve gotten sick of that, and also because the Shanghai lockdown of spring 2022 was truly terrible. My family was luckier than many in the sense that we never didn’t have food/water, but it was a grueling 2.5 months and wreaked havoc on my mental health and especially my elementary-aged daughter’s.

    The current state of things (at least in Shanghai) is that the government can and will lock thousands people in their apartments at a moment’s notice, for 2-14 days, if they were at the same restaurant as someone who LATER IN THE DAY went to the same mall as someone who ended up testing positive 4 days later. Again, my family has been very lucky to avoid this so far, but it very much does happen every day, and could happen to us at any time. We (staff and students) also have daily COVID testing on campus — we miss an hour of instructional time every morning for this, and admin spends so much of their time having to chase down tested-related issues they have no time or bandwidth left for actually running the school.

    I can’t speak to what things are like outside Shanghai because I haven’t been able to leave the city since the summer of 2021.

    So no, claiming that international teachers in China may live in ‘traumatizing’ situations is not invalid.

    That being said, I haven’t noticed any particular “bias” against qualified teachers leaving China in my interviews and interactions with school as I tred the job market this fall. A couple of places have mentioned that they are getting a lot of applicants from China this year, but I haven’t had any trouble getting interviews since my qualifications and experience are well in order. The one thing I have noticed is several people with questions about my ability to classroom-manage, “since we know that East Asian students are all super obedient”, which I find hilarious and also shows that they didn’t read the rest of my CV. But that’s not covid-related. I haven’t personally experienced any additional angst, and several interviewers have extended their profound sympathy for what we’ve had to go through.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m confused by the post but I’m more confused by the responses.

    The post confuses me because I have not heard even the slightest hint that teachers in China are considered “damaged goods”. If anything, it’s the opposite. Having taught in China since Covid proves your resilience and resourcefulness. It’s like having any hardship post under your belt.

    I left China in June. Last October, I landed a job at an excellent international school in SEA. I don’t know if the fact I had Covid-era China on my CV had anything to do with it, but it obviously didn’t hurt me. I don’t know where the notion is coming from that teachers leaving China will face discrimination.

    There may be some people who wrongly assume all the “real” teachers have left China and those remaining are “only English-teaching backpackers” who’ve been begrudgingly hired by “real” schools in China out of desperation. But any admin I’d want to work with would vet me based on better evidence than ignorant assumptions.

    As for the toll the Covid restrictions in China placed on people, they are fact and they varied as the OP describes. We didn’t understand the depth of our oppression until we landed in our home country a few months back. While we were in China the almost daily testing, limited travel opportunities within the country and even within our city limits, periodic shutdowns of all transportation within and in and out of our district as well as the periodic stoppage of deliveries, and the constant threat of quarantine if we’d happened to have visited a site during the same window of time as a random stranger who later tested positive, etc. was our “new normal” and we sincerely assured friends and family back home that we were doing well. That wasn’t a lie. We were. But I know it was even worse some places in China, and I know some people would react differently than we did to above said restrictions. I know people who were greatly affected by these restrictions. This is basically all the OP had to say about China. (And if you don’t know all this to be true “were you even in China?!?”)

    So I’m confused by the vitriol I see in so many of the responses. Did these people read a different version of the post than I did? They seem to have read an indictment of China and they are personally offended by the completely false and scandalous accusations about Chinese culture and Chinese citizens. They seem to have read an attack on China and Chinese way of life. Meanwhile, I read a dubious postulation that school hiring teams who haven’t lived in China since Covid think teachers there won’t be able to teach well because they’ve been teaching in China since Covid. I’m thoroughly confused by the different takes. It’s like some sort of inside joke and I’m on the outside. What’s up? Can someone please explain.

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    1. I’m the actual author of the article – and I agree that I am also a bit baffled with the responses. On your question about the article itself – I have seen some examples from admin where they won’t hire people from China as they see them as damaged goods. I’ve also seen teachers who have come from China (including cities with major lockdowns) and the admin think that the experiences they have had themselves in a western country are exactly the same.

      I personally was shocked by this (people seeing teachers from China as damaged goods) – and wanted to see if others had seen the same. Could I have written it in a better way? Possibly.

      To the other people (and I won’t be responding after this post). Here are the general questions I see.

      Have I lived in China recently? Yes

      Do I hate China or its people? No

      Are teachers in China damaged goods? Mostly not – but some have experienced chronic (meaning prolonged) grief which significantly affects that person. It may not be fully understood until you’ve had time to process it.

