Back to My Home Country During COVID as a Student Abroad

Haoyang Li, 17 years old, is a freshman student at University of Virginia, USA. As a student abroad, she told us about her anxiety being abroad after the coronavirus breakout in her home country, China. She also shared her experience of deciding to go back after facing discrimination, being on an airplane, and quarantining.
The Outbreak of Coronavirus in China

The coronavirus was most serious in China in February and March. When I talked to my American friends about this, their reaction was that this wasn’t worth worrying. Just like a common flu, people would be fine after a while. When we talked about a girl was beaten because she wore a mask on New York’s subway, they could not understand our worries and anxiety. They thought these preventive measures were unnecessary, and the coronavirus wasn’t as serious and didn’t deserve extra attention.

It was my school’s spring break in early March. I learned about the severe situation of coronavirus in China, and did not travel outside. Many of my American friends, however, travelled around the world during the break. The situation wasn’t severe in the US, so everyone thought everything would go on as normal; school would start once the spring break was over. I was a bit scared of the rapid spread of the disease in China. When I called my parents and friends in China, I could feel their worries, and I felt anxious too. I constantly reminded them to wear masks and wash hands more. I thus stayed at school during the spring break and didn’t go elsewhere.

On March.18, I received a classmate’s message that the school would possibly switch to online teaching afterwards. Though I had always paid attention to the development of the virus in China, I was still surprised at how severe it became outside of China. I didn’t dislike online classes, but it was still different from face-to-face teaching. It was a new way of learning. I was too scared to go to the school’s gym as usual. On the 20th, the school officially announced plans for online learning. Back then, I didn’t even think about going back to China. The dorm was well equipped, and I though it would be fine if I stocked as many things as possible from the supermarket.

In January and February, I was anxious knowing about China’s coronavirus, so I bought 100 masks from Amazon. Masks had been very cheap back then. I felt masks weren’t enough, so I went to the supermarket with a mask and googles to buy medical gloves, medical alcohol, wipes, and masks. On the bus to the supermarket and inside, I could feel people were looking at me differently. Because of cultural differences, Westerners wouldn’t wear masks for colds, air pollution, or allergies. So it was very unusual seeing someone with a mask on. The cashier gave me a special look, as if saying I had a problem. Later I went to the supermarket again for a food haul. I even bought ten packs of pasta.

Racial discrimination around me

I started to want to go back to China when I heard two sophomore students were discriminated against. They were on their way to the school’s gym. A car, supposedly with Americans inside, passed them. People inside probably saw my upperclassmen were Asians with masks on, so they hit them with raw eggs. This incident caused a buzz among international students. We were all angry and couldn’t understand their actions. Many people around me expressed their attitude toward this on social media such as Instagram.

I realized that racial discrimination had become more and more serious because of the virus. Such an incident happened so close to me. I felt unsafe staying here as a girl. After negotiating with my classmates, we decided to go back to China together, so we bought plane tickets in advance. When my parents had heard about the online classes plan, they had decided with me that it wasn’t yet necessary to fly back. However, as the virus progressed in America, alongside issues such as discrimination, my parents supported me to play back to China. My visa would expire five months after I left the US, but my school counted online courses as “going to school in the US,” so there was no problem with my visa. Students from some other schools had to reapply for their visas. When we bought our tickets, most Chinese people didn’t intend to fly back, so it only cost us 5000RMB. We only needed to transfer one flight in Seoul, Korea.

Way back to China

Our flight was on March.17th. Our school was in a rural place, so it took us two hours to get to the airport in Washington. I called a car driven by a Chinese on Ctrip. We were really scared, so we hoped the driver could also wear a mask to ensure our safety. Throughout the ride, the driver wore a mask, and we also wore masks and disposable gloves. There were many people at the airport, so I changed from a surgical mask to an N95 mask. When we were checked in, the staff also wore a mask. I also saw a piece of paper behind the counter. It said “disinfected at 11 o’clock / disinfected at 12 o’clock,” etc, so the preventive measures were in place. At the airport, most Asians wore protection, masks and goggles, even protection coats. While Westerners did not wear anything, just as usual. Most people on our flight were students traveling back home, and most of us were Asian. One point worth pointing out is there was no health checkups at the airport or before going on the plane, even no temperature checks.

On the airplane, all flight attendants wore masks and protection. The airplane was full. We sat next to each other. I was extremely scared, so I was very careful and didn’t eat anything during the flight. I brought a bottle with a straw because I didn’t need to take off my mask to drink from it. Because I was always drinking water, I went to the bathroom several times, but I sanitized my hands each time I went back to my seat and changed into a new pair of disposable gloves.

