A Prisoner in Paradise

Virginia in Khao Lak

This is a story of being caught in a period of uncertainty between three SE Asian countries during the pandemic. The people are kind and friendly, the scenery is gorgeous, but inner turmoil and perhaps isolation keep the mind a prisoner.

In March 2019, Virginia and I posted an account of her teaching experience at one of the most prestigious high schools in China. Basically, she credited her students with giving her the most rewarding teaching experience she’d ever had, but she liked little else about the job or China. (Link)

Virginia and I spoke over Facebook Messenger when she was in Vietnam and I was in the Philippines. Thanks to Virginia for the photos.

 Virginia’s story

At the beginning of the final semester of your tear contract, you began looking elsewhere for the following school year. How did it go?

It started with sending out resumés in response to notices on the website called International School Services. That led to interviews on Skype or Zoom, but the only nibble I got was for a place in Azerbaijan. When that didn’t work out, I was in a bit of a panic. Then on January 4, I went to the job fair in Bangkok, and I got three job offers. I accepted the one in Vietnam.

After the job fair you went back to China and then to Phuket?

Yes, but in retrospect it was really scary. The epidemic had already begun in Wuhan, but people had no idea, so we were riding around in planes like nothing was wrong.

On Jan 22, I went back to Thailand, to Phuket, for Lunar New Year, a month-long vacation. I wanted to work with the dog rescue at the dog pound, and I found it deeply fulfilling because during my first trip there, at least five dogs were adopted and I played a part.

Then you took a short trip to Hanoi? I remember how excited and happy you were.

On February 17-22, I went over to Hanoi to check out the school where I’d accepted a job. I was very pleased with what I found. After that I went back to Phuket, thinking it would be a safer and a much more comfortable place than Beijing to sit out the epidemic. It was open, and there were more things to do.

Let me add that the Thais were very kind, very courteous, very humanitarian. I was living in spots that were absolutely beautiful, and I couldn’t have been in a safer place.

But I was frightened because my visa was running out and I was afraid of being sent back to the States, which was a complete disaster in terms of the pandemic, and Florida was on fire. I was also afraid of losing the job in Vietnam because of the virus, and I didn’t want to go back to Beijing because I didn’t want to go through quarantine there.

What had you heard about quarantine in China?

Enough to be terrified. I’d heard it was three weeks of nasty food and your accommodations could be in a reeducation center or a five-star hotel. You had no choice.  You could be in a room with three strangers, which didn’t sound very safe to me. So I think I made the best decision under the circumstances.

On the right, Bum, manager of the Jerung Guesthouse in Khao Lak

What about moving?

I got the new job on January 4, but I was afraid I might lose it because of the pandemic. I didn’t get the contract until a couple of months before the job started in August, so it was a great relief when I finally got the shipping address for my stuff. I was like, “Thank you, God.”

At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to get my stuff packed up and shipped from Beijing to Hanoi. I wanted to go through it myself instead of just having everything packed up in boxes. There were things I didn’t need or want, like old underwear, and things I was concerned about, like my external hard drives.

After a second Covid outbreak in Beijing, my friend in Beijing had one day to snatch my cats out of my apartment before the compound was shut down and take them home with him. He had also found a door-to-door pet moving service which would ship them to Hanoi.

Those are expensive.

Expats in the sunset at Khao Lak

Well, not so much to Vietnam, a little bit under a thousand dollars for both cats, which was a lot better than another service which was $2400 per cat—more than I could afford. The borders were also being shut for animals.

In the end, my friend kept the cats. That required considerable adjustment on my part, but I think it’s for the best. They looked really happy with him, and the shy one has come out of her shell. Since I’ll be at work all day, I think it’s better for now even though I miss them.

So after checking on your new job in Vietnam you went back to Phuket?

Yes, I went back to work with the dogs again, but it didn’t click like the year before. The heat got to me, I was bored with Phuket Beach, and the girl that I went back to support was in a bad mood. I think she was burned out.

From March 1-April 30 I stayed in Airport Beach Hotel. Online teaching from China resumed

February 17th and the school year ended in July.

From your hotel in Phuket you were teaching classes for your school in Beijing, right?

Donating to Burmese refugees

Right, on Zoom, where you can see each other’s faces and speak to one another. But the school internet was always poor because of the great firewall, and it got really bad after the outbreak. It was worse than dial-up.  I would lose connectivity in the middle of a class. Then I had to find videos that worked, and I recorded lessons.

Cooking native Thai cuisine

It tied my stomach up in knots. And of course it’s been hard on the kids. At long last, the kids came back to school for two weeks and damnit if they didn’t have another Covid breakout. I feel like I’ve taken one gut-punch after another.