      Am I presumptuous or arrogant? Possibly – but I don’t try to be. I did not say that I knew everything but just talked about my and the people that I know lived experiences and wanted people to share what they have experienced.

      Note that the article could only be 350 words which limits what I could write and give in examples. I’m also not the best person at expressing my ideas in the written word – but I’ve just been shown that the internet does not do tolerance or nuance.

      I take part of the blame for not writing more succinctly – but one thing I won’t be doing is writing another blog post in the near future.

      Replying to this post won’t mean anything – as I won’t be replying to it or reading responses. Thanks for the people who shared (and will share) their experiences. I’m happy to hear specifically that discrimination against teachers who have worked in China seems to be limited. I’d also like to thank the person who I replied to and apologize for potentially causing many replies to your original comment.

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    2. This is spot on. I think it stems from baseless accusations or assumptions from the writer, which are very much taken as an attack and unwelcomed discrimination.

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    3. Author: Who are you to tell people living in China if they’re “traumatized” or to speak on the mental state for the millions of expats or over a billion Chinese living in China? You assume they are and if they are not, or perhaps even agree with the policies, you say they need “time to process it”. Who are you to spread that idea? Get real. Spreading ideas like that doesn’t help anyone.

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    4. @Fourty2 and so many other anonymous responders: What is going on?!? Seriously!

      You say: “Who are you to tell people living in China if they’re “traumatized” or to speak on the mental state for the millions of expats or over a billion Chinese living in China?”

      But if you read the article, it says (in bold, no less) : “what is not as clearly understood is the wide variability in people’s personal experiences in China during lock-down.” WIDE VARIABILITY IN PEOPLE’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. And later, the author refers to (also in bold) ” the chronic trauma and grief suffered by some fellow educators”. SOME FELLOW EDUCATORS. Not all. Some.

      Have you lived in China since 2020? Do you know anyone who has? If so, you cannot say that the above is not true. You would have to be blind or arrogantly dismissive of the real experiences of actual people to say that the above is false.

      You cannot deny that some people experienced severe lockdown experiences. Do you know what happened in Shanghai? You cannot deny that some people were traumatized by it. So why so angry at a simple statement of fact?

      I do not understand. Please explain.

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  5. A lot of people don’t have a choice of where to work – if you are a USA/UK teacher with qualifications and experience of teaching back in your home countries then it’s OK for you but as a teacher from South Africa the rest of the world does not see me as a native speaker so I have no other option but to stay here in China.

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  6. Maybe I’m missing something but the writer wasn’t criticizing China or the government’s zero-covid policy but remarking how these policies affected the ex-pat and Chinese teachers and administrators similarly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @inChina

      Did you read the article? Did you read past the headline, which the author probably didn’t write? The author clearly refers to “the chronic trauma and grief suffered by some fellow educators in China”. SOME. Not all. Some.

      Your username implies you are in China. Do you really not know ANYONE there who has been traumatised by what has been happening? Are you being dismissive of people’s personal experiences?

      If you don’t know anyone who has been traumatised, you are either completely oblivious to the feelings of others, or you have been very lucky. I know people who experienced the same conditions I did who were very traumatised by them, and our conditions were mild compared to the conditions of other people we knew and friends in other parts of the country.

      Everyone deals with things differently (AS THE AUTHOR SAYS), and the conditions people have had to face in China since January 2020 until now have varied (AS THE AUTHOR SAYS). I don’t see how stating the truth is presumptuous.

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  7. I don’t know why administrators would consider teachers still working in China as damaged goods. If anything, it would just go to show that teachers still in China have the resilience to weather tough times and not just bail when the going gets tough.

    Yes, life in China may not be a bed of roses right now, but that’s precisely why they’re paying teachers within China good money. I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. I was recently offered a contract by a school listed on ISR as one of the best-paying schools in Asia (outside China). But I turned them down because I’m making an obscene amount of money in China right now (90K USD after tax this year and considerably more next year. I’ve not even factored my wife’s salary into the equation).

    I am forgoing my freedom right now to have greater financial freedom down the road.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Very arrogant and know-it-all kind of blog post. Shame on ISR for allowing this type of article to be published. Go find something to do my friend.

