It has been 8 weeks since I started self-quarantine in my small apartment in Beijing, on January 26th, 2020. My school began online education on February 10th after having about two weeks to prepare teaching and learning policies, and to clearly communicate to all stakeholders what the ensuing weeks of online learning would (hopefully) look like. We had no idea how long that would last, and our current prognosis is a possible return to face-to-face learning in mid-April. I imagine, however, it won’t be that early as China now fears a second wave of cases as things slowly return to normal and people outside China return to the nation.
China has been both praised and pummeled for its response to COVID-19, with pundits, politicians, and average citizens around the globe weighing in on China’s social, educational, and political norms typically not fully comprehended even by those who live in this country of 1.4 billion people, both citizens and expatriates. From an insider perspective, I at least can attest to the safety and security I have felt over two months under quarantine, and since the last two weeks I now have a personal Chinese “community volunteer” from a local bureau who calls or texts me to ask about my health. She is ordered, as are other volunteers, to check on the well-being of foreigners, both for our safety as well as that of Chinese citizens, as in the past few weeks, thousands of Chinese have repatriated, and foreigners have received the greenlight to return to the country. Nonetheless, headlines in the West, and particularly America, continue to ravage China for its handling of a crisis now under control here and which is waging its viral war in other countries around the world.
There are a number of lenses through which the current crisis in China, and now globally, can be viewed. Cybersecurity, a recent interest of mine, has received new attention as threat actors look for new ways to prey on the vulnerable. I wrote a post on LinkedIn over a month ago about how China is leading the first-ever and largest national online learning experiment the world has ever seen. Equity for students has been a concern in China, as hundreds of millions of students and teachers were forced to switch to online learning in far less time than other nations have had to prepare. The government took early steps to ensure the nation’s technology infrastructure could handle the explosive increase of users (i.e., students) on multiple devices and streaming live or recorded lessons. Francis Miller, Director of College Counseling at Xi’an Tie Yi High School in Shaanxi Province, recently wrote a short piece for the International Association for College Admission Counseling (ACAC). He stated that, although measures have been taken to provide equal access to students across the country, this should not be equated with democratizing education for all. Additionally, the sociological effects of extended quarantine are seen in increases in domestic violence and, already, an increase in filings for divorce.
With the spread of COVID-19 globally, attention has turned from China to new epicenters such as Italy, Iran, and Spain. In America, my passport country, debate has arisen over how, or even if, a shift to online learning can work in a country whose ideals of equity in education rightly also surround home access to the internet and even food for students who depend on 1-3 free meals per day at their school. Other social phenomena have arisen, too, ranging anywhere from toilet paper and hand-sanitizer hoarding to the cancellation of athletics and other forms of entertainment, like my go-to late night comedy shows.
What has persisted, but has morphed and evolved once again, is the discussion around race relations within and between countries, from the East to the West. COVID-19 is the official designation of the novel coronavirus which found its epicenter in Wuhan, China. At the beginning of February, when COVID-19 was only “China’s problem,” I posted an opinion article on LinkedIn reporting the imminent fear that Chinese, and Asians generally, were likely to experience regarding discrimination, racism, and xenophobia—take your pick of words, each of them apply. Many were worried about this, in fact, and “-isms” of all kinds have taken over social media like a tempest. In that LinkedIn post, I was challenged by a few commenters to consider how Chinese people treat people of other colors and ethnicities. Those who know me or follow me on LinkedIn know I frequently discuss racism and discrimination that educators of color face in the international school world.
Fast forward to this week, when another one of my LinkedIn posts addressed discrimination, racism, and xenophobia—again, take your pick because they all apply. This post, however, consisted of me expressing my great disappointment in many Chinese citizens’ response to revised regulation purportedly allowing more ways for foreigners in China to obtain permanent residence status. Most of the proposed regulations already exist in some form, and it is likely some netizens in China simply don’t realize this. Their responses, however, comprised virulent racism and xenophobia toward, in particular, black and brown expatriates from around the globe. Some have attributed the heinous response to fears of foreigners returning to China who may be infected with COVID-19. Thus, many in China quickly turned from persecuted to persecutor in a matter of weeks.
In yet another LinkedIn post several weeks ago, I discussed an article written by Chinese authors published on February 16, 2020. The new research described the effects of misleading media coverage during public health crises, with COVID-19 serving as a case study. The article discussed how such coverage perpetuates racial discrimination, negatively impacts country image, and damages mental health during a crisis such as the novel coronavirus outbreak. Importantly, the article approached the topic using a 2015 quantitative study that investigated “relationships between experiences of perceived racial discrimination…and 12 common psychiatric diagnoses…of African-American and Afro-Caribbean adults in the U.S.” This is important research that I hope will be part of a growing body of literature on race relations where, as a global superpower, China engages the topic of racism on many fronts. Already we see how research on the trauma of racism on people of color in America can inform new lines of research in China. Collaborative research needs to happen so that cultures are learning from each other, working toward solutions.
COVID-19 is testing the world’s bandwidth in every way possible, from online learning to the economy to politics to travel to medical supplies and, of course, the internet itself. A personal takeaway for me, however, is that racism and xenophobia exacerbate our already-stretched bandwidth. The vitriol of cultural superiority and degrees of melanin gives victory to an invisible virus. Everyone—including White people—need to do the work of antiracism with those who experience discrimination. Whatever our profession or location in the world, we—including White people—need to look for ways to advocate for those around us who don’t look like us. We/I need to collaborate, learn, and un-learn. We/I need to embrace difficult topics and conversations. Let’s not socially-distance ourselves from the values and virtues we need for a more pluralistic vision of a world equally affected by the current crisis. Let’s keep moving forward.
Lucas Roberts has served as a social studies teacher, professional development coordinator, vice principal, and principal in China since 2009. His teaching experience spans grades 6-12, and leadership experience grades K-12. Additionally, he has been involved in accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) since 2012, first as his school’s WASC site coordinator and, since 2014, serving on visiting team committees in Cambodia, South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, and Thailand. He started the LinkedIn Group, International Educator Equity Forum, to further conversations and solutions around educator equity issues in international schools. He has served on a panel in Thailand to discuss student leadership in athletics, presented at a conference on the topic of building discovery learning school cultures in China, and has written several book reviews in peer-reviewed journals and popular platforms. An additional passion of his is to draw awareness to social-emotional and mental health needs in our transient, cross-cultural school communities.
Lucas earned B.A., M.Div., and M.Ed. degrees, and is currently a doctoral candidate through Wilkes University’s Dubai-based, international cohort. His research interests include diversity, equity, and inclusion in international schools, cross-cultural leadership, and what it means for schools to collaborate, not just compete, in the international school world. He is a member of the KDSL Global Advisory Council.