When COVID Turns Your Life Upside Down

Sarah Styf | Accepting the Unexpected Journey

November’s guest post was written by my “little” cousin Emily and her husband Jacob. Emily was born when I was a young teenager and while I have a hard time accepting that she is no longer little, I am proud of the amazing woman she has become. While so much younger, her selflessness and humility inspire me. She has spent the last several years faithfully serving God in east Asia while also learning the ropes of marriage with her husband Jacob. It was their wedding that took us all the way up to Wisconsin on our Midwest camping travels. The last year has not been what they expected, but they are following the path God keeps putting in front of them, from China back to the United States. Together, these two English majors recount what is was like to suddenly go from a holiday in Ireland to returning to the United States instead of home to China. 2020 has been quite the journey for them.


January 19 – Leave China for vacation

Emily – We left our apartment with two carry-on suitcases for a two week trip to Ireland – and we never went back. I’ve thought so often since then about what I would have packed if I’ve known what was coming or what I would have eaten before we left or what parting looks or pictures I would have taken around our apartment or neighborhood. But we just left in a flurry of last minute packing and excitement for this long-awaited Chinese New Year vacation.

The trip was wonderful – beautiful, relaxed, scenic – but it was overshadowed by daily, ever-worsening news from China. When we left China, Jacob had heard a bit about the virus but didn’t think much of it knowing Wuhan was a 12 hour drive from where we lived. However, when services at our church were canceled the first Sunday we were traveling, I really started to get nervous.

Jacob – I was really looking forward to our trip to Ireland. I have always wanted to travel to Ireland. We rented a car in Dublin and drove around the coast and stopped in various towns and points of interest along the way. 

However, every morning we would wake up, check the news, and read more and more disturbing reports of this novel coronavirus in Wuhan and China. We would lay in bed and nervously talk hypotheticals about going back to the U.S.. Emily was quite convinced that everything would be okay, but I had a nagging suspicion it wouldn’t be. After our morning ritual of anxiety ridden conversations, we would get up and try to move on with our trip. We made a concerted effort to not talk about it during the day. 

By the time we got to Galway, things were looking really bad and it seemed inevitable that we would be going back to the US.

February 1 – Land in the US

Emily – The end of our vacation was a blur of stressful conversations about what to do next. Jacob’s school had already been postponed at least two weeks and our ministry co-workers had left China for Hong Kong. We considered extending the Ireland trip by a week or two and continuing on to drive around Northern Ireland, but tempting as the idea was, it was hard to justify the added cost. 

Had we known then what we know now about how well China would keep the virus under control and how quickly it would spread across the world, we would have returned to China, but ministry partners there encouraged us to reroute to the US for the time-being. So, expecting to spend two weeks or maybe a month with family while things calmed down in China, we set about trying to change our flight…

Jacob – By the time the end of our trip rolled around, I knew that school would already be postponed. I wistfully suggested that we continue our circumnavigation of the Emerald Isle by going to Northern Ireland. I did not want our Irish fairytale to end. 

We were sitting in a Fish n’ Chips shop finishing our dinner when I decided to FaceTime with our parents to get their perspectives. Both sets of parents expressed anxiety about us returning to China and a desire for us to either wait in Ireland or head back to the U.S.. This sealed the deal. We made the decision to return to the U.S., we just had one obstacle in our way. 

Oh, British Airways. Your customer service rep was not quite helpful or understanding. While Emily sat inside listening to Trad music, I spent about an hour on the phone with a gentleman who was unable to help us. I do not necessarily blame him. Our flight was supposed to take us back to Hong Kong (this was our normal hub for flying into and out of China), which was still on their fly list. Also, in the course of our conversation, it came out that British Airways would not fly to China, but they would put us on another airliner who would. Suffice it to say that the conversation got us nowhere. I hung up with the customer service rep with the shot across the bow of “Thanks for your help, mate. Guess I’ll go back to China and die.” It looked like we had no option but to get on a plane the next day and fly to Hong Kong and face an uncertain future. 

I went back inside the pub feeling defeated and hopeless. I then did what any Millennial worth their salt would do in my situation. I got out my iPhone and got on Twitter. One snarky meme later and I was chatting with a British Airway rep via my DMs. It took about two hours, but we were able to cancel the flight to China, refund the money, and purchase flights to Chicago. I hate that I had to resort to Social Media to accomplish this, but that’s business in 2020.

March 1 – BCIS starts online classes

Emily – My work with two churches had been online since the last weekend in January, but most of this was prepared and recorded ahead of time. We did do some synchronous Bible study and prayer/discussion times which were either at 6 am or 1 am for me CST – but no where near the long and late hours that Jacob had to keep for months after his school resumed online.