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    1. What? On what is this reaction based? What did the author say that is arrogant and know-it-all? The author clearly states that SOME people have been traumatised by what has been happening in China. Not all. Some. To deny that is to say that No one has. I think it would be extremely arrogant to say that NO ONE was traumatised by it. Even if you don’t know anyone who has been, wouldn’t it be “arrogant and know-it-all” to state categorically that NO ONE has?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “Administrators from outside countries, I also believe, paint teachers from China with a very broad brush stroke as ‘damaged goods’ ” That’s one of the most daft things I’ve read on the ISR blog, and there’s a lot of competition. Does the author have ANY evidence for such a statement? I haven’t seen anything.

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    1. It’s true, unfortunately. I’ve heard this sort of thing from several principals in Arizona. When I first came back, people asked me if I knew how to write a seating chart, despite teaching for 5 years in Phoenix before going to China. This is part of the reason I left the profession.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. So you’re basically saying teachers in China suffer from mental health collapses, that they are unemployable, and that all teachers should leave China? Incredibly arrogant for you to think you know what’s best for everyone and incredibly judgmental as well. You would definitely not be able to make it in China, that’s for sure, but others that are more open-minded and committed will take the lead.

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    1. I don’t think the author is commenting at all on what is best for teachers in China. Or suggesting that they have suffered mental collapse. And the author certainly isn’t suggesting they are unemployable. The opposite, in fact.

      Did you read the article? Did you read past the headline? The author is saying that people (admin and HR) outside of China think that because of the restrictions teachers in China faced they are “damaged goods.” I did not have that experience at all in my job search a year ago, and I think any admin or HR who thinks like that is too idiotic for me to care if I worked for them, but I guess there are idiots out there.

      Other than that, the author says that there was a “wide variability in people’s personal experiences in China during lock-down.” Do you disagree? How can you possibly disagree? My experiences of lock-down were different from that of my friends in Shanghai, and in Chongqing, and in Guangzhou, and Suzhou, and Nanjing, etc. Do you not know anyone in China who didn’t experience the lock-down differently from you? Or do you not know anyone in China? Or do you assume everyone in China experienced the lock-down exactly like you did?

      The author refers to the “chronic trauma and grief suffered by some fellow educators in China”. The key word here is SOME. Do you disagree that SOME teachers in China suffered trauma and grief due to the restrictions they have faced since January 2020? How can you deny it? I, personally, didn’t realise I was experiencing grief until we “escaped” China in June. And it truly felt like we were escaping by the skin of our teeth. Every moment we remained was a risk we would be trapped there because we happened to have been to the covid testing site as a random stranger who later tested positive, for example. Every day we remained, we were at risk of our second flight being canceled. Our first flights were canceled and we were lucky to get our second flights. That whole experience was more traumatic that we realised until we landed in our new country. Are you saying my grief and trauma isn’t real? Isn’t that incredibly arrogant of you?

      The author didn’t say anything about me or any other teaching having a mental collapse. Some people I knew were more traumatised than we were, and I know one person who, for lack of a better word, had a mental breakdown. I know people who are bitter about it. And they have good reason to be. Some of my former colleagues were quarantined for a full 8 weeks. Some were quarantined in horrendous conditions. Some were separated from their children for weeks on end. (Couples were split where one was with the children and the other wasn’t, and teenaged children were separated from their parents.) Some people weren’t able to visit their loved ones in the hospital. Some had to abandon beloved pets. The list goes on. All of these things are traumatising on some level and different people are more impacted than others. Isn’t it incredibly arrogant to say that none of these people were or should have been traumatised or suffer from grief?

      I wonder if that is what is causing all this vitriol toward the author. Is it misdirected denial? Are so many people having kneejerk reactions and attacking the author because they are suffering from trauma? Methinks the lady doth protest too much, so to speak.

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    2. Looks to me like “judauphil” is the author trying to figure out where they went wrong with this piece. But instead of listening, they can only see it their way. I’m glad they decided not to write any more. Discriminatory and presumptuous writing style.

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    3. “Looks to me like “judauphil” is the author trying to figure out where they went wrong with this piece. But instead of listening, they can only see it their way. I’m glad they decided not to write any more. Discriminatory and presumptuous writing style.”

      I’m not the writer. The writer introduced him or herself in response to my initial response. My first reaction was that the writer was perhaps expressing victimhood in interviews, thereby receiving poor feedback, and drawing a conclusion that he/she was discriminated against due to coming from China. But I wasn’t “presumptuous” enough to attack the writer based on my assumptions, for which I had no proof, and which, upon subsequent readings of the article, I can find no evidence.

