Lacey Vair had a dream. The 2013 Washington High School graduate wanted to travel the world and live overseas.
She graduated from Indiana State University in December 2016, then Vair made that dream a reality.
“After I finished my degree, I accepted a teaching position at a private school in China. I teach kids from the age of 3 to 12 years old,” said Vair, who lives in Jinan, the capital of the Shandong province.
What Vair was never expecting as she chases her dreams was living through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic that started in Wuhan, China.
“At the beginning of the outbreak in China, I wasn’t worried. Wuhan felt far from Jinan,” said Vair. “It was only when the streets were empty during Spring Festival, one of the biggest holidays in China, that I started to worry.”
Vair said it was like millions of Chinese seemed to have vanished overnight.
“Shops shut down, travel restrictions were put in place, and checkpoints were set up at every road leading out of my community,” said Vair.
All of a sudden Vair said those who were not natives of China were faced with a tough decision — leaving or staying after government officials warned that it may be challenging to get out of the country later on.
“Several of my friends and colleagues decided to leave, but I chose to stay,” said Vair. “I felt that remaining in Jinan was a safer option than traveling through the train stations and airports, where many people were getting infected. I also didn’t want to risk exposing my family and friends to the virus.”
Jinan, Vair said, went into lockdown and that’s when things started getting complicated. Movement was restricted, and for several weeks, Vair could only leave her home to buy groceries.
“To enter or leave the community, I had to pass temperature checks and show proof of my residency there,” said Vair who also said her school closed and she had to adapt to teaching her students online.
She spent weeks alone in her apartment, relying on video chats with family and friends to pass the time and keep her occupied during the isolation.
“My students also cheered me up, and I was touched when some of their parents reached out to check up on me,” said Vair.
Unlike in the United States where hoarding food, toilet paper and other household supplies had become commonplace, in China, that’s not really been an issue for Vair.
“During the first week of the outbreak, fresh fruit and vegetables were scarce because people were worried that supplies would be affected by travel restrictions. The local government quickly discouraged panic buying and assured us that supplies were stable,” said Vair, adding that personal protective equipment items, including face masks, have been and still are difficult to come by.
The lack of face masks, which are still required for going out in public, left Vair with no choice but to continue wearing the same mask for weeks until a new one could be found.
Vair said in the last few weeks, she’s experienced one of the biggest blows to her life thus far.
“The recent imported cases led to a fresh wave of xenophobia in China. The Chinese public are more weary of foreigners and what they see as their biggest risk of infection now,” she said, adding though the foreign ministry in China reports that about 11% of imported cases are from foreigners.
Her neighbors started avoiding her on elevators, people began to cringe when she walked by and restaurants and bars began serving her and her friends in “special” sections away from the Chinese customers.
“Wednesday, I was finally allowed to return to school for office hours, but was denied entry upon arrival by property management,” said Vair. “While my Chinese colleagues were allowed entrance into the building, I had to return to my apartment and work online.”
Vair said these recent experiences have made her more empathetic to those who are different.
“I really empathize with others who are struggling with discrimination. For me, this is the worst part of the pandemic: humans treating other humans like a virus. I feel anxious when I leave home now, but I’m optimistic that the fear will fade over time,” she said.
Other aspects of her life in China are beginning to go back to normal although there are some restrictions still in place.
“A lot of businesses are open now, but require customers to go through a temperature check and log into a local app. To prove that I’m not a health threat, I had to upload my personal details and travel history onto this app, which gives shop staff a QR code to scan that shows them that I’m safe to enter their business,” said Vair, who is still teaching online, but expects to go back to school around May.
Still, it’s the hoarding of supplies and panic buying in her homeland that really surprises Vair.
“There are more people living in my Chinese city than the entire state of Indiana, but not once have we run out of toilet paper,” said Vair who worries about her friends and family in back in the U.S. who are struggling to find supplies.
“My fellow Hoosiers, friends and family are in my thoughts and prayers now. I really hope that people follow social distancing and do their part to keep others healthy. Speaking from my own experience, it really does help keep you and your loved ones safe.”