January 25, 2020
In China, the Lunar New Year is a weeklong holiday full of family and community celebrations. Those of us studying abroad tend to compress things into a single day, the first day of the lunar calendar. Washington, D.C. is twelve hours behind Wuxi, Jiangsu province. I get up early to WeChat with my parents and greet the elders who come for the family reunion dinner. I listen to the chatter and the clinking of wine glasses and feel myself missing home.
Last year, my friend invited me to her place to celebrate with her roommate and friends. Together, we were more than a dozen Chinese students from different schools. We didn’t really know each other, but we followed the tradition of making dumplings, talked, and played games under the warmth of candlelight. We were far away from our families and felt the need to be among familiar things. This made us a community.
Here in 2020, Chinese New Year is much different. The pandemic swallows everything. The fireworks, the television performances and noisy New Year’s calls—the things we are accustomed to have vanished. I video chat with my family, but there isn’t any good news. In our home country, things are bad, and abroad, the whole community of Chinese international students worry over their families.
Years ago, on my first day in D.C., I added several WeChat groups to my chatting app. Through them, the area’s Chinese students share information about used furniture and apartment rentals. Now, my online communities are more important than ever. Through our messages, we share our traditions and care for each other while so far from home.
April 30, 2020
After the pandemic hit the United States, my online groups began posting and comparing information on safety precautions and masks. I see a message from a student’s mother in China asking for help. Her son lives in D.C. Due to the pandemic, mail deliveries are slowing to a crawl, and she is worried that her son will not receive the masks she sent in time. Members of the group comfort her and offer to help her son find masks. In the following days, the Chinese Embassy offers health kits to Chinese students in the United States. The kit includes KN95 masks, disinfectant wipes, and some first-aid medicine. I fill out the application.
I begin to understand how our communities, both visible and invisible, support us as closely as one chopstick to another. Staying in touch and connected with others, even while physically hundreds or thousands of miles apart, gives me faith that things will be okay. But I fear this faith is fragile and will unravel over time. Those international students I communicate with, whether they live in the U.S. or elsewhere, report feeling the same. All I know is that I must hear from them often to combat the isolation I feel. I need the connection to them, my community. I need to feel Chinese. I need to feel safe.
July 12, 2020
“Life is like filling a balloon with water. All we can do is to make sure some of the water comes out as we put more in, so it doesn’t explode,” says my therapist in my second appointment.
With the emergence of COVID-19, my life has changed dramatically. I am unable to control the water; the anxiety I feel is too powerful. I can’t imagine what to do next. There are too many problems to solve. I have lived on my own for so long, and yet I am struggling. He says that others feel the same way right now: a balloon about to explode.
I am from Wuxi, a city 7,443 miles away from D.C. Wuxi is beautiful, and I miss it, especially the misty rains that fall in summer. Eight years ago, I arrived from China as a sixteen-year-old exchange student. Now, I am a graduate student studying fine arts in the United States. I planned to complete my graduation exhibition in April, apply for Optional Practical Training, and then find a job.
But before then, I needed to fly back to China for a medical exam and to refill a prescription for the weekly medical injections I receive. It is not that they can’t prescribe the injection in the United States, but here, the medicine costs thousands of dollars for a single dose. At the end of March, I bought a ticket for a June 10 flight. But the spread of the virus affected airline travel, disrupting my plans and those of so many other international students.
At the beginning of the quarantine, I remember not minding so much. The school year had been hard. I rested and read books to cultivate my mind. My friends stayed cheerful, and I thought the crisis would end quickly. But now I find myself feeling trapped and full of anxiety. I fight to remember that I am not alone, as many of my friends fear we no longer control our own lives. We are so far from our homes and parents, and we are facing travel restrictions, impossible ticket prices, housing instability, and governmental decisions on whether or not we can continue attending school in the U.S. We help each other to remember that a world exists outside our door, and that a rainbow emerges after a storm.
In these “trapped” days, many of us spend all our time worrying. In this time of social distancing, our accumulating emotions find no place to land. “How are you?” I ask other international students every day online—and such an automatic answer is expected, but now each of us in our makeshift community pauses to consider before answering. Each of them lives far away from me. For the last few months, we have supported each other, but now, when we ask each other, “how are you?” we feel our inner defenses failing.
May 28, 2020
I have a video call with Wenjie Wang (Mia). “Hey, Mia. How are you?” I ask. She gives me a deep sigh followed by silence. Then in a hushed voice, she pours out her frustration: “All the flights I’ve booked have been canceled. I’m fine as long as I don’t think about the plane ticket. So far, I force myself to cook and exercise every day to fill my time up. Otherwise, I think I am going crazy. I even went to the school therapy center twice.”
Mia currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Before the pandemic, she would begin each day with a cup of coffee from a nearby café. She could sit in the warm sun to study and read and enjoy the peaceful noise. She would fill her days with schoolwork and friends. But she had found a job in China and was planning to go back in June to take care of things before starting in August. Now everything was up in the air.