      After my first reading of the article, I read the responses and I was confused because responses such as yours seemed to be about a completely different article. So many people were personally offended that the OP said that SOME people were traumatised by SOME of the restrictions they faced. Why such a strong reaction to unarguable statements? People actually took it as an attack on China. Where?

      I find it discriminatory and presumptuous and arrogant and an uncalled-for attack by you to suggest something that has no bearing in fact but is based entirely on your biased assumptions. I also find it discriminatory and presumptuous and ignorant, arrogant, and uneducated to claim that the article is presumptuous and discriminatory and not prove that it is so. I’ve been asking over and over again for someone to please explain to me what the writer said that was arrogant, blanket, presumptuous, discriminatory, etc., etc., etc. And NO ONE has addressed that question, including you. I think it’s because NO ONE CAN, including you. Until I see a reasoned argument about the above, I have to believe you are all poor readers, or trolls, or bots, or traumatised persons in denial.

      You, wrongly assuming I am the writer, say I don’t “listen” to where “I” went wrong. Give it to me. I’m all ears. I don’t think you can.

      Where did the writer go so wrong in this piece? TELL ME, PLEASE. I challenge you to use direct evidence from the piece to explain where they were presumptuous or discriminatory. “Are you really even an educator” if you don’t do this? I hope you at least make your students support their opinions with evidence, even if you don’t.

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  11. I find this article quite rude and demeaning in a strange way. Has the writer lived in China? Are they simply slandering something they know nothing about? There are two sides to every story…..there must be some reason that many teachers choose to stay. I know many teachers that live in China and still love it. Seems the writer is jumping on the “bash China” train. It’s better to seek understanding and to empathize than to demonize.

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    1. What are you talking about? What has the author said that is demeaning? I find it a bit unlikely that teachers leaving China are being discriminated against, but the author has in NO way slandered anyone. The author states facts: The restrictions were varied and teachers across the country experienced them differently. The restrictions in Shanghai were not as severe as in Beijing until last winter when they were incredibly severe! Much more severe than Beijing ever faced. The restrictions in other cities were also different. Have you lived in China? If so, you must know this to be fact. Fact 2: SOME people were traumatised by this. Do you deny that?

      I don’t understand these reactions. They make no sense unless you didn’t read the article, didn’t understand what you read, are in some sort of denial, are a bot whose job it is to defend China against allegations that haven’t been made, or are under some sort of threat where you have to defend China against allegations that haven’t been made.

      I have friends still in China who are facing some pretty horrendous restrictions as of this writing. I won’t go into detail in case they are recognizable, but if they were happening to me, I would be traumatised. They are thinking of breaking contract and leaving midterm. That’s the facts. It’s not slander if it’s true. It’s not demeaning either.

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  12. The situation for Senior people inside China, is career damaging, you cannot leave for an interview for say a few days and return without tests approved by the Chinese Embassy/Consulate, impossible to get in the time frame, then at least 7 days quarantine at your entry point then home lockdown for a period of time. The only way to leave, is too go and not return.

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  13. While living in China is a struggle as many freedoms have been stripped from Chinese and expats alike, I see no reason why that would diminish the standing of those teachers that choose to stay. If anything, those teachers that had endured and adapted to such hardships would have proven themselves to be the most fit for any international position. To live through it and choose to stay says a lot about their adaptability and commitment. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, and the teachers that choose to stay in China are some of the strongest.

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  14. Ummm! Which government department of information do you work in?
    I love China! I love the people! I love the Culture!

    Reality: Teachers are now offered incredible packages to endure the lockdown situation. Why? Because so many international teachers have left.

    Responsibility for decision making-agreed, however, this does not resolve the current situation of many teachers who would like to stay in China have left, because of the travel restrictions. If they are able to travel, the enormous costs, which make it impossible for families to return to their home countries. In the last few days, flights have been canceled, forcing return flight prices sky-high!

    Mental health can affect anybody and everybody. Do not underestimate the trauma and long term effects caused by the pressures of the new society and the impacy of Covid.

    I gracefully ask you to reflect on you comment with more understanding, compassion, and humility, as was my experience shared by my chinese friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I worked there for 5 years.

    I only know 3 people who are still there from when I left in summer of 2019. All three of them say that they must stay because they would be unemployed any place else.

    Let’s be honest. Zero Covid isn’t going away in the foreseeable future. My wife is Chinese and had not been home since 2019. If living under zero Covid has caused you mental anguish, at some point, you need to be responsible for your own outcomes. International flights leave China every day. Be on one, or learn to live with it.

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