After the pandemic: Pratt son continues to work in China

Courtney Blankenship
Mike and Nita Johnston of Pratt stop for a photo with their son, Andrew Johnston in an art exhibit in Hefei, China. The family was together there just before the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

While China initially led the world in the highest number of coronavirus cases, as of mid-April 2020, the curve of the disease has flattened and lockdown rules are lifting.

Pratt native, Andrew Johnston, has been in China for the past two years, and lived in the Anhui province during the coronavirus lockdown. His parents, Mike and Nita Johnston, Pratt, visited him there in January 2020, returning to Kansas just before a country-wide lockdown was instituted because of COVID-19.

Johnston works as an instructor at Anhui Foreign Language University in Hefei City, and though his region was not hit the worst by the novel coronavirus, changes were felt.

“The restrictions ramped up at the beginning of February, right after the Spring Festival ended,” Johnston said. “I'm currently living on campus, which is still mostly empty aside from a few other teachers, mostly locals. The campus is on the edge of the city and the businesses that usually service the universities are closed when classes aren't in session.”

Though everything was closed until recently, Johnston said entrance to public spaces is still highly regulated.

“A lot of businesses are open now. In fact, I've been going out on weekends just like I used to,” Johnston said. “The catch is that many of those businesses are restricted and require the use of a health code that I don't have. Many foreigners have been having problems with that, I'm told.”

As for which businesses require the health code, Johnston said it has been pretty random.

“Last weekend, I saw two tea shops that faced each other across a narrow alley, and only one required the code,” Johnston said. “As for the schools, I have no idea when the students will come back, if they even will this semester.”

The school administration has said they will provide an update once they receive more information; The unofficial word, Johnston said, is that students could return by the end of the month but that part is still unclear.

After years of working on and off in China, Johnston said he had not originally planned to return for work but changed his mind when job opportunities became harder to find in the United States.

After COVID-19 spread throughout China, Johnston began teaching his classes remotely but the transition did not come without its challenges.

“There was never any plan for distance classes, so we're all making it up as we go,” Johnston said. “I think it's been a smoother transition for the local teachers because of what their lessons look like. Traditionally, a class in China is just a straight lecture, and a lecture doesn't lose much over a teleconferencing connection.”

For his own classes, which rely on students practicing and engaging with the lectures, it has been more difficult to adapt to distance learning.

Since his last time working in China, Johnston said conditions have improved and until he has a reason not to, Johnston plans to stay and continue working in the country.

Just days before China went into lockdown, Johnston’s parents--Mike and Nita Johnston--had been visiting Andrew. They arrived on January 11 and departed on their scheduled date to return to the US January 18.

Mike Johnston, Pratt resident and father of Andrew Johnston, said they had been tracking the situation on the news since they first read about the outbreak in December. Other than a few people wearing masks when they arrived, Johnston said things were pretty much ‘business as usual.’

“It [COVID-19] seemed to be contained in an area that I knew was about 230 miles from where my son lived, and so we weren’t too worried about it,” Johnston said. “Early on, the numbers-- although were increasing-- they weren’t increasing in such numbers that we ever thought we would see like we do now.”

Though the cases continued to increase throughout the trip, Johnston said the majority of the cases being reported were not in Hefei--the city they were in. The streets remained crowded, the traffic continued, and though cases were accumulating, the trip was not affected by the virus.

“We met several of Drew’s friends when we were there and had several meals together, and the topic [COVID-19] never came up,” Johnston said. “So, I don’t think it was until they shut down the province that anybody started to worry about it.”

While he was initially worried about his son when the cases started increasing, Mike said he is not anymore because the curve has been flattened significantly in China.

“I think he’s safer there than he would be here [in the US],” Johnston said.

Since returning to the US from China, Mike Johnston said it has bothered him hearing stereotypes and misinformation being spread about China and Chinese people.

“I think that Chinese people certainly aren’t to blame,” Johnston said. “My experience with Chinese people is nothing but positive.”

One day, Johnston said, Andrew even had a visit from police who came to check the building to see who was living there. They brought him some water, food, and masks.

“You don’t hear stories like that. You hear stories of people disappearing and those kinds of things but you know, there’s a whole different side to China than what we normally get, and that kind of brings me back to this China-bashing that I frequently run across--certainly in the news-- and even around here,” Johnston said.

It does not do any good to place the blame on China, Johnston said, and these types of comments do not save lives in the long-run.

“The pandemic is here,” Johnston said. “The virus does not have a nationality.”