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  • Writer's pictureAleka Bilan

Ruminations on the Year of the Rat

A dozen years ago, in 2008, my husband and I moved to Asia for the first time. What a magical time it was to get to know China! The Olympics, the spectacle, the history, the culture, the rate of construction, the masses and masses of people, the government able to make everything “just so” – even causing it to rain on command.

Working in a young, innovative international school, I was privileged to have a front-row seat to the boom of China since that fortuitous Year of the Rat. Multinational companies such as Hyundai and Nokia sent employee dependents to our school, the subway lines metastasized, hutongs were “renovated,” the capitalist economy within a communist central government kept expanding. Specifically, I watched the “gold rush” of overseas university admissions officers recruiting in China, many for the first time. Some higher education institutions sought full fee-paying tuition students to help bolster the hit their endowments faced in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and many newly prosperous Chinese families saw a way for a brighter future for their children by attending university overseas. It was an equitable match.

Now, another Lunar New Year holiday concludes, and we’re back in the Year of the Rat – returning to the beginning of the Chinese zodiac calendar cycle. With the new year, one wishes health, happiness and good fortune for friends and family.

But with this new year, we find ourselves in a changed world. The rate at which the novel coronavirus has spread from its epicentre in Wuhan is remarkable as it shines a spotlight on how central China has become to the global economy, with the production and movement of goods and people through its various transport hubs. Airport links and passenger loads map out where the virus could go to next; national borders and checkpoints are funnelled or closed in the wake of the WHO’s announcement of a public health emergency. Watching the virus spread shows that China is truly the Middle Kingdom in today’s globalized society.

Unfortunately, fear (including unknown rates and methods of incubation, infection and mortality) has unleased its darker demon cousin: xenophobia (deriving from the Greek words for “fear” and “stranger, foreigner,” with its earliest citations in England of the 1880s). We are seeing the dark side of globalization – the possible threat that could come from “others.” Cases of anti-Chinese sentiment are spreading worldwide, including on college campuses.

Cities, provinces, families, school communities are cut off from each other, isolated. Even the concept of “home” is questioned – for Chinese citizens who went to their home of registry in another town or province, re-entering their workplace city or town has been difficult.

Expat communities are also facing disruptive, sudden transitions. My particular concern is for international school staff and their families, many of whom travelled on holiday for Spring Festival and are now unable to return to China. These families are not refugees, not asylum seekers, yet they find themselves unable to return to their home in China, rootless, without another home to go to, facing two-week quarantines and drastically limited flight options. These teachers are truly temporary. Cross-cultural suddenly.

What impact is this displacement having on their school communities? Through e-learning, schools are implementing ways to continue education pathways as best they can, virtually. But who is caring for their needs as they are thrust into this transition?

Drs. Doug Ota, researcher and author of Safe Passage Across Networks: How mobility affects people and what international schools can do about it, discusses the important role of international schools in managing mobility to help individuals navigate the journey of global transitions. In a state of political uncertainty and a global health crisis, how are schools able to manage the transition for their staff, students and families? As school communities disperse across the globe, what are the networks that are tying them together and caring for their wellbeing? How are schools keeping their sense community of together, through this indefinite period of suspension? How can administrators support a teacher across the globe who is balancing the preparation of her own students for external year-end exams (which impact their university choices) while home-schooling her young children in the inquiry-based lessons provided by their classroom teacher?

The layers are complicated; the needs simple.

A brave new world, with opportunities in it. Instead of turning towards Aldous Huxley, I would echo Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/That has such people in ‘t!” (Act 5, Scene 1).

Schools administrators and IT staff have quickly become adaptable and flexible in implementing e-learning platforms and expectations. University admissions officers are preparing for ways to account for situations outside applicants’ control – the cancellation of standardized tests, for example. Teachers are navigating time zones and conference calls to continue meeting “face to face.” Twitter is sharing more and more ideas for best practices in this virtual space.

So, how can we in the international school community leverage virtual platforms to support each other and our colleagues impacted by these unforeseen transitions? How can we prepare for the staff and children’s re-integration into a school community, and the impact this cross-cultural episode may have on their future learning, if it is not seen, valued, heard, understood and managed?

Coronavirus transitions: who is caring for the caregivers?

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