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I'll wait a long time before returning to China, says Tyrone teacher who escaped coronavirus-hit Wuhan

The 23-year-old from Dungannon beat crippling childhood shyness to land his dream job teaching in China - now he is afraid he'll never see his beloved Hubei province again

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Ben Pinkerton in China

Ben Pinkerton in China

Ben Pinkerton in China

I was born in Dungannon in 1996 and in my early years I was an incredibly shy person. Combine that with having a great distaste for speaking in front of people and anyone would be forgiven for thinking the chances of this child becoming a teacher were slim.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I find myself freshly evacuated from Wuhan in the Hubei region of China, leaving my friends and job as an English teacher (ironically) behind, a necessary measure, however, to escape from the increasingly serious coronavirus situation.

After completing my computer science degree at the University of Chester, I discovered that working with people and explaining things were two personal strengths of mine, so my next quest, as it were, was to find a job where I could utilise both of these skills.

Teaching was something I had always considered and, when browsing for jobs, I saw an advert online for the company EF, one of the largest private education companies in the world, who wanted foreign teachers to work in their Chinese training centres, specifically those for young children.

I deliberated on the idea, as it would grant me access to teaching without having any formal teaching qualifications, but at the cost of moving to the other side of the world.

I discussed the idea with my family and they supported my eventual decision to take the plunge and go for it. Four months later, I was on a plane heading to Wuhan, the city that I had chosen, ready to dive headfirst into a country with barely any language training.

I don't remember being nervous. I was more excited than anything else and I was going with my good friend Joshua Drage, who, at that point, I had known for nearly 20 years, so there would be one familiar face at the very least.

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With young Chinese students

With young Chinese students

Upon first arriving in Wuhan, the weather was damp and dreary, so I already felt like I hadn't left home, but it didn't set the best initial impression.

In the taxi journey to my apartment, I got my first experience of Chinese driving, where the laws and regulations are seen more as rough guidelines by the majority of motorists.

"Who needs to go to a theme park for thrills when you can be on these roads?" my foreign correspondent told me with a laugh, to which I only managed to muster a nervous smile in return.

As a foreign teacher in China, your standard of life is incredibly high, so most of us can manage with one or two peculiarities. The base salary is quite generous and the living costs are very low, which makes for a very comfortable quality of life.

When I first saw my apartment (provided by the company), I was impressed; it looked very professional and was bigger than anything I had been living in during my university days. It also had a Western-style bathroom, so if you ignored the Chinese writing on the door and the complete lack of radiators, you wouldn't know that it was an apartment in China at all.

I spent just over a year in Wuhan, mainly commuting to work and spending time with the other foreign workers, visiting sites and having games nights.

A typical day there would comprise of waking up, spending most of the morning and afternoon watching TV or reading, then finally heading in to work at around 4pm.

I had heard stories of many Chinese food markets and several foreigners had told us, "That's not really our (foreigners) sort of thing" and recommended avoiding them.

Over the year, though, I did interact with the Chinese people on a daily basis, mainly with parents and children that we worked with, and, overall, they were very pleasant people, even with our limited knowledge of the language.

There are obvious cultural differences, however, and, at times, frustration would arise at work, or play, but, upon reflection, I think that's most likely a normal occurrence in every single office on the planet.

We were first made aware of the coronavirus around late December, as the office members began discussing it with our boss, due to a sudden drop in student attendance prompting concern.

The staff members began disinfecting the air in the classroom, alongside scanning every child's temperature and washing their hands before permitting them to stay for a lesson.

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Working as an English language teacher

Working as an English language teacher

A few weeks later and the situation had worsened severely. There was talk of Wuhan shutting itself down as a city and many foreign members of staff had planned to go abroad for their spring festival holidays.

Now, there was the strong possibility they would not be able to return.

In the end, most of the teachers took their holiday plans and got on a plane; one of them is now stuck in Thailand, but seemingly loving every second of it. Having to stay at the beach for a longer period of time certainly sounds a lot more appealing than being stuck in the north west of England.

My time in Wuhan was enjoyable for the most part. I don't particularly miss Wuhan the city that much. I loved my job and the city was just where I had to be to perform it.

However, I met many great and talented people there, who unfortunately are now stuck in mainland China with no way to get out. I sincerely hope that both they and their families remain safe and healthy.

If and when the coronavirus gets neutralised, I would still advise caution to anybody thinking of returning.

It's one thing for the virus to be "announced" as defeated in a PR statement and a completely different thing to be legitimately countered and eradicated.

For me, personally, I would only return to a more modern city, like Shanghai, or Hangzhou, and, even then, it would be after a considerable period of time, following a declaration that the virus was no longer being considered a threat.

Luckily for Josh and myself, we have received offers to continue our teaching careers through the online medium to ensure we still have a good income, combined with the ability to continue gaining experience - an opportunity that we both eagerly snatched when it presented itself.

For the rest of us, we now spend 14 days in quarantine at the Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral.

I'm happy to be back in the UK, a sentiment I believe to be shared with all of the other British nationals who were evacuated a few days ago, and I would like to express my appreciation for all those involved in the process of getting us here.

Quarantine is an interesting concept. On the one hand, it's very comfortable and the NHS staff are performing an excellent job looking after us. But, on the other hand, you can't leave and that lingering feeling puts a dampener on the inhabitants' mood at times.

We all try to maintain good spirits, though. I have a PS4 and a TV in my room, alongside the laptop I brought from China. Most days, Josh and I play online games together, with our friends Robert McMinn and William Parr, who we know from our time at the Royal School Dungannon.

They are doing their best to help us get through the 14 days with long gaming sessions and top-quality Irish banter, something I sorely missed when I was living in China and am wholly appreciative of now.

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