Sunday, March 1, 2020


Well, I’m being self-quarantined due to the coronavirus outbreak here in China. It’s quite difficult having to stay in my apartment with all the businesses here being closed. I am only allowed to go out of my apartment twice a week, in order to go to a local store that has been authorized to stay open. When I enter the store, they take my temperature to make sure I don’t have a fever.

I must also go to a certain exit wearing a facemask when I leave my apartment complex and enter it at a certain entrance point, where they take my temperature before entering. No one can come to visit my apartment complex without proof that they live there. I feel as though I’ve been placed under house arrest. This is something I will never get used to and it makes me more appreciative of all the freedoms I had before the outbreak.

My students are now taking online classes here and the start date of the school where I was teaching is still undetermined. Under the law, all teachers throughout China must show proof they were self-quarantined for 14 days before we can return to school. But the start date as I mentioned is still undetermined.

I’m glad that two years ago, I put together a Facebook page because I felt I was somewhat disconnected from people in the US. I have always used WeChat here in China to communicate with others, but few people use it in the US. Almost everyone I know in America uses Facebook so now I find myself using both WeChat and Facebook to communicate with others.

When I sat down to write this, I was interrupted by a text message from a friend of mine in America. I am 13 hours ahead of the East Coast in the US; when it is midnight here, it is only 11 in the morning in my hometown of Shenandoah. It amazes me, though, how I can instantly communicate with people thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the world.

Before I came to China, I never imagined that my students here would have smartphones and their own personal computers - the things I didn't have when I was their age. Their papers are e-mailed or text to me for correcting, and they are always texting me with questions. The text messages and e-mails are a constant reminder of how this technology is permeating all facets of our lives. This technology is also being utilized more so now than ever before in China because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Every semester I like telling my students, "I can look back at my youth and remember the age of the manual typewriter before computers and the Internet was our communication lifeline."

A hand went up and a young female face looked at me with such curiosity. She asked, "What is a typewriter, Teacher?"

I tried my best at that moment to simulate a typewriter with a paper adjuster and return carriage. Unfortunately, it only enhanced their confusion, so I used the Internet browser on my cell phone and found a picture of a manual typewriter. My cell phone was then passed around the room so that my students could understand what I was saying.

I also told them, "I am old enough to remember the era before VCRs and the cell phone."

Another hand shot up. "Teacher," the young man asked, "how old are you?"

"Very old," I replied. "The first cell phone I had I could only talk on; no pictures."

"No, you not that old, teacher," he said with some sincerity in his voice. "But how old are you?"

"I'm 57," I told them. At that moment, another hand shot up.

"My mother 43," a young female said excitedly.

"Age is just a number," I said to them. "But now imagine where technology will be when you become my age."

That got them thinking about not just their individual lives, but about the future of China.

A hand shot up. "Does this phone have GPS?" a young male student asked with my cell phone in his hand. "Nice phone!"

"It's an old BlackBerry," I said, "like the one Obama had, but I only use it to text and talk."

"Obama," Chinese students repeated back and forth with amazed looks on their faces. Chinese chatter immediately filled the room.

I then told my students that I am excited about how fast technology is advancing. After all, it wasn't that long ago when it took a month for a letter to travel halfway around the world. It was also very expensive to call the U.S. from Asia. The Internet can now be used to place phone calls for free, and it’s something I have become dependent upon in my life.

I miss speaking to a person who was a very dear friend of mine, Mr. Henry Zale. He lived in my hometown in Pennsylvania. He was only 93 years young when he passed away in 2010. Prior to his death, I told him that when he calls my local number in the states the calls get forwarded to my cell phone in China. He paused for a moment and said, "Tom, when I was your age that was called science fiction."

I said, "Henry if I ever live to be your age, I can't even fathom where technology will be, or what my life will be like."

"Well, Tom," he said, "I am a World War I baby and I served in World War II, so let's hope there isn't a World War III in your lifetime, because if there is, people will be back using those manual typewriters as a sign of the aftermath. The technology in our lives can be good or bad depending on the hands that are using it." Wise words.

China has indeed witnessed amazing technological growth in a very short period. It is resulting in their country advancing very quickly. The cities here are very modern and growing very fast. People also have more money to spend because of the growing middle class.

I noticed quickly the big differences between China's growing economy and the economic condition of the Pennsylvania coal region. My hometown has been beaten down over the years due to being economically depressed.

When I arrived in China approximately 600 million people were making less than two American dollars a day; that is severe poverty in any country. Now, China has the largest domestic economy in the world. Over 600 million people – almost twice the population of America – have been moved into China’s middle class. They live much better than most of the people in the Pennsylvania coal region. It's a sad contrast, but it's also the reality of the times.

Poverty has become a worldwide pandemic, though, and it’s something that will not go away anytime soon. It is also something I have witnessed firsthand over the years. It has shaped who I am and how I relate to others. It bothers me when I see vast amounts of wealth throughout the world while people live in squalid conditions with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. That is how millions of people live throughout the world. Seeing it firsthand made me more appreciative of who I am and what I have. I also grew to realize that we do not truly live until we place ourselves in the service of others. When we enhance the life of another, we enhance our own lives, and that is when we truly feel alive in the world.

Working as a teacher here in China I am learning a great deal from my students. When I read my students' writings, I learn a great deal about them, personally, due to their openness and honesty. I tell my students all the time since I arrived in China that I have learned more from them than they have from me. I look at each of them as friends as well. Although my humor at times can get lost in the translation, it's the moments when I connect with them that are priceless.
    Always with love from Suzhou, China
    Thomas F O’Neill
    WeChat: Thomas_F_ONeill
    U.S. Voice mail: (410) 925-9334
    China Mobile: 011 (86) 13405757231
    Skype: thomas_f_oneill

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