A Pandemic Year for Women: How lockdown limitations became a springboard for an entrepreneur-educator to reach new goals

This essay is from our International Women’s Day 2021 series, about women who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, professionals, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time — over this pandemic year.

Nazia Vasi March 17, 2021 08:00:28 IST
A Pandemic Year for Women: How lockdown limitations became a springboard for an entrepreneur-educator to reach new goals

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

EDITOR’S NOTE: A UN report from September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral”. The report delves into the many ways women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the ongoing pandemic: For instance, industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.

The impacts of the crisis, however, go far beyond the economic. News stories and surveys have looked at how women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores while they work full-time remotely. Isolation and confinement have meant that cases of violence against women are on the rise.

While the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdowns have been especially hard on women, there are also many stories of resilience, courage and hope that have emerged in these times.

On International Women's Day 2021, we launched a series called A Pandemic Year for Women. These essays have been written by women with varying experiences of the past year, who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, healthcare workers, community outreach professionals and entrepreneurs, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time.

These first-hand accounts do not look away from the costs of the crisis, but they look beyond too: to the future, to what is possible, to what still remains to be (and must be) done.

Read the essays here on Firstpost, in ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’.

***

Late one December night, a colleague Prashant and I were up trying to fix an email problem, when he asked me for my company’s SPF. “The only SPF I know is in my sunscreen! What are you looking for?” I asked. Confused and slightly bewildered, Prashant explained that in tech lingo, the SPF is the code that allows email senders to define which IP addresses are allowed to send mail for a particular domain.

We laughed, fixed the problem and as I closed my laptop for the night, I thought back over the myriad hiccups I had faced over the past year. From trying to wrap my head around a business that has global ambitions, calculating time zones, understanding cultural differences, accepting my own shortcomings to taking massive leaps of faith, jumping blindly into depths earlier never encountered and quickly moving from one small achievement to the next, 2020 taught me more — professionally and personally — than I could’ve ever dreamed of.

The year had started with Inchin Closer turning 10. Inchin Closer is a premium Mandarin Chinese language company that I founded with my friend and co-worker Wang Xiaojie. Together, we have built the only India-China language and cultural company led by two women — one Indian and the other Chinese.

Our meeting of minds and start-up journey is one of serendipity, friends and many afternoons sipping tea. Xiaojie and I met when I had just returned from Shanghai in 2009, through the many friends we shared in common. Xiaojie was working at an Indian company in Mumbai, my hometown, and I had just returned from hers! Our cross-cultural meanderings, navigating the business worlds of both China and India led us to the conclusion that without a better linguistic and cultural understanding of each other’s nations from our own perspectives, nothing was possible. And so we established Inchin Closer in January 2010 as an India-China language and cultural institute that would help Indians understand China from an Indian perspective and vice versa.

And so we embarked on the journey of teaching Chinese language and culture in India. It was a time when nobody knew what Mandarin was; all our marketing material had to explain the importance of learning Chinese language. Soon, however, understanding China became paramount for Indian working professionals as China grew into India’s largest trading partner. With everything from belt buckles to bulldozers coming from China, the importance of learning the national language of our largest neighbour became ever more important for businessmen, traders, CEOs and family businesses alike.

Over the past 10 years, Inchin Closer ben teaching Mandarin Chinese language and culture to students, businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals alike. Our USP includes creating our own textbook and materials specifically for Indian working professionals who want to learn Mandarin Chinese, being the only institute in India to have native Chinese teachers to teach our courses and now owning the Inchin app which helps students to learn Mandarin through interactive stories.

One of my greatest achievements last year was the development of the Inchin app. It was created during a hackathon that taught me many valuable lessons: it taught me to trust a process, that there are good people willing to do amazing work. Most importantly, it gave me the effervescence of my entrepreneurial spirit back. The confidence to leap, take a chance; put positive vibes out into the world and work hard; leaving the rest to fate, destiny or whatever you may call her. It gave me the power to know that sometimes, if you want to build something big, outside your comfort zone, you have to step out if it. Breaking barriers is real, it’s tough to do and requires a lot of gumption, but leaping out of your comfort zone is often essential especially as an entrepreneur. The jump helps you take advantage of market opportunities, new technology and changing circumstances which I would have never otherwise implemented.