My twelfth graders blew their internal assessment because they weren’t going back over their work like I told them to. Normally the kids were driven, aggressively competitive with one another, but somehow I lost half my best class, my best students. They just quit doing anything. I thought it might be because in collectivist societies people feed off each other’s energy, so when the kids were isolated, without their friends to answer to or to lose face, they gave up. All of us have trouble structuring in limbo, in a void. Normally, they were heavenly to teach. They were just extraordinary children.

Beijing was paying you?

Oh yes. I’ve been very fortunate that way. The human resources manager at our school really came through for us, even finding a way to send the money to our US accounts. I haven’t had to worry about money.

So then what happened?

Expats stranded in Khao Lak

I hadn’t wanted to go back to China because of the horrible quarantine conditions, but in Thailand there were potential visa problems and Phuket was shutting down all around me at the beginning of March.   On March 26 , I bought a ticket back to China, and the next morning I got up and found out they had closed the borders. It was the most sickening feeling.

My visa was going to expire, and the expats found out there were two amnesties at the last minute. And both times we got the amnesties we thought “oh, I’ll never need three months.” One was in March and the second in June.

I’d spent March and April at Airport Beach Hotel in Phuket, eating one meal a day at the restaurant next to the hotel and snacking on stuff from the 7-Eleven. Then the hotel employees told me they were going to close once the government mandated it so that they could qualify for social security benefits. The next day I checked into the hotel next door, but they told me they were in the process of closing as well. I spent one night there and then woke up covered with mosquito bites. There were thousands of mosquitoes in that room. I took a picture of them and got my money back.

Sunset in Khao Lak

Some of my colleagues from Beijing were staying in another town in Thailand called Khao Lak but the Sarasin bridge was closed.  One of the dog rescue people recommended a cute little condo in Laguna. It was really comfortable and the equivalent of $500 a month. I could cook. There was a beautiful walk down to the beach although I couldn’t get on the sand.  The condos had an infinity pool which was closed, and a weight room I also wasn’t allowed to use.

All of April and May I stayed in the condo by myself, teaching online and taking a beautiful walk down to the beach and back some days. My only face-to-face interaction was in the nearby, greatly overpriced western grocery store or in the 7-Eleven, where I’d say “hello” and “thank you” in Thai. I spent three months using just those two words. That helped a little, but it was not real interaction. The social isolation and uncertainty took a toll on my sense of well-being.

Kayak adventure Khao Lak

I made contributions to help starving Thais in Phuket but could not find a way to get involved.  Finally, on May 31st I got to Khao Lak where we did rescue for the Burmese refugees.  That was great for me because it got me out of my head. We once went out with a different group of rescuers and local people. They were all in fancy uniforms and a police van to hand out food and help people. The area was pristine and absolutely beautiful, especially without tourists. The sunsets were staggering. Given my frame of mind, I was a prisoner in paradise.

I don’t want you to feel you have to say more than you want to, but I would be interested in hearing more about your state of mind in isolation. 

Isolation had the effect of placing me in a perpetual state of uncertainty.  I began to remember random events from my life whether banal or traumatic.  It made me reflect a great deal on friendships, what was important to me, basic survival and because of all the desperate poverty, on income disparity.

Rafting and farm in Khao Lak

I should probably say first that at the beginning of the pandemic I spent two and a half months alone with no one but my three cats—one of whom was dying—and a guy who bought groceries for me. After two months of that I got very strange. 

Okay. I understand so many things better now. The depression was almost indescribable. Around the world there have been high suicide rates because of isolation during the pandemic. My own will to live was diminished. I didn’t make plans to act on this, but suicide also didn’t sound bad. I found myself wondering, “Why am I here? This is ridiculous.” It was really hard to push through the emotional ravages, making myself care about things like grading.

While I was battling with this isolation, a British woman from the dog rescue group came by to ask for money to buy dog food.

Donating to refugees

I said, “I’m all by myself twenty-four hours a day.”

A snotty American girl had come along, and she said, “just take a walk and go talk to people.”

I said, “I’d like to go with you to deliver the dog food”

With kind of a taunting voice she said, “We’re on bikes.”

It was just really callous.

Donating to refugees

I said to one of the others at the dog rescue, “the social isolation is really getting to me.”

She said she’d call me on Messenger and never did. They made multiple promises they did not keep. It was very hurtful.

I had to pray hard for the willingness to forgive them for turning their backs on me. It led me to thinking nobody is ever there for me when I need them. That’s why I usually don’t ask for help from anybody—ever. I was in a really dire situation emotionally, and when I finally tried to ask for help I didn’t get it. I forgive them, but I’m done. I won’t go back or contribute anymore.

Of course, in addition to the isolation, you had other concerns.

Making donations to the Burmese refugee

I tried to adjust my attitude, and I was grateful that I had a full belly and good company when I finally got to Khao Lak. It could have been a lot worse. I was tired of being in limbo and tired of worrying and tired of all the changes, like the new outbreak in Beijing. My stomach was in a knot the whole time. Was my new job going to be endangered by this epidemic? You make plans, and then things change. It was like being in a washing machine.

