By Rowena Zeng
COVID-19 tales from Arcadia, California
I study at Azusa Pacific University and run a small business teaching Chinese. COVID-19 impacted my life on both fronts, and surprisingly, my two lives complemented one another.
The last class I attended in person was an academic writing course for graduate students on the afternoon of March 12. I was scheduled to co-moderate a discussion session with a classmate of mine. Our topic was “Masks and Culture.” Coronavirus was closing in. We’d first heard about it two months ago. It was becoming more and more common to see riders on transit wearing masks, but many wearers were Asian. Why was that? As a Chinese immigrant, I was confused by contradictory information from multiple sources. I had high expectations for the discussion.
My American professor opened the discussion by offering his opinion. He pointed out that it was customary in America that only sick people wear masks. That way, the main population stays protected and resources are used more efficiently. A classmate from Egypt chimed in that it was ridiculous to ask healthy people to wear masks if supplies were limited. Plus, CDC hadn’t recommended masks for preventive purposes. They’d only recommended frequent hand washing.
I agreed, but I’d been pressured by friends and relatives to wear one. I didn’t think my American professor and Egyptian classmate understood the pressure I faced, so when it was my turn, I took out a mask, put it on, and stood up.
“You’re wearing it inside out!” a classmate laughed.
I took it off, made a show of flipping it over and put it on again. This time, my glasses fogged up and I almost fainted. I clumsily pushed my glasses up and squinted at my script like an old lady. My classmates burst out laughing.
“My point is,” I claimed, “I’m suffering when I wear a mask.”
All agreed, even the fiercest supporters of mask usage. We not only suffered from physical discomfort, but received glares from others. A Korean classmate reported that someone sneakily took a photo of her when she was wearing a mask on the subway. We finally understood America’s unspoken social contract: only sick people wear masks. The random people we met on the street must have assumed that the mask wearers had the virus.
I decided not to wear a mask except when it was absolutely necessary. My friends and relatives could worry about themselves. Perhaps I could explain that California is not as populated as China.
So much for my life as a student. When that class was over, the last thing we said to each other was, “see you online.” I had no idea how online learning worked. My first online class would meet next Tuesday.
March 14th was a Saturday. I had a private AP Chinese class to teach that morning. My student’s parents feared the disease and asked me to teach online. I proposed that we use the video call function in WeChat. I felt nervous as I turned on my camera, but I soon calmed down. I was already familiar and friendly with my student. On top of that, the AP exam was right around the corner, so we went right into reviewing the course material. We first practiced conducting a dialogue and introducing ourselves to strangers. Then we read some longer articles together. One was about China’s history, and the other was about an ancient mathematician named Zu Chongzhi. The three-hour class left me exhausted. I felt like teaching online was more tiring because I had to talk nonstop. Plus, I was nervous and the more nervous I am, the more talkative I am.
Next, I had a semi-private class for two elementary school kids. This class involves lots of interaction and it is better taught in person. Still, the concerned parent asked me to wear a mask, so I put on my only mask and drove to their home seven miles away.
My students were siblings. One is eight and the other five. They love me because I rewarded them with fake money. If they can recognize a Chinese character I taught them last time, I would reward them with “1000 dollars.” That day, I started with a small pop-up quiz, and soon both of them were millionaires. After they felt motivated, we set out to learn more new words.
Wearing a mask while teaching was a challenge. My voice was muffled and I had to pronounce every word extra clearly. Now and then, I peeled myself away from my students and went to the whiteboard at the end of the table. While writing on the whiteboard, I took the chance to pull off my mask and breathe.
The last hour was calligraphy. I let my students stand and write big characters: one character per sheet of paper. Whenever calligraphy time came, the kids went crazy. Our classroom was filled with laugher, which attracted their father who came to admire their art.
When class was over, I asked their father if we should stop having classes in-person. The school district had closed schools, which meant the threat was official. The father agreed to suspend classes for a while. I felt relieved, but a bit heavy. I wouldn’t have to teach while wearing a mask anymore, but I would lose income. I didn’t know which I’d prefer if given a choice.
My son was taking a painting class at an art school while I was teaching. The school was a forty minute walk from my home. I gave him the choice to either ride his bike there and back, or walk there and wait for me to pick him up after. He chose the latter. I was late and my son was the only one there. He was sitting in front of a painting of a white sheep looking out over dark mountains. He’d spent a long time working on it. I asked him if it was complete. He said it still needed a few strokes. Today was the last day that his art school was open. My son had left reluctantly.
On March 17th, I attended my first class as a student on Zoom. The teacher in my heart was excited. Zoom seemed like a great platform for online teaching. The video call function in Wechat could only allow one-on-one video call, but with Zoom, I could lecture to 200 students. I wish I had that many students! Plus, I could share media while lecturing, and I could communicate with students using a dialog box. Fantastic! After class, I discussed this idea with my professor who pointed out more resources for me.
A few clicks brought me more information via YouTube and Teachers Pay Teachers. I also learned about Kahoot, Quizlet, and Zdic. Feeling fully equipped, I asked my son to design some ads for me, and I wrote letters to former students and parents to promote my new online courses. I received a warm response and my first Zoom class began on March 21st.
When the curtain came up, I appeared onstage and my students were happy to see their teacher’s face again. I didn’t need to wear a mask and didn’t sound like I was catching a cold. Moreover, I had set up a background with lots of stuffed animals. The distance between us instantly disappeared. They squealed with joy and excitedly spoke over one other to say hello to my stuffed pets.
The main task of the class was to read a story in Chinese. The protagonist in the story had a Chinese name but I changed it to “Macy.” Macy was also a student of mine. Everyone marveled at the awesome things Macy did. No matter how well the trick worked, I had to pull new tricks out of my magician’s bag. A kid’s attention span was about ten minutes. Luckily, there are a lot of games, cards, and word puzzles that I can use to teach online.
I tried Kahoot that day. Kahoot is a game-based learning program. I found it useful to create a competitive vibe among my students. When I designed the game, I hid the educational content like a parent hides veggies in their cooking. I was secretly elated when my students became millionaires again. Designing a game on Kahoot is very easy. My students can even play against each other after class.
For the last hour of class, we read Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window. It was originally written in Japanese. We read a Chinese translation. In my experience, Chinese translations of foreign classics make excellent texts for Chinese learners because the language is simple, clear and the value in the text is universal. I asked my students to retell the story in the limited Chinese words they knew. First, she was born. Then, she grew up. Then, she went to school. We agreed that everyone could write a story about themselves using the words they knew.
Next time I attended class online, I reported to my professor that I had been teaching online too. My professor was very glad to hear about my progress. I’m now in the process of designing two more Chinese classes for this summer: “Learn Chinese with Chef Rowena” and “Learn Chinese with Seamstress Rowena.” In the first class, I’ll teach Chinese with an emphasis on Chinese cuisine. In the second, I’ll teach with an emphasis on traditional Chinese arts and crafts.
Switching to online learning hasn’t posed any problems for me as a student or as a teacher. I don’t need to commute every day, and I could potentially reach students in faraway locations that I couldn’t reach when teaching in person. Losing access to libraries was a bit of a problem, but compared to the time I saved commuting, I gained more than I lost.
During this pandemic, the sweetest words I say to my professor, my classmates and my students are, “See you online!”
Rowena Zeng is a teacher who teaches Chinese language, literature, and calligraphy. She enjoys writing and cooking. She uses 思凝 as her pen name when she writes in Chinese.