Once I had tasted the sweet zing of leaping far from what I knew, rolling with a new tide became relatively easy. COVID-19 hit Mumbai at the end of March 2020, and I had to quickly transition to classes online. Luckily, I had been training to go online for a while and so the shift was relatively easy. I knew the software at my disposal and how to use it, understood my syllabus very well and how to convert teaching from physical textbooks to digital documents.

What took me a while to wrap my head around was that I was no longer restricted by the physical parameters that I had been so accustomed to by this time. My professional world had suddenly opened wide up. So while friends were making party plans on Zoom and catching up with long lost pals across latitudes, I started reaching out to teachers in China. Inchin Closer had always been an institute that had native Chinese teachers teaching all our levels. However, at our physical locations in Mumbai it had been extremely difficult to find and retain Chinese teachers. The pandemic deleted this problem in one swoop. If all my classes were going to be online, I was no longer beholden to the trickle of Chinese teachers in Mumbai; suddenly I had access to the best Chinese teachers anywhere in the world, and could offer my students a world-class education. Similarly, I could gain students from anywhere in the world and was not restricted to only those who could physically access my classes.

While the administration of the classes took their toll, I simultaneously had to deal with the challenges of teaching a complicated language like Mandarin online. Tones had to be well tuned as Mandarin is a tonal language, which uses the same syllable but varying intonations to express varied things. Therefore pronouncing ‘ma’ for mother with the wrong tone can turn the word into ‘horse’!

To make sure our students all got the tones right, we reduced the size of our classes from 15 in a physical batch to five students in an online class. This ensured that students not only got more personalised attention, but would pick up the language correctly.

Next, we were hit hard by how to teach students to write the Mandarin script online. Keep in mind, the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet; rather it has characters that are largely pictographic. Traditionally the teacher would have written each character on the black board and observed while students meticulously copied the same onto special character writing sheets we would provide them. However, there was no software that could easily incorporate both these aspects of watching the teacher write and the teacher observing the students copy it correctly. This meant we had to improvise. Together with my teachers, through a process of trial and error, we developed a system wherein we could replicate this process on Zoom. The system proved successful when the teacher would write on the white board provided and then assign each student in class a different colour to annotate, carefully watching as they created each character stroke by stroke, then providing feedback on each student’s character drawing to help them improve.

Homework also impacted our teaching methodology as assignments could not be corrected as effectively in class with personalised, live explanations and on-the-spot rectifications. This was an additional toll on our teachers who had to correct each student’s homework outside class and follow up with students about their improvements.

However, the biggest setback with online teaching was the lack of interaction, and the camaraderie we lost with our students who would come into class every weekend brimming with stories of the week past. Faux pas at work, creative excuses of why homework wasn’t done, or discussions about an exciting movie, new haunt or activity they had taken part in. This mutual sharing of information created a bond, a kinship that made it not a student-teacher top-down approach of learning but rather a circular, peer-based learning which often extended beyond the classroom. With classes going online, this classroom banter went out the window. Interactions were limited to the little screen through which we could peer into our students’ homes, or if they logged in earlier we could chat about their week, but the conversations were always short, cut with talking amongst strangers, other students they had never met in person.

As I started adapting fast, the deep learning curve took a swing at my personal life. So engrossed was I in managing classes, training new teachers in the Inchin way and figuring out how to market a brand globally that my social life fell to a new abysmal low. While I’ve always been friendly, had my entourage of besties and liked to meet new people, my focus during the lockdown changed and from a multifaceted, friendly personality, I was fully absorbed in my work. Family and friends were not the only aspects to take a back-seat, I also started exercising less and caring far less about the way I looked. It wasn’t until towards the end of the year, that I decided to grab the reigns of life again and jolt up to a fitter, leaner, friendlier me.

If the past year has taught me anything, it is to believe in myself more; that close friends will stick by you no matter what; and that working out can make you feel better, both emotionally and physically. I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone this year. It feels refreshing, like moulting from a cocoon towards new adventures with renewed courage. Life viewed from a different lens is sometimes a welcome change. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to make an epic difference in your life.

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