When my classes fell apart because of the internet, at that point I felt that mental illness was creeping in. It’s indescribable. You know about sensory deprivation? It makes people insane. Well, this was a minor version of that. Talking on the phone and video conferencing helped a little bit, and getting out and walking around made life livable. It was so miserable.

You were finally able to join the expats at the end of May?

Yes. When I found out a friend and colleague was in Khao Lak, I decided to go there. On May 21,  I took a Covid test in a Bangkok hospital. I had the nasal swab, which hurt, although the hurt didn’t last long. And the test was negative.  I was able to cross the border legally –from Phuket to Khao Lak over the Sarasin Bridge.  Once in Khao Lak, initially the officers said I needed to be quarantined, which freaked me out. But then they came to my hotel and saw that I had a brand new negative Covid test and I told them I’d been in relative isolation for three months already with no temperature and no symptoms. It was a huge relief when they said I didn’t have to go into quarantine.

My cats with my rescue partner

New digs?

Right. On May 31, my taxi driver brought me to Jerung Guesthouse; probably a one-and-a-half-star hotel that cost $9 a day. The water went out a bunch, the electricity went out a bunch, but at least I had humans I could talk to. I also found some books that tourists had left behind, like the Stephen King novel I read.

Leaving for Hanoi

There’s a really cool—and famous—restaurant that’s built on stilts over the water, although at low tide it’s filthy mud. I discovered there that I like more Thai dishes than I realized. The hotel manager took us there and to other real Thai places.

Once we went to this farm in the country for water buffalo.  We went kayaking and it was exhausting. I had blisters on my hands but it was still really cool. I got to chew an illegal herb leaf called “Kratom”, a mild stimulant like caffeine which is now illegal because it’s being mixed with more dangerous drugs or abused in other ways.

We hired a tour guide in the slow season for a killer price, which meant going out without crowds into beautiful, clean, pristine nature. We went rafting, kayaking and to hot springs, a farm, and outlying villages.  We visited the Tsunami museum. I was fascinated by the fact that really posh resorts, developed little cities and tourist areas could be found off the side of the road in what looked like deep country or jungle. We’d turn off where there wasn’t even a sign and then go into an extraordinary place. There were all these places that you’d never know existed if you didn’t live there.

The area was beautiful. It was really nice going around with my friends. The Jerung Hotel manager “Bum,” who took s us all over the place and helped us by giving us rides to the market and ordering things online for us. We made homemade smoothies every morning.  A few times our expat groom Zoomed with an American to play Bar Trivial Pursuit.

We began going to Burmese refugee camps with Hmine Ctc, a Burmese kid who was and still is feeding 50 families each month.

We heard some heart-breaking stories. For example, one man got arrested and put in prison for overstaying his visa. That meant he couldn’t go home to Miramar, where his parents are raising his two sons.

We went to a store called Super Cheap, where we bought absolute truckloads of food and toys and medicine and anything else we could get our hands on to bring to the starving refugees. Then we visited fifty families to give them the stuff, driving up way into the countryside. One day we worked from morning until night and ended up exhausted.

One family that was way up in the mountains, the grandparents taking care of their two boys. Later they stuck in my mind because of their heart-breaking story.  It was like a “nudge from the judge,” meaning God was drawing my attention to the fact that they didn’t get enough stuff. So we did one trip just for them with an entire truckload of toys and educational materials and food and medicine—everything you can imagine. Coloring books and a jump rope and balls and we bought canned food—because it wouldn’t spoil—like sardines in tomato sauce and tuna fish.

In Thailand I kind of bonded with my friends under pressure, so that after I left I got very nostalgic and was grieving their absence for a while.

On August 14th, I got out of Thailand in the nick of time, directly before the Thai visa amnesty was discontinued.  I flew to South Korea and then to Hanoi for my new job. I stayed in a four-star hotel for quarantine. During that time, we worked online via Zoom to plan for the year.

On the plane, I was all wrapped up in t blue self-protection gear, everything from the booties to the hat. And then when we got to the hotel. they squirted us with a chlorine solution and they threw the personal protective equipment in the trash. And then we went up—the food was edible. The staff was kind, and I got one lady to run out and buy me some nuts I could put in my yogurt, which I like for breakfast. I can’t complain.

During quarantine in Hanoi, we had our temperatures taken at least once a day. We had a Covid test when we arrived and another a couple of days before we left.

We were treated very nicely, but also put to work immediately, which turned out to be a harbinger for the intensity of this job. But I thought much better than sitting around moping.

Now the “Prisoner in Paradise” is living and working in Hanoi, which has been Covid-free for 77 days.

I now pray for the new normal that will be heralded by the end of the pandemic for everyone in the world.  I’m grateful I somehow ended up safe and sound.