Mia comes from Shanghai, one of the world’s great metropolises with sky-high buildings, crowds of people, delicious food, and lots of buttonwood trees. Brilliant neon lights highlight the glory of the Oriental Pearl Tower. The lights along the Huangpu River reveal the excitement of modern times. Shanghai is a city of progress, and this aligns with what I know of Mia. She is a person who never gives up. She found a temporary place to stay, a motel, and day after day, she consults the official ticketing websites.
June 3, 2020
Finally, after a month of trying, Mia finds an available ticket back in China, but the flight isn’t until the middle of August. She sounds exhausted on the phone. “Finally, I can go back,” she says after one last deep sign. We talk about homemade food, because it makes her feel better. Mia tells me that she misses her extended family, all gathered around the dinner table together.
When my own flight is canceled, I am not surprised. These days, tickets seem as rare as passage on Noah’s ark. Tickets are too expensive, and I have run out of medicine, but my mother always tells me that you have to make a backup plan. I talk with my doctor in China about a change in treatment. Eventually, he tells me he can prescribe a suppression medication to temporarily replace my injections.
June 5, 2020
Yuan Fang (Artemis) is a junior majoring in international relations at The College of William & Mary. When I ask her how she is doing, she smiles, and says quietly, “I haven’t been so good lately. I don’t think I can go home.” She can’t find a plane ticket, and if she does get home, she has no idea whether or not she’ll be allowed back into the U.S. for the next semester
Fang’s home is in Guizhou, a multi-ethnic province in a plateau region of China. During the outbreak, a large number of international students living in the dormitories had no choice but to pay the extravagant airfare prices and leave for China; they could find nowhere else to stay. Fang tells me that she is grateful that one of her Chinese friends offered her a room in her apartment.
“The situation for me at this moment is I want to go home. I didn’t at the beginning of the outbreak because the tickets were so expensive.” Fang understands that China has its own problems combatting the virus. “I was also thinking about not putting too much pressure on my country,” she tells me. Before the outbreak, Fang enjoyed spending time alone at home. But now, with so much solitude, her heart is filled with uncertainty.
Fang also worries for her American friends, many of whom do not wear face masks. In the early days, some were unable to buy them, so Fang’s mother sent some from China. But now, some of her friends refuse to wear them because they don’t believe masks help. Fang feels helpless.
“I find that there are still a lot of people who don’t take the pandemic seriously,” she says. “One day when I went grocery shopping, I saw a man take a vegetable leaf as a mask. He just took a leaf and covered his mouth. And I was like, how is a leaf mask going to help?”
June 12, 2020
Fang receives an email from the university, and things become more difficult. The administration plans to begin the next semester early. Fang’s need to return home grows stronger, and she takes initiative. She negotiates with her school, arranging to take her fall courses at Beijing Normal University. William & Mary agrees to accept her credits.
July 5, 2020
Fang sends me a spray of text messages, “I found a plane ticket this morning, but the departure date is tomorrow.” Even though the tone of her words is flat, I feel her excitement: She will finally see her family after four months of fighting.
Fang’s text messages cheer me up, just a little. She shows me what perseverance and creativity can do. But lately, my emotions have begun to get out of hand. I can’t control my thoughts. People around me have successfully bought tickets, and some are making it home, but not me. Additionally, U.S. policy seems to change every day, so watching the news only makes things worse. The trickle of water coming out of my balloon is no match for the waves coming in. For the first time, I feel utterly helpless.
The pandemic in China seems under control. My family and friends are returning to their jobs. I stop communicating with them. I don’t want them to worry about me. I begin to miss the smell of the pillowcase in my room in Wuxi. My mom’s handmade meatballs come to my mind when I eat. When I realize I’ve stuck my chopsticks upright into my bowl of rice like the way food is arranged on altars of the dead, I miss my mom’s roar.
I look around the room. It’s only me here. I’m not as tough as I thought I was. I need to go home.
June 2, 2020
I was not the only one. After hearing my simple greeting “How are you?” Zhu Wang tells me she hasn’t been sleeping. “Maybe I haven’t been going out or haven’t gotten enough exercise, but I can’t sleep. I’m still scared. They’re slowly reopening the restaurants, and it’s getting more and more crowded outside. I’m afraid to go out.”
Zhu Wang is a recent graduate living in Paris, France. She likes to pick up a baguette from a bakery that sits along the paths when she walks her dog. She says the weather in Paris wears a baby’s face. “It rains in the morning, then becomes sunny in the afternoon.” Before the pandemic, she would picnic with friends on a lawn where you can see the Eiffel Tower. A musician and a music student, she is inspired by the romance and comforts of Paris.
Wang had planned to find a job and live here, but then came the March 16 lockdown. She applied for jobs, and, occasionally, she walked her dog. There were no baguettes to buy. Wang was confident the French would control the outbreak quickly. Luckily, the government extended working visas for international students by half a year.
June 12, 2020
Wang receives an email from the French police that upset her plans. The government now requires that international students renew their visas within twelve days; otherwise, they will be forced to leave the country. Wang leaves me an anxious voice message.
