Life, Restricted: Chicago Native Teaching in China on Quarantine Measures


While Illinois residents have been following a stay-at-home order since Saturday, people in China have been dealing with restricted living conditions for months. 

Jeff Axelrod is just one of those people. He was born and raised on Chicago’s North Side and spent years in Los Angeles before becoming a high school teacher in China.

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We asked him what it was like to experience the coronavirus outbreak from his home in Zhangjiagang, a city less than 500 miles from Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.

How long have you been in China, and why did you decide to move there?

I have been in China for the past two years. After living in Los Angeles and working in the media business for more than three decades, I decided it was time for a life change. After going on a trip to China with my father, I became intrigued with the idea of coming to teach here, and I made it happen.

Tell us about the work you’re doing.

I am now a high school teacher at Liangfeng Senior Middle School in Zhangjiagang, Jiangsu, China. I’m part of an international department that prepares high school students to finish their senior years abroad and earn an American diploma. So we’re working with students who are very keen on learning about American culture and English.

  • (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

    (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

  • (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

    (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

  • (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

    (Courtesy Jeff Axelrod)

How long do you expect to stay in China?

I’m in this for the long haul. After my first semester, I was hooked. I love what I’m doing, and I love the town where I’m doing it. I’ve been embraced by the community, so I signed a longer-than-usual contract to continue at the school, and I’ve actually bought a home here.

Where were you when you knew things were getting bad?

When things started getting bad here, I was in Beijing with my mother and stepfather (who live in the Chicago suburbs). We were at the start of a vacation that was supposed to take us through several more Chinese cities (including Yichang, in Hubei province) during the Spring Festival holiday. Then, our travel agency started sending messages that all of the attractions we wanted to see were closing, and the situation was looking pretty grim. So instead of continuing on, I took a train back to Zhangjiagang, straight into lockdown, while my parents coughed up the $5,600 to get a ticket back to Chicago from Beijing. They were fortunate to get out before the craziness began … and now they’re back in the thick of it.

How are things there for you now in terms of quarantines and restrictions?

There has been a gradual easing of restrictions over the past two weeks. Life still isn’t back to normal yet. We’ll still be teaching online for another couple of weeks before we’re back in the classroom. My co-workers who live on the school campus are still on a school-imposed lockdown and can only leave campus on Monday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons. And because I live off-campus, I’m not allowed on the campus until it reopens. But over the last week, I have started to get out a little more, see some of the friends I’ve missed, doing some of the things I love to do here. There’s still a long way to go until we find our way back to 100% normalcy, because we all know the threat is still out there, waiting to try to get back into China if we let our guard down.

What advice do you have for your friends in the U.S.?

Take it very, very seriously. I’ve been reading what’s been going on in America. I have to say I was really, really incensed when I was seeing those reports about spring break crowds in Florida and in Texas. This has to be taken seriously by everybody or else it’s not going to stop the spread. If you are stuck inside, you know, you’re in your own house, this is not a detention facility. This is your own house. You have all the comforts at home.


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