Russell Phillips and his family have been temporarily displaced due to the coronavirus outbreak in China. Russell and his wife Jess, are teachers at the American International School of Guangzhou. They have three children who also attend the school in grades four, two and kindergarten.

This is a Q&A with Russell focused on their families experience over the past few weeks.

1. Were you in China or away for the Chinese New Year break when you realised you would have to evacuate?

We were in Vietnam on vacation when the news dropped about the coronavirus. We had only been there a day or two when we found out about it. A few days later, our school informed us that they would be closing their doors and moving online classes until February 17 as per the Guangzhou education bureau instructions.

great wall of china
The Phillips family in China

2. How did your evacuation play out? Did you have any good options as to where you could evacuate to?

As mentioned above we weren’t evacuated, per se. We could have chosen to go back to China and just wait it out there. Some of our colleagues who were in China when it all began decided to stay and are still there now. From what I hear, they’re getting along just fine.

For us, we had to choose between going back, staying where we were in Vietnam, going to our hometown in America, or finding another inexpensive place to stay. My wife’s parents were with us on vacation in Vietnam. Their plans also factored into our decision making. We quickly ruled out going back to China. This wasn’t because of fear of the virus but because of shortages of food along with the reality that we’d be stuck in our small apartment for the foreseeable future.

Though Vietnam and other Southeast Asian locations would have been fairly reasonable to afford to stay in, even the beach gets a little tiring when you’re living out of suitcases and hotel rooms. So, we decided to go back to America and take the opportunity to see family at a time of year that we normally don’t get to.

3. How is your family coping? What are the biggest challenges you are facing throughout your displacement?

Moving to teaching online was a difficult transition. Plenty of people do this every day through VIPkid and other services like that, but we’ve never been trained in this format. We don’t have homes set up with instructional materials, and for us, we only had our iPads to begin instructing online. Getting started was tricky.

Luckily, our school already was vested in the Seesaw program, which allowed us a format to share lesson activities and receive work from students. However, the Chinese internet has been incredibly slow and censorship makes sharing videos from YouTube and other websites an arduous task. Our students are now scattered around the world and many can access things just fine, but we still have to cater to our Chinese clientele factor in their internet woes.

The biggest challenge for us wasn’t the teaching though. Teaching is teaching, and we’re resourceful – we can overcome those kinds of challenges fairly well. The biggest challenge was helping our three kids through their online lessons. None of them are independent enough to be able to navigate their own way through their lessons each day. It required us to help them through just about everything. At first, we tried multitasking and managing our own classrooms while helping our kids. We quickly realized it was an exercise in madness.

Next, we switched to starting our days focusing on our own children until they were finished and then beginning our own work. That too was very frustrating. We’d start our kids on their work at 8 am and they’d finish around lunchtime. Then we would start on our own work. Grading, create lessons, answer parent and student questions and fitting in meetings at odd hours (due to time zone differences). To the uninitiated, these may seem like fairly simple tasks but are actually very time consuming, especially when you’re also having to learn how to use new teaching tools and programs. There were more than a handful of days like this where we were ‘schooling’ from the time we woke up until late into the night.

In the end, we opted to put our children into public school here in Pennsylvania. They need socialization and face-to-face interaction from a teacher, and we need the time and space to do our own work. Yesterday was their first day, and it was a very positive one for all involved. Things seem to be settling down, which is a nice change of pace.

4. What does the medium term look like? Do you have a date when you will return to China?

Our school first told us we’d be coming back February 17. That changed to March 2, and again to March 16. That’s the current resumption date, but the school has made it clear that it’s tentative and could change. I personally believe (albeit without any evidence), that it’ll be later than that. At this point, you can’t even book a flight to China from our location in March, and airlines have said they’re cancelling flights until April. We’ll see.

5. Has it made you view other displaced people and even refugees in a different light?

Definitely! We do our fair share of complaining, but the reality is it is a piece of cake compared to people in Syria and elsewhere. Don’t feel bad for us – we’re just fine.

6. Anything else you would like to add?

It’s unfortunate the amount of xenophobia we’ve encountered from this experience. Our adopted son is Chinese, and while we were in Vietnam, people could recognize his Chinese features and would overtly avoid him. We’ve also seen a lot of nasty talks, memes, and news in relation to China. Most of it is borne out of ignorance, but some of it is downright malicious. It’s unfortunate and reveals the fact that we can subdue racism with laws, but it doesn’t change people’s hearts


Russell Phillips is an American expat who has lived and worked in China, Korea, Nigeria, and the Philippines.