Zheng Li and Grace Ji migrated to Australia from China in 2005. Fifteen years later, they returned to China to visit family with their daughters, to find themselves in lockdown there and back in Melbourne due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaving China:
Zheng Li and his girlfriend Grace Ji migrated to Melbourne from Hebei in northern China in 2005. They had met at university in Xing Tai in 2001, they were from middle class families but extended university degrees were not financially viable. They were from the first generation to really access the internet which in China was slow and information limited. Both were keen to explore the world and when they found a cooperative study program between Australia and China they successfully applied for the 18 month courses in Charles Sturt University Melbourne Campus. They both spoke English, the universal language most Chinese students elect to study as their second language.

Early Life in Melbourne:
It was hard for Zheng and Grace to leave home, both only children due to China's one child policy. Zheng's father was encouraging as he could see the advantages and opportunities, but for the mother, it was very difficult. Grace went on to complete a post-graduate degree in RMIT and was then able to apply for permanent residency. She and Zheng married in 2006 and had two daughters, Elizabeth born in 2011 and Esther born in 2014.

Zheng reflects that leaving China changed them both dramatically as people and have never regretted leaving homeland - although they miss family, and are torn about the loss their parents experience due to their absence. But they have faced the reality of the permanence of the situation and as their parents age and need assistance, Zheng plans to support them either in Australia or in China. Text messaging and phone calls are regular but not the same.

The early years in Melbourne were challenging. Although the couple received some financial support from their families, they needed to work as well as study, and Zheng recalls serious workplace exploitation. They rented in Chadstone and joined a local church at Church of Christ in Hartwell where they attended bible studies and which offered them support and friendship networks. They then managed to purchase a home in Glen Waverley and joined the Crossway Baptist Church. Church life and Christian values play an important role in their lives.

Zheng continues to feel a deep connection to China but prefers what he sees as a more respectful and caring society in Melbourne. For him Chinese society prioritises family but not community in general. He did experience some racism when he first arrived but minimal.

Returning Home and the Pandemic:
In 2020 Zheng, Grace and their daughters returned to China for the first time to visit family. They were keen for the girls to see China and family. The plan was to stay for two and a half weeks, celebrate Chinese New Year and see some of the country. Zheng recalls his daughters being amazed by the number of extended family members under one roof and were even a little intimidated. The girls speak Mandarin but communicating with the older generations was challenging who spoke dialect. Four days after they arrived, the pandemic locked China down.

"I have not been back to my hometown in China for about 13 years. This year, I decided to bring my children to see their grandparents in China. By the time we arrived in January 2020, there had been not much information about coronavirus. As the days go, we notice the restrictions have been in place, e.g. the closure of cinemas and shopping centres etc. As it happened just before the Chinese New Year, all the restaurants would have been stocked up for the big family feast on the new year eve. Surely my extended family have booked a restaurant as well. Along with the announcement from the government on daily basis, the situation seemed to be changed every day even every few hours. No one know what was really going on. Eventually, the government announced no family meal for new year eve at any restaurants so we have to cancelled the booking. It was quite disappointing as I have physically not seen my extended family for more than a decade." Zheng Li 19 June 2020

Melbourne and COVID-19:
The family watched flights to Australia becoming increasingly expensive but luckily they were able to leave as scheduled on 6 February 2020. And they went straight into self-isolation which they took very seriously.

"My family were in isolation for 14 days after we arrived in Australia. It was challenging for those two weeks as I believe we were the first group who may have experienced such a situation. I work for Woolworths. A few colleagues were aware how serious it was. Now we understand it is a national disaster." Zheng Li 19 June 2020

They relied on friends to do grocery shopping for them. After self-isolation, during walks in local parks and streets, the family noticed people doing street art, placing bears in windows. Inspired, Grace, Elizabeth and Esther, drew chalk drawings on their driveway while Zheng was at work (and told to park the car in the street when he came home!) The girls were particularly inspired by a cartoon book Dogman for their illustrations.

"Dogman is very funny and interesting story with FLIP-O-RAMA. I love the story so much. I thought everyone else would like it too. They (neighbours) would smile at it when they walk past." Elizabeth Li, August 2020

"I enjoyed helping my sister with the drawing. And I like to make the neighbours happy." Esther Li, August 2020

When Melbourne locked down at the end of March, they had chalks delivered from Bunnings and an organic series of drawings continued to evolve, this time with more emphasis on hearts and other symbols.

"The kids are loving street arts now. They occasionally painting here and there. I believe it has been very good to have such beautiful chalk painting on the driveway. We could see the big smile on the faces when people stopped there watching. At least, it was one of the inspiring thing we did for ourselves and the local community." Zheng Li, 19 June 2020

The COVID lockdowns have been challenging for the family especially the children. Like most children they miss their friends, going to school, and Zoom birthday parties have been a new experience. Zheng says the girls' prayers have changed, focusing on affected people. For Zheng, he believes that the situation has made their family relationships stronger, more time is spent together and their faith is sustaining them.

"The situation of COVID-19 brought people back to church. I have been serving in Mandarin service at Crossway Baptist Church since 2011. This challenging time actually makes people put more time reading Bible and reflect ourselves in the situation of home isolation." Zheng Li, 19 June 2020

"God has taught us to love our neighbours. We created this street entertainment for our community to cheer up each other during this difficult lockdown period." Grace Ji, August 2020

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