As a Chinese international student enrolled at the University of Connecticut in the United States, I always look forward to unique experiences one can only find while studying abroad. However, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Chinese students across the nation has filled my heart with confusion and sadness. I believe these feelings are incomprehensible to those outside of our community. 2020 has been a tumultuous year, but normalcy may return for those of non-Asian descent sooner than for someone like me.
When the epidemic began to erupt overseas, American universities began to transition their in-person classes to online. International Services offices began telling students they were not to return to campus after spring break. Fortunately, UConn understood was what was at risk for international students given the numerous travel bans. The university knew that if we were sent back to our home countries, we might not be able to come back to the States. I am grateful that the university provided us housing over the summer. Still, even as I write this, I have not returned to China since the rest of the student body was sent home in mid-March. This is a different type of social isolation, a kind of pitch-black solitude that envelops you, where hope becomes a faint spot of light in the dark; its presence is constant, but you will never fully grasp it. My fellow Chinese students describe helplessness and the pain of being on the verge of tears, but they have no one to tell it to. I believe this type of sorrow is something that everyone has experienced during this pandemic, and transcends race and gender.
I know many of you share the same sentiments, and I’m here to express my own thoughts and speak for my friends and fellow international students in the same situation. Like many other schools, UConn will be open in the fall. Still, our position as international students remains uncertain due to the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency rescinded its policy that required international students to leave the United States if their college is entirely online, but international students do not have peace of mind. We were dealt another blow as ICE’s newest policy would bar new international students from coming to America if their university chooses remote learning. While the sociopolitical relationship between the U.S. and China has always been turbulent, it seems like now, more than ever, Chinese students have been left in dire straits.
The effects of these travel guidelines are evident in my own social circle and contribute to a growing mental health crisis for international students who feel ostracized on campuses where they’re already seen as outsiders. Some of my friends chose to complete the fall semester in China because they were worried about the consequences of the uncertainty surrounding college in the United States. This will result in delayed graduation for many of those students. I also know people who can’t find work overseas, so coming back to America to finish their education will prove to be a struggle. Even for those who do return, a new wave of Sinophobia resulting from the pandemic makes it immensely difficult to feel like we’re welcomed and we belong. Across the nation, Chinese and Asian people have faced horrible acts of racism. And with the recent forced closure of the Chinese embassy by the United States, it seems like our people’s support system is slowly being taken away.
In my own experience, an increase in racism began rearing its ugly head in February and March, when Chinese students at UConn were verbally abused and discriminated against for wearing masks. For a university that extols its racial and cultural diversity, it was upsetting to see a lack of solidarity for Asian students among non-PoC. I noticed that ignorant jokes and a constant apprehensiveness to interact with Asian people became rampant. In June, a girl from one of the sororities on campus posted an extremely racist TikTok video that implied Chinese people love to eat bats. She also insinuated that the pandemic is our fault. My friends and I were shocked, furious, and disappointed to see this blatantly intolerant video published by our own classmate. The girl was ultimately expelled from the university. While this particular conflict was resolved, there is no doubt that racist acts continue to be committed without the offenders being held accountable. The anti-asian racism is worsened by American political leaders legitimizing hate crimes by using terms like “Kung flu” and “China virus.”
When you think about it, human arrogance and lack of education have encouraged discrimination and landed the world in its current state. We need empathy, a willingness to see the perspectives of people who may look different, act different, and speak in languages unfamiliar to you. My fellow Chinese classmate at UConn said it best, “I just hope everyone can be a little more understanding of others’ hardships and stop accusing people randomly for things they didn’t do.”
During this time of suffering with countless lives lost, we live from moment to moment. No one can predict the future of the pandemic or its impact on internationals in the United States. To truly navigate these troubled waters, we should prioritize unity and love everyone instead of attacking each other in selfish vain. We live on the same earth and breathe the same air. No matter where we come from, no matter what color our skin is, no matter what language we speak, we are all the same. We have to fight the virus together, think about the consequences of our actions, and when life slows down, think about what we can do to make the world a better place.
Xingyi Chen is a senior finance major at the University of Connecticut and originates from Guiyang, China. She is the co-founder of the International Student Advisory Board on campus and seeks to forge meaningful connections between foreign and domestic students.