SEOUL -- When news of the coronavirus broke, Brandon Woolfolk, an American teacher who lives with his girlfriend in Shanghai, was in the Philippines and planning to travel to Malaysia and Thailand. It was just before the Lunar New Year, the most traveled holiday in Asia.
"Friends were telling us about the virus spreading on WeChat," he said. "At first, we felt lucky. Like we made it out just in time. We didn’t think it would get as bad as it is."
Woolfolk is one of the approximately 900,000 foreign workers in China. As the coronavirus continues to spread and the death toll rises, many expats are seeing their dream of working overseas turn into a nightmare.
As the number of infections soared and travel restrictions were put in place, cities across the country went into lockdown. Flights were cancelled. Schools closed. Masks sold out. And Woolfolk’s girlfriend, Dominique Duarte, was thousands of miles away and six months pregnant with their first child.
Duarte left before the holiday rush to visit family in Washington, D.C.
"I was relieved she got out and was safe," said Woolfolk. "But I had nowhere to go."
"Our school sent us messages that classes would be cancelled until the virus was contained," he added. "At first, we were told it would only be a few weeks, but then the dates kept getting pushed back. That’s when we realized no one really knew what was going on.”
Woolfolk’s quick holiday turned into a monthlong standby in Malaysia and Thailand, costing him thousands of extra dollars in food and lodging. As he contemplated whether he would return to the U.S. or China, he said many of his friends called it quits, out of fear, and headed to their home countries.
"I know people who left everything,'' he said. "Some schools, like mine, have turned to teaching online. Others have let teachers go or asked them to just wait it out without pay."
"I didn’t have to come back," he added. "But we’ve been here for 2 1/2 years, and I didn’t want to leave all my material possessions."
Ultimately, the couple decided to return to Shanghai for the birth of their daughter, who’s due May 5. Despite protests from friends and family, Duarte said going back to China was the best decision financially.
"Back home I don’t have a job or insurance. I have that in China, plus maternity leave, so it just makes sense. It’s too expensive to have the baby back home."
Since both Woolfolk and Duarte left China and then returned, they are currently under self-quarantine.
"Some grocery stores deliver, so we cook at home ... [Dominique’s] staying put until the baby comes. We have a plan with our doctor, and we feel like it’s gonna be okay," said Woolfolk.
Despite the looming uncertainty, the couple said they are focusing on staying positive and preparing for the arrival of their baby girl.
"I’m excited," he said. "Even when I was stuck [in Thailand], everywhere I went, I bought little gifts and outfits for the baby."
Twelve hundred miles away in Yinchuan, a city with nearly two million residents, Dennis Bennett, an American teacher and business owner, is also under quarantine with his wife Sandy, who is a Chinese citizen.
The couple said they spent their New Year holiday in Turkey, but didn’t return empty-handed. Instead of souvenirs, Bennett said they brought home N95 protective masks -- over 800 of them -- to donate to the Ningxia Medical University hospital.
"I’ve been here for four years," he said. "This is our home, so we wanted to help out. We just walked into a pharmacy ... and bought as much as we could carry."
Bennett said he and his wife were immediately tested for the virus once they returned to China, and that the testing was mandatory in order to leave the airport and enter the city.
"The hospital sent a car to pick us up. [The people] were in hazmat bio-suits. They check your passport and ID and they're putting the temperature gun to your head to check for a fever. They asked questions about our trip, and if we had been to Wuhan. We were stopped at every toll road, and again once we got to our neighborhood. Once we were cleared, they told us we had one day to get everything we needed to survive for two weeks," he said.
"In our [apartment] complex every family gets a [stamp] card. One person from each home is allowed to leave every two days." he said, adding that they feel "very lucky" that they had a "stockpile” of food. (The stamp card is similar to a frequent-shopper reward card, to show how many times you patronize a business. But instead of getting points, in China, you're tracked by how many times you leave and enter the building.)
Bennett says he believes the local government is doing everything possible to control the outbreak, and is glad serious safety measures are being taken, even if they are inconvenient.
"[Sandy will] watch TV in the bedroom, and I’ll hang in the living room so we’re not elbow-to-elbow, driving each other crazy," he said. "It’s not ideal, but we make it work. All you can do is take proper precautions and don’t panic."