Stephen Johnson visits the Great Wall of China.
Life in America has been turned upside down by novel coronavirus COVID-19 over the past week, but for Stephen Johnson the first sign things were going seriously awry came Jan. 23.
The 2006 Birmingham Groves grad was walking into the school in China where he teaches fourth graders English when he was greeted with a thermometer.
He, along with all other staff members, had their temperatures checked.
“It was weird,” Johnson said. “The first thing I said was, ‘This could be bigger than I thought.’”
It was the last day before the school’s break for the Chinese New Year. That night, as he got on the train in Guangzhou, authorities checked his temperature again, and then again upon his arrival at airport security as he headed out on a planned two-week vacation to England.
During a 30-hour layover in Malaysia, “things were blowing up on how big the virus was in China,” but Johnson still thought it was overblown. By the time he arrived in London, he had a message from his school: Do not come back to China, school is closed indefinitely.
Nearly two months later, the schools in China are still closed, and Johnson, who was originally due back to work Feb. 10, remains in limbo.
Back to America
The 2006 Birmingham Groves grad, has been living on the run from coronavirus, although the ripple effects of COVID-19, now a pandemic, caught up to him, and everyone else in Michigan, this week.
He is relieved he was at least able to get back to the United States.
After leaving London, Johnson stayed in Malaysia for a few days in order to meet the 14-day period away from China to avoid a quarantine. However on his return to America, he had his most anxiety-inducing experience yet as a Singapore customs clerk went over his passport meticulously, calculating dates.
“She literally went through every China stamp I had,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking.”
At the Singapore hotel, his temperature was checked again in the lobby.
Just as he thought he was finally home free, about to land at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the pilot made an announcement that passengers should remain in their seats as there would be a U.S. Customs border security check.
“I was like ... I know this is going to be me,’” Johnson said.
He was the third of eight names called that were told to exit the plane first, all of whom shared in common a China travel history.
Upon confirming who he was and that he had not been in Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, Johnson was finally free to go with his father to the family home in Southfield, where he has been the past month and will remain for the foreseeable future in very uncertain times.
Closed for months
Johnson’s original return back to China on March 2 was postponed. Then he was told school in China would reopen after more than 2 months on March 30. He made plans to fly back this weekend in order to be back in the country for the two weeks required before the return to school, but then received notification the Chinese authorities were enforcing an even stricter quarantine policy.
“The government there is God,” Johnson said. “We would have to stay in the apartment for 14 days with the government checking on me, and I would have to arrange for food to be delivered. You literally can’t even walk out the door. It’s a harsh policy, and two weeks in my apartment sounds like a layer of hell I don’t want to subject myself to.”
His school employers have said they understand if he doesn’t return and support the decision.
In the meantime, he continues working from home, long distance, sending video lessons to his 23 students via an app, with students returning assignments to him the same way. This is teaching in the era of coronavirus, an instruction plan that is now catching locally with some schools planning virtual learning lessons.
Johnson also joins staff meetings online, although they are held on China time, meaning often at 3 or 4 a.m., EST. He admitted he slept through Friday morning’s meeting.
Stephen Johnson in Yangshuo, China in 2017.
There are aspects of life in China that would gall many Americans, such as lack of food safety standards, Johnson said. He has seen dead pigs transported on bicycles through the streets, and also cockroaches climbing on walls in one of his favorite noodle restaurants.
Johnson said out of all the people he knows in China, not one has a confirmed case of the virus, and he is not worried that they, or he, will.
“I am not concerned about the virus, but more about the way life is getting upended because of it,” he said. “Everything happening here now, happened there two months ago… China received a lot of criticism from the west for how heavy-handed its crackdown was, putting people on lockdown and not letting them travel, but at the same time, it may have worked. Life seems to be normalizing.”
Johnson hopes to return to finish his teacher contract, which ends in July 2021, and then “do something else,” but for now he rides an emotional roller coaster, instead of an airplane, and his cat, Marshmallow, is cared for by a friend in China. He continues to pay his apartment rent and is still taking lessons in Chinese.
Stephen Johnson, a native of Southfield, in Beijing in 2017.
He moved to China five years ago after feeling stuck in a rut and ready for a change and adventure. Living in China, he said, requires a curious personality and willingness to be somewhere that is completely different from what Americans are used to.
“You have to be willing to accept that some things are beyond your control and can’t be changed,” he said.
Perhaps like the coronavirus that is here now that he was trying to outrun when traveling. Still, Johnson maintains a positive outlook as schools close, and social gatherings and events grind to a halt, and businesses tell employees to work from home as the U.S. tries to prevent spread of disease.
“The gears (of society) stopped, but now in China it is starting to rev up again, but not as full speed as it was,” he said. “I feel like the U.S. will do that, too.”