Jacob – This. Was. So. Stupid. I had to teach every night from 7 PM-1 AM. I was not allowed to film my lessons ahead of time. It had to be direct instruction via Zoom. Fine. But take a guess where all my curriculum was? I definitely didn’t pack it to take with me to Ireland. Did the school care or do anything to help? Nope. Luckily, Emily’s dad is a college professor, so I was able to access the curriculum library at the university to find material for my kids. I taught Sunday-Thursday, 7 PM-1 AM from March 1 until July 1.

March 12-13 – Large portions of the US shutdown

Emily – What a week. One day I was watching the Big 10 basketball tournament for the first time in years, enjoying being in the same time zone and not having internet region blocking to worry about – and the next day everything was canceled and a ripple of closures started to spread across the US. 

Pretty soon after this is when I started getting messages from friends in China asking how things were going here, if we needed them to send us masks, and how they could pray for us and our families. 

Still I think I was optimistic (Jacob will tell you this is my default, whether or not it’s warranted). We had spent Jacob’s March 1 birthday with his family, but I was determined that we would be back home in China before my birthday on April 3. We started looking at tickets back, spending long nights scouring airline ticket websites and conferring with friends in Asia about the best routes and what it might look like coming back into China. There were always so many unknowns, however… Where could we transfer through and by the time we were getting off a plane (3 or 4 days from then) to transfer in Canada or Japan would those countries be closed to international transfers or put us in quarantine? What would happen when we landed in China? We couldn’t fly directly into our city, but if we transferred in Shanghai or Hong Kong would we be forced to do a two week quarantine there and then do another quarantine once we got to our home? What would a Chinese government quarantine look like? Would it be at our expense? Would the hotel have any space to even walk around a bed?

Multiple times we almost bought tickets, ready to be on our way to Chicago the next day, but every time it didn’t work out. We just never had the information we needed until after a decision had to be made.

Jacob – My memory of this day largely revolves around Liverpool FC. I was watching them play Atletico Madrid. They were down 1-0 on aggregate, but they were back at Anfield for the return fixture. They managed to score in regular time to bring it to 1-1. In extra time, Bobby Firmino scored the go ahead goal to bring it to 2-1. It was a night that should’ve gone down in the annals of Anfield’s European history. Simply sublime football. Then some rather unfortunate goalkeeping from our second-string shot-stopper let in two back-to-back goals and one towards the end of the extra time. We lost 4-2 on aggregate. Liverpool lost in the afternoon. By evening, the world had shut down. Coincidence?

March 28 – China closed to incoming foreigners

Emily – This made it real. China closed their borders to all foreigners, regardless of visa status. I still held out hope that they would reopen at some point, even if it just meant a trip back for two weeks in the summer to gather our belongings and say goodbye to people … but for the time being the chance of returning had passed. 

It was really hard news to take, but in some ways it did take a lot of stress out of our lives. We could stop looking at ticket prices, stop thinking we might jump on the plane the next day, and just accept and make the most of long-distance, intercontinental work and US lockdown life.

Jacob – There was a window to return to China. It was the first two weeks of March. We could have bought tickets, flown to Hong Kong, waited for a couple weeks, crossed into China, and resumed our lives in China. However, like so many things in life, we did not know it was the window until well after it slammed shut. Things in China were slowly getting better while the US was going down hill. We were still hopeful we could return and were looking up crazy flight paths. However, all our stratagems came to naught with the news that China was not going to allow in foreigners.

May 7 – Get job in Columbus, NE

Emily – To be honest, this was the last place I wanted to go when we returned to the US. Jacob had made the transition from small Midwest town of 22,000 to Chinese mega-city of 22 million two years earlier, and I did not want to make the same dramatic transition in reverse – but God had other plans.

And we couldn’t be ungrateful to have jobs during a global crisis.

Jacob – I was made aware of a potential opening for a position at Columbus High School. One of my former colleagues was looking to make a change. By this point, I had applied for dozens of jobs and either not heard anything back or been rejected. Not having a job and health insurance in the middle of a pandemic was not something we wanted. Columbus had always been an option, but I knew Emily did not want to go. However, within 48 hours of the position becoming vacant, I was hired. I was going to be going back to the school I had been teaching at before we left for China.

May 14 – Pack up China apartment

Emily – On Monday of this week, I got a message from our landlord in China saying that she hadn’t been paid rent for two months and we needed to be out by the end of the week. Jacob’s school paid our rent as part of his contract, but apparently with us out of the country, they had stopped doing this … without telling us. Since we were still holding out hope of a goodbye trip back over the summer (and since Jacob was still teaching for them), we kept asking the school to hold onto the apartment for us but to no avail. So our wonderful friends and ministry partners packed our entire apartment into suitcases in one night. Over Facetime, they held up each and every item in our home to a camera and asked, “Should we pack this?” as they sorted it into piles to pack and ship and piles to give away or abandon. 

