Abeo Lewis is from the wonderful Trinidad and Tobago, and has been living in Shanghai, China throughout the coronavirus pandemic. We caught up with her to hear about the challenges she has faced and her experiences of living in China. 

Hello Abeo! Tell us more about you before China. What’s your background?

I’m from Trinidad and Tobago, a small twin island country with a population of around 1.3 million people. We are vibrant, fun loving and creative people. Our Carnival, which is my favourite season after Christmas, is one of the biggest in the world. It attracts visitors from every corner of the globe. I’ve always wanted to travel more and experience other cultures.

I am a certified event planner with a strong background in customer service management. I am also an avid crafter and I love working with leather to create unique bags and accessories. For the last 8 years, I have also been a volunteer adult literacy tutor with Alta. This is where my passion for teaching really flourished. It’s a beautiful thing to help someone cross learning hurdles and accomplish their goals, as small as they may be.

You’re a solo female traveler currently in Shanghai. Tell us about your unique journey to China?

I have always been an adventurer. I have a lot of encouragement from my inner circle, because of the opportunities that were being presented. So with a prayer, and a somewhat light suitcase, I set off on a journey that took me to the other side of the world. I went through 5 airports, and flew for 24 hours to get to Shanghai over the course of 2 days. It was tiring but I met some cool people along the way. Thanks to free airport WiFi and a VPN (virtual private network), I was able to stay in contact with my family.

Abeo arriving in Shanghai

Our readers will be keen to hear first hand about Abeo’s experience of living in China through the Coronavirus outbreak. 

When the virus first hit, I thought it was simply a few isolated incidents in Wuhan. We were still going out as normal on bus-hopping-Sundays to explore Shanghai. We were already using masks because of the air quality on some days, so it wasn’t anything new. Now we wear them all the time in public. By the time mid-January came around, it was more serious. We limited our outings to the grocery store and market, even though Shanghai didn’t have a lot of cases by then.

Being West Indian meant that certain cultural practices helped me navigate this time easier. We rarely wore our shoes inside, they were taken off at the door and we put on slippers. This is something the Chinese practice as well. We never sit on our beds with the clothes we wore while on buses or the train.

When it became clearer about how long the virus lived on surfaces, it was almost already second nature to us to avoid those instances where the spread could have occurred. We just cleaned the doors and floors twice or maybe three times a week. Our apartment complex played a big role in avoiding the spread of the virus in our compound. The elevators were cleaned regularly and disinfected, the garbage was removed promptly and our temperatures were checked when we got back from being out. When we resumed work at the office we were checked there as well. 

What are some challenges that you have faced and how have you overcome them? What have you learned?

The biggest challenge in the first few weeks was getting information. Everyone was sharing what they heard, not what was factual. The second challenge immediately became getting masks. Because it was Chinese New Year, factories had closed off deliveries the week before. The third challenge was getting groceries. Not because there was a shortage, but more so when we ordered online, there were a large number of orders and limited staff. So things took about eight days to get to me. The mini mart closest to us, reopened the week after Chinese New Year, so we were able to get anything we needed and they restocked regularly.  

The quiet time, being at home, and not being able to go out as we were accustomed, meant we had to get creative to not be bored. Chatting with friends back home, looking at the Carnival festivities that happened in February, really helped. There was a lot of time for sleep and reflection as well. Thankfully, two months later Shanghai is coming alive again, the deliveries are happening, more people are outside and the life of the city is coming out as spring hits and the weather is changing. 

The biggest lesson in all of this is that we really have to work together and do our part to limit the spread and recover as quickly as possible. It’s a scary time but trust that the sun comes out again and life will continue.

Learn about teaching English in China

What advice do you have for individuals considering China as their next teaching destination?

Don’t doubt yourself. I have no regrets about this journey. As a friend of mine once said, “no one likes a boring biography”. Prepare yourself and leave all pre-existing notions behind. They will only limit your ability to experience the fullness of Chinese culture and people and even cause you more teething problems than are necessary. It’s a huge country that feels so small and well connected. Download a good translator application, learn a few words in Mandarin and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.

Abeo, can you share with us a favorite story or two from your time in China so far?

I arrived in Shanghai late in November, so my adventures were limited before the pandemic hit. However, my first trip to a Chinese grocery was a definite eye opener. We had walked around and picked up the things that I needed and just left the vegetable and fruit section when I suddenly shouted “wow they have live stuff in the grocery”. Never in my life had I seen the option to buy fresh fish, crab and oysters that were still alive and swimming in tanks. I am accustomed to seeing live animals at the fresh market, but never within a “regular” grocery building. My roommate had a good laugh at my expense.

Abeo plans to teach in China

You’re about to embark on your Level 5 TEFL course. What words of encouragement do you have for individuals considering getting a TEFL certificate?

I did a lot of research, and I was very comfortable and confident in the years of experience that Premier TEFL has, the online support I received when I had a million questions that needed answering. Sarah was almost always available to answer questions and when she wasn’t, Rosie even answered from home late on a Saturday evening just so I wouldn’t have to wait all weekend for a reply. Examine your needs carefully, there are options for everyone here. I chose a Level 5 because I think it will stand out more on my resume. The price is affordable as well.

What are two interesting things about China that the average person wouldn’t know?

Two things that I was not prepared for:

  1. Your phone becomes your life here. Almost everything is done through your phone; paying bills, buying groceries, ordering food, ordering a taxi or buying things on Taobao (like Amazon but bigger). WeChat is an all in one application which includes communication, banking and social media. 
  2. Even though you may not speak Chinese, people will speak to you as if you can. It’s cute and it’s also why you should learn a few words or have a solid translator. It’s appreciated when you try to communicate and it really helps you get through daily life.

What are your career plans once you gain your TEFL qualification?

I am hoping that I can teach English in China, though not necessarily in a school. I like teaching adults, so I am focusing on business English and online teaching.

How can readers follow your adventures abroad on social networks?

I have actually just started my blog and I am making it my mission to post weekly. I may add other platforms later on. Expect lots of nature, dogs and people pictures!

Thank you Abeo, for taking the time to share your incredible story in China with the Premier TEFL community. We are excited to follow your blog updates! If you want to read more about TEFL teachers traveling, check out our interview with teacher and Premier TEFL alumni Vanessa. Vanessa went to Ireland for one week and was stuck there for four months because of COVID-19!