To stay or go? Chinese international students in turmoil as COVID-19 becomes a pandemic

Thousands flee for safe haven of home; others stay put despite fear and discrimination

By Li Kejing

April 2020

If it weren’t for the COVID-19 outbreak, Wu Shaoqing would have been on the campus of University of Cincinnati at the moment.

Instead, the 23-year-old undergraduate spent two weeks under quarantine at a designated hotel in his hometown Deyang, a city in southwest China. Having finished the fourteen-day quarantine, Wu was required to stay at home for another week confinement. He took online classes while in China.

Wu is one of China’s 1.6 million students studying overseas when the pandemic hit. Two thirds of international Chinese students surveyed wished to return to China, according to the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, which listed fear of being infected and the mistrust in foreign health care as the main reasons. For them, returning meant a familiar medical system, sufficient protective materials, reunion with family and a more stable mental condition.

Over a thousand kilometers away in Tianjin, Cui Wenzhe, a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics, faced the same situation as Wu. Cui left Britain at the end of March, starting his “online learning life in quarantine,” as he described it on his social media.

“I have no faith in National Health Service,” said Cui. “I used to line up for registration for several days even if I just caught a cold. Coronavirus could destroy NHS.”

By April, the coronavirus had infected more than 2.6 million people worldwide and killed more than 181,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. But back in January, 2020, it was only China struggling with the epidemic.

“I checked the social media every minute to keep an eye on how the epidemic was in my country. I was worried about my family,” Wu said before coming home.

But most Chinese overseas students chose to stay abroad instead of going home. But some Chinese students said they confronted discrimination, and the rising tide of racism against Asians made Chinese students scared of being harassed. Some changed their daily habits to avoid attention.

Wu spent the Spring Festival with his Chinese friends in Ohio and kept looking for masks and protective gloves to donate to his country. He was uneasy when he went to pick up groceries wearing a mask because he “could feel others staring at me.”

Li Jiaqi, an exchange student who chose to stay in France, said she wouldn’t wear a mask if she took the subway there. “I’m afraid of attracting any attention. I don’t want to be called like ‘Chinese virus’,” she said.

In the United States, on March 13, the same day President Trump announced a national emergency, the University of Cincinnati announced online learning for the rest of the semester.

Chinese students said they were shocked at how the US decided to handle the pandemic. Wu began to plan to go home. He snapped up a flight on China Airlines to Chengdu through Taiwan at a normal price, but the airline changed the flight several times. Finally Wu was told the take-off day was March 23, a day before Taiwan suspended the transit of airline passengers.

The tightening travel policies everywhere increased the students’ uncertainty. With many flights from the US and European countries cancelled, remaining seats were in demand. Cui was notified that his flight would not run, and he had to purchase another flight even though the fare had risen drastically.

For students like Li who stayed abroad, the main reason was fear of travelling. “The plane would be full and what if I am infected on the journey home?” said Li, “I know staying here I could also be infected. But at least I won’t bring the virus back to my family.”

PhD student Ji Fanli, 26, decided to stay in the UK. She still had a lot of research to do in the laboratory and was unable to leave. She did receive a health package containing masks, medicine and an epidemic guide from the Chinese Embassy in Britain, which she said “strengthened my belief in my country”. The package made students feel they were not alone.

Liu Siqi, a Chinese student at New York University, waited for COVID-19 testing on her landed plane in Sichuan for four hours. She had to spent one night in a designated hotel in Chengdu to receive the test result, and the next day, the Mianyang government sent a van to pick her up along with other returnees to take to another hotel in her hometown for quarantine at her own expense.

Days in quarantine were dull. Liu usually got up at midnight to catch up with her online courses held in the afternoon New York time. “The time difference really bothers me. The lecturers spend much time coordinating between local students and the overseas students,” said Liu. “Besides, the network in the quarantine hotel always lags. I’m always busy with dealing with the bad connection.”

Cui said China’s “great firewall” made it hard to engage with the educators. “The school provided us with VPNs but they are unstable. We still need to find and pay for more advanced VPN services by ourselves,” he said.

Wang Yixuan, who is in his second year at Nangyang Technological University in Singapore, said the quality of online teaching wasn’t as high as face-to-face. “My classmates aren’t willing to talk during the class because they are behind the screen and they can do whatever they want to. Nobody can push them,” he said.

The outbreak of coronavirus also brought financial loss to the students. Cui said he still had to pay four months rent on his home in the US. He also lost access to some university services, such as being able to use the library.

Those who did return faced lockdown for months and criticism for bringing the virus with them. The return of the expats caused a drastic increase in imported COVID-19 cases. Some of the students were called spoiled and privileged, fuelling online animosity.

One student was criticized for requesting bottled mineral water at the quarantine facility. Another student flying home from France complained about the slow process of inspection on social media when she landed in Shanghai, and people flocked to her Weibo account to call her a “grown-up baby.” People left furious comments: “You were absent when we fought hard against the virus, but now you flew back to infect us.”

Wu said he felt hurt by these comments. “It’s unfair. Overseas students did their best to search for protective materials to donate back at the initial stage of the outbreak. Most of us obey the quarantine rules but they judge us by the few,” he said.

Source: National Health Commissions Official Website

One student was criticized for requesting bottled mineral water at the quarantine facility. Another student flying home from France complained about the slow process of inspection on social media when she landed in Shanghai, and people flocked to her Weibo account to call her a “grown-up baby.” People left furious comments: “You were absent when we fought hard against the virus, but now you flew back to infect us.”

Wu said he felt hurt by these comments. “It’s unfair. Overseas students did their best to search for protective materials to donate back at the initial stage of the outbreak. Most of us obey the quarantine rules but they judge us by the few,” he said.

I’m afraid of attracting any attention. I don’t want to be called like ‘Chinese virus.’

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