Taking the Long Journey Home

When transfer to Helsinki Airport photo by Qiao Hui

By Ruoyi Song

Because of the increasing number of novel coronavirus cases diagnosed in the United States and the policy restrictions on foreign students, a large number of Chinese students choose to return home. Although a plane ticket costs 10 times as much as it did before the outbreak.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, the number of Chinese students studying abroad in 2019 reached 700,000, while the number of Chinese students studying in the United States now stands at 320,000.

During the outbreak of the epidemic, Chinese students in America have encountered great difficulties, and their situation can be awkward. Faced with the severe epidemic, they have two choices. Some choose to return to China and seek asylum, while others choose to stay where they are. The returned students are safe for the time being, but they cannot return to the place of study in the short term.

During graduation season June with the U.S. government imposing a series of political restrictions on foreign students, such as h1B visa restrictions and visa eligibility restrictions, many students in the United States have returned to China because of uncertainty and concerns about their future. Because of that, many Chinese students in the United States have returned to China to be with their families.

After the COVID-19 outbreak in late December, China chose to close every city on Jan. 23, which greatly reduced the rate of transmission. With a series of positive measures, the number of infected people in China has been brought under control, at a time when a large number of overseas students have returned home from the worst-affected areas and brought imported cases from abroad.

Against the backdrop of the epidemic abroad, Chinese authorities on March 29 imposed strict restrictions on inbound passenger traffic under the “Five Ones” policy. In that policy, each domestic airline can only maintain one flight to any country, and each flight can operate no more than one flight per week. Each foreign airline can operate only one route to China and operate no more than one flight per week。Because of the scarcity of tickets that arose from that policy, some students who had planned to return complained that the tickets were too expensive and difficult to get.

With the U.S. government imposing a number of political restrictions on foreign students, such as h1B visa restrictions and visa eligibility restrictions, many Chinese students have returned to China out of uncertainty and concern about their future. A may announcement restricting visas for students with graduate or higher degrees “associated with entities implementing or supporting China’s civil-military integration (MCF) strategy” will also have a negative impact on Chinese students and U.S. universities seeking to diversify their campuses.

Xiamen Airport Passenger Diversion Center. Photo by Qiao Hui

Because of the uncertain time of returning to school, graduation and internships may be delayed. For Chinese international students, individuals and families need to bear certain economic and time costs. As the number of confirmed cases in the region has soared, flight policies have been updated daily. Being on the road increases the risk of infection and also stresses. Some of them are fully armed and ready to go home without food or drink. Some of them have been lucky enough to land on the ground after traveling back and forth to China.

Li Wei through the help of a friend bought a ticket from Los Angeles to China, worth $10,000. Before the outbreak, a similar ticket cost less than $1,000 for a round trip. “Now I’m on my flight home from Los Angeles to Xiamen via Qingdao. I wore protective clothing, gloves, a 3M mask, goggles — to protect myself from possible viruses in the airtight cabin — and had hand sanitizers and wipes with me at all times,” she said.

After landing, Li filled out a total of six health forms and was tested and observed at a temporary quarantine site. “This will probably be the longest quarantine in my life,” she said. Counting transfers, she said she had been in protective suit for almost 20 hours.  When she finally went into the isolation hotel to change her clothes, the marks from the mask left red lines on her face. “I was so exhausted on the way home that I often felt like I was suffocating halfway.”

After more than 20 hours of journey, Li finally returned to China and was placed in quarantine for 14 days. During the quarantine, Li Wei tested negative, which means she was healthy and could return to her home. Adding in the travel time, it takes Li 17 days to get home. But against the backdrop of the epidemic, she considers herself lucky that she was able to get one of few tickets home and that she was not infected during the trip.

Because of the “Five Ones” policy, many Chinese students in the United States will buy a ticket to a European country and then fly to China from there to increase their chances of getting a ticket home.

Even getting useful information about what types of tickets to buy can be difficult. Qi Deng, a Chinese graduate student studying at Boston University, said that in order to secure a flight back to China, he had to join five group chats to share ticket information. Each group had more than 500 people, all Chinese students in the United States.

Deng finally succeeded in buying a flight from New York to Amsterdam and then a return ticket from Amsterdam to China. Although the novel coronavirus outbreak in Europe was not completely contained and a flight from the United States to the Netherlands took nine hours.

The staff assigned the students back to China to stay in the hotel for quarantine.Photo by Qiao Hui

“I have booked several connecting flights or direct flights back to China, and even the increasingly high ticket prices could not stop me from returning home, but flight cancellations caused by tighter aviation policy cannot be solved with money.” Deng said.

The most frustrating flight was on March 27, he said, when all three flights Deng grabbed were cancelled. Although there was another flight to Taiwan that day, he could not book it because he didn’t apply for the Taiwan pass in advance, as required by law. “But many underage students who do not have the ability to take care of themselves may not be able to take care of themselves,” he said.

Wang Bingru is a Washington correspondent for Phoenix TV. She believes that the impact of the epidemic and a series of political reasons on Chinese students studying abroad is very profound. She USES her social media to help Chinese students who are unable to return to the US discuss how to deal with it. Faced with a severe epidemic, international students have two choices. Some choose to return to China and seek asylum, while others choose to stay put. However, students returning to China will not be able to return to the United States to continue their studies in the short term, and their studies will inevitably be affected.

And those who cannot go back will face loneliness, economic pressures and policy pressures. Wang said Chinese students are among those most affected by the epidemic and the relationship between China and the United States and need more policy assistance.