“I am not able to renew my visa because I don’t have a job yet, so I have to go back to China. I never considered illegally overstaying my visa, but now everyone is forced to confront that. I am not able to leave immediately.” Each week, there is only one flight between France and China and that flight is fully booked until the end of August. The pandemic has cost her crucial time.
Wang also worries over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Paris. On the phone, she sounds disconsolate, but she hasn’t given up. She tells me she will contact the French government, hoping that her overstay will not remain on her record, an occurrence that would kill any chance of another visa.
July 7, 2020
Good news comes to Wang. She has received a temporary visa for another three months. She can either use the time to find a job or look for a plane ticket. But Wang has begun to suffer bouts of inexplicable crying, what she describes as emotional breakdowns.
“COVID-19 does not have an immediate impact on everyone,” she tells me. “But there is sometimes this arc of reflection that comes for you. I didn’t feel anything at first, but after all the depressing news, my emotions just erupted.”
Wang Zhu’s words reach my heart. I have a good cry too, but my emotions make it impossible for me to sleep. I can’t concentrate on anything but getting home. Weekly therapy helps. But each time my session ends, my bad mood returns. My therapist tells me I could try to paint unconsciously or keep a journal to empty my mind of what is going on in the outside world.
“At the same time,” he explains. “These kinds of activities are not ways to get away from anxiety, but to let your mind empty, then you can calm down, think about your life, and face reality in order to make choices.”
July 19, 2020
I am in much better control of my mood after my third session, and I feel my eagerness to go home grow. Finally, I find a ticket. Although there is no confirmation yet, I am hopeful. But I will have to leave the next day.
July 22, 2020
I finally make it back to China.
July 24, 2020
As the plane sweeps down above the Shenyang Airport, the architecture becomes visible, and I feel excited. After a bang, the plane glides safely down the tarmac and we come to a halt. An old woman is sitting behind me. “We are home,” she says, sighing to the old man next to her. All my anxiety vanishes. The balloon of my emotions has begun to expand and contract normally.
The flight attendants come down the aisle to hand us forms to fill out, and after waiting for the elders and children to leave the plane, we too head toward the exit. Inside the airport, the staff, outfitted in white protective suits, masks, and goggles, check our temperatures, administer COVID-19 tests, and go over our personal contact information. Only then are we allowed to find our luggage.
We are led to an airport bus. Each of us has been randomly assigned a quarantine hotel where we will spend the next fourteen days. At my hotel, the staff wears the same heavy protective clothing. As the weather is so humid, I appreciate their hard work more fully, and my own weariness becomes bearable. After checking into my room, I take a warm bath, washing away my fatigue and restlessness. I feel lucky. If anyone on the airplane had tested positive, we would face a quarantine double the length.
Over the days, I am not allowed to leave my room, except for testing. At mealtimes, the staff leaves food on a small table outside my door. They disinfect the hallway twice a day. I have never visited Shenyang, a city in the north of China, a seventeen-hour drive north from my hometown. There is a big difference between the food culture in the south and north: most southerners like to eat rice, while the northern staple is dumplings or noodles. To make us feel welcome, my quarantine hotel prepares both staples for each meal, balanced by vegetables and protein. The taste of Chinese food makes me feel closer to home.
Each day, the staff calls my room at 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to ask if my temperature is normal. On the morning of the sixth day, they give me a blood serum test, and I will have a nucleic acid test on the twelfth day. If all the test results remain normal, the quarantine will be lifted on the fourteenth day, and I can go home. The policies feel strict to me, but, strangely, in my heart, they make me feel more secure, looked after.
China’s solution for the pandemic seems unliberal compared to that of many democratic countries. But with the population density of China and the fact that by tradition, we have so many multi-generational homes, I understand why these measures are taken. The strict approach has saved lives, and cities are returning to normal. But people remain vigilant. When I finally arrive in my hometown, I am told to stay inside another fourteen days, as I have traveled between provinces. I comply, as we must not become numb to the numbers. Those infected with the virus are not just cases, but fathers and mothers, grandparents. I figure that wearing a mask and social distancing are not restrictions on my personal freedom, but a way to reduce the number of deaths.
Back when my anxiety reached its peak, I had grown weary of the dull, new pattern of my life. I was taking little interest in living. There were daily questions I could not hope to answer. Thank goodness I could share my journey with fellow students online, even though we were separated by thousands of miles through all the uncertainty. Knowing we all suffered from the same solitude helped. We listened to each other’s stress and cared for one another, reminded each other there was a way out.
All this feels unreal to me now. In the quarantine hotel, time passes quickly, and I feel happy even as I am bored. Maybe here, I feel one step closer to seeing my family. The hotel staff gives me encouragement every day.
Living in isolation exaggerates the importance of little things. I ask the staff if they can help me open the windows of my room, but they cannot enter. We have a conversation through the peephole of my door. Their voices are kind. As I listen, I turn to face the window. As my room is on the first floor, I see the branches of trees blowing against the glass and hear the sound of birds, and I am reminded of conversations with friends and the idea that only in keeping our curiosity of the world and in seeing its daily freshness do we live full lives.
YingYing Yang was an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a fine art graduate student at the George Washington University, working across the fields of photography, mixed media, and installation.