This Facetime session was probably one of the most emotional experiences of this whole year of unexpected things. For one, it took hours and we didn’t finish until about 3 am. We also concluded that this couple would have to be our friends for life since they now know WAY too much about us! And then there were all the emotions of looking at the life we had (now on the other side of a phone screen) knowing we would never return to that home and never get the goodbyes we wanted – as well as the stress of ruthlessly paring down everything we owned into piles small enough to ship. 

Our friends did it though, and by the beginning of July all our boxes and suitcases had arrived at my parents doorstep in Iowa – musty smelling but with only one broken tea cup and a couple things confiscated by Chinese customs.

Jacob – What a night. I still had to teach at night, so I was up anyway. It sort of happened slowly and then all at once we found out that we had to move out by May 15. It was a frustrating situation, but one that was literally entirely contrived by my school in China. The school that I had been staying up all night to teach for. It was a betrayal. I’m being slightly melodramatic, but I still have residual anger over how the situation came about.

August 1 – Move to Columbus

Emily – I still look around sometimes at the cornfields and cows I pass on the edges of town between home and work and wonder how we got here. Pretty much nothing looks, sounds, smells like, or otherwise reminds me of China…

But we’re enjoying good Mexican food, clean air and blue skies, non-existent commute times, and more frequent visits with friends and family. Lots to be thankful for!

Jacob – I had to drive the moving truck from Dubuque, IA to Columbus, NE. Big ol’ moving truck bumbling down the highway buffeted by the midwestern winds. You know what that moving truck lacked? Cruise control. 8 hours with no cruise control on the highway. Luckily, Emily’s dad rode with me. We talked, listened to The Return of the King, and drove our way across Iowa and Nebraska. 

When we got to Nebraska, I had a couple friends from the area come over to help. Most everything went smoothly. There were a couple curses directed towards two English majors and their book collection, but we managed to haul everything up the stairs without much difficulty. That is, until we attempted to move the couch. 

We had gotten the couch from friends of Emily’s parents. A nice, big, beautiful brown leather couch. The best couch I had ever owned. My friends and I managed to get the couch up the stairs okay. We even got it physically into the hallway of our apartment, but we were unable to make the turn into the living room. The better part of an hour and a half was spent twisting, flipping, and cursing this couch. We finally admitted defeat and had to carry the couch back down the stairs.

August 31 – Find out Emily is pregnant

Emily – I remember when – after moving to China one month to the day after getting married, as we were settling into marriage and culture shock and new jobs – I told Jacob, “If we get through this, we can do anything! We will never experience this much change in our lives again.” He replied, “Unless we move back to the US and have a kid at the same time.” I laughed. Apparently God did, too!

We never have done anything the easy way, and why start now? So as we adjust to life in the US again (for me, after six years in Asia), figure out new jobs and a new city, and continue to navigate pandemic life, we’re also preparing to welcome our first child into the world in early May. It may not have been exactly the timing we would have chosen, but we’re also excited to begin this new adventure of parenthood!

2021 is going to include a lot less airplane travel, time zone changes, extra-large suitcases, or language translation, but I think it will be quite an adventure nonetheless. And if it doesn’t include packing up a home over Facetime or leaving people we care about without so much as a goodbye, I’m ok with a little bit quieter year.

Jacob – I had had such a long day at school. It was the beginning of my second week of kids being back. I was exhausted. We had talked the day before about how Emily was late, and I ordered some pregnancy tests off Amazon, which would be delivered Wednesday. I put it to the back of my mind and went about my day at school. 

I came home around 4:30 and Emily was sort of acting funny, but I was too tired to really intuit what was going on. We talked briefly before I stood up and said I needed to go to the bathroom. She grabbed my arm and said, “Wait a moment! I have something to tell you.” I told her it could wait until after I peed. She replied by showing me a positive pregnancy test…

We spent some time talking. We took a picture together. I looked mildly shocked and panicked in the portrait. Emily had a Zoom call to make, and I went on a walk and immediately called my best friend. He was able to reassure me and talk me off the proverbial ledge. I haven’t quite come to terms with the major life change that being a father will bring, but I do know that as in all things that have come our way in this year, Emily and I will face it together.

About the Guest Authors

Emily Belvery

Jacob and Emily Belvery just relocated from a Chinese mega-city to small town Nebraska. Jacob is a high school English teacher and Emily works for Mission of Christ Network.

Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!

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