We stayed at the Seoul Airport for two hours for our transit. The Korean airport wasn’t like Chinese airports where all food shops were closed. Here, duty-free shops and restaurants were all open, the staff all wore masks. I saw some people who went to the duty-free shops after getting off the plane, but I didn’t go. I just sat there and waited, always being cautious. During the wait, I also changed my mask and gloves into new ones. In the Korean airport, I encountered a random temperature check. It might be the staff saw I wore too much, so they took my temperature. Everything was fine. They didn’t take everyone’s temperature though, only a few.

Safe Landing

The plane landed in Beijing at around 8 or 9pm on March. 18th. Unlike before, everyone’s temperature was taken before the plane from Seoul to Beijing landed. I suddenly became relaxed and reassured. We landed at terminal specially assigned to flights to China. We were one the only plane there then. Before getting off the plane, everyone filled out a health form which asked about confirmed cases in your community or contact with patients. Then we were assigned to groups of 20 and got off the plane group by group. Staff would read your from and categorize people again accordingly. Because all I filled in was “no,” I walked ahead directly. At the Beijing airport, all staff were well equipped, with not only masks and goggles, but also protection coats. I found Chinese airports much safer than foreign ones. I was very reassured.

After going through the customs, staff would recheck your form and temperature in front of a row of little desks. Then I went to take my luggage. All luggage was dissected by airport staff and piled up together for us to pick up. When I landed, I heard we needed to wait very long for our luggage, around 2 hours. But in fact, it only took one hour.

Quarantining at a Hotel

We got on an assigned bus after picking up our luggage. They sent us to the new China International Exhibition Center. We were divided according to our home regions, Beijing or elsewhere. If we lived in Beijing, we were divided depending on different districts, Haidian, Chaoyang, Xicheng, etc. The staff asked about my basic information, where I came form, when I went there, how long I stayed there, if I felt unwell, my home address, etc. I was then brought to a hotel in Xicheng District to quarantine. Although I wasn’t an adult, the staff thought I could take care of myself because I went abroad on my own. So I was sent to the hotel to quarantine with other adults. There was a student attending an American high school beside me. The student was fourteen or fifteen years old and could quarantine at home.

I quarantined at a three-star hotel. The room was big and tidy. It was supposedly disinfected. To be completely isolated from outside, there were a dozen of disposable toothbrushes, large packs of toilet rolls, and a tank of water on the ground. If I use them up, I needed to WeChat or call the staff. They would deliver them to the door. The three meals everyday were given at scheduled times, 8am, noon, and 6pm. They were normal packed meals delivered by staff at the door. We were not allowed to use delivery services in case of diarrhea, because it was one of the symptoms of COVID. We wouldn’t know if the delivered food or the quarantine food had a problem. Our quarantine food would be sampled at the hotel for future checkups. Throughout the quarantine, staff would call twice every day to document my temperature, once each in the morning and afternoon.

I didn’t feel my quarantine life was any different from my everyday life. I just continued my life in a different place. After two days of quarantine, the online classes started, so my schedule everyday was taking online classes, doing exercises, watching shows, and a day would pass. My professors were all very nice and agreed I watched the recordings and didn’t need to participate in discussions. So the time difference was not a problem for me, though I had classmates who work up at 2 or 3am to take classes.

The strongest feeling I had during the pandemic was the imbalance of information in China and the Western world. Via the internet and some social media, I could see statistics about China’s pandemic, such as number of cases in Wuhan, number of deaths, etc. There were also articles and pictures by some survivors or relatives. I could feel their desperation and pain through these media. I realized the severity of this pandemic through the documentation. However, when I communicated with classmates and researched online, I found that America, and some other countries, thought the Chinese government hid a lot of data. They thought millions of people had already passed away in China. But at the same time, they also thought that the pandemic in their country wouldn’t be as serious as that in China because their country and medial system were very developed. Till now, the situation had become more serious in Spain and Italy. It was only when the media reported the situation and medical workers called for help that people realized the severity. Chinese and Western media didn’t trust each other, which caused the imbalance in information, and people didn’t realize the seriousness in advance.

3pm, April 2nd, my quarantine came to an end. The strongest feeling I had in China was great safety. Everyone took this seriously. The preventive measures were in place, and all were careful and cautious.

The largest impact of the pandemic to me was probably the change to online classes. It was quite different from traditional learning, so I needed some adjustments. But I wasn’t largely impacted by the coronavirus. I think a life without difficulties is impossible. It is very normal to encounter these emergent issues. The world is constantly changing. It was still unknown when I could go back to America and whether I can go to a summer school. Everything remained unknown, but there would always be solutions.

Interviewed By

Yifei Zhang


Haoyang Li

Interview Date



Freshman at University of Virginia