(Photo: Tianpei Xiao)

When New York had its first confirmed coronavirus case on March 1, I sensed a hint of unease among my Chinese friends. When universities moved classes online one after another, discussions of flying back to China started appearing in WeChat groups. I was quickly added to two group chats where people from both China and the US shared daily flight information. On a family video chat, I mentioned it to my mom. By that time, she had stayed home in Jinan, my home city in eastern China, for over two months.  

My mother, who had been following the spread of the virus since it first emerged in Wuhan,told me, “Don’t even think about coming back to China now.”

I don’t blame her. Aside from being concerned about possible contamination on my flight back, my mother, who is justifiably sensitive to China’s diplomatic tensions with the US, worried that once I stepped on a plane bound for Beijing, I wouldn’t be able to come back to America. 

Her worry was warranted. On February 1, President Trump signed an executive order that banned all foreign nationals who had been in China from entering the US. The order affected many who had gone to China temporarily for business trips or Lunar New Year celebrations. As long as the ban is in place, for an international student like me, going home to China means a trip with no definite return date to continue my education.

I came to the United States for the first time in July 2013 at the age of 16. Since then, during two years of high school and four years of college, I have gone back to China every summer. Gradually, the trip began to feel like an annual pilgrimage to reconnect with family and friends, and to watch China’s rapid change in awe. In 2016, bike share became a hit. Over five companies each claimed a color for their bikes and sprouted up like multicolored mushrooms in the streets of Beijing, making it hard to walk on the pavement. In 2017, Jinan doubled down on demolition and reconstruction of small businesses and I could no longer find my favorite spicy hot pot vendor. In 2018, I found that most places had replaced cash or credit cards payments with WeChat pay and Alipay, two biggest mobile payment platforms in China. Without setting up the accounts on my phone, I was virtually broke.

Growing up, my understanding of national borders had always been vague. It lies in the meandering Great Wall of China, in Chinese people’s patriotic persistence in drawing Taiwan on every map of China, in the bygone Berlin Wall, and in the 38th parallel between the two Koreas. Since the 2016 US election, political rhetoric and news coverage have shown me a different side of the national border rooted in the images of crying children, detention camps, a massive caravan, and a long, tall wall along the southern border.

Nonetheless, the meaning of the border remained abstract in my six years of traveling between America and China. As long as I had the proper documents, the physical act of crossing the border was manifested in the three movies and hours of napping on a 14-hour flight, the long wait at airport Customs, the rush of emotions in my chest when I say goodbye to my parents at the security checkpoints in Beijing International Airport, or when I greet them outside the turnstiles at the Jinan Railway Station. 

Now, however, travel restrictions and border closings due to the coronavirus have suddenly made the concept of borders more real. The I-20 form that indicates my student status and the thin visa page in my passport will not matter anymore. My right to enter the United States will be determined by where I come from and what passport I hold. The coronavirus has kept us six feet away from one another. It has also kept me thousands of miles away from my family.

Despite the travel ban, hundreds of Chinese students have flocked home since the coronavirus broke out in the United States. Many of them spent over 30 to 40 hours, landing at two or three stops on the way. Some had more faith in Chinese government’s handling of the virus and the medical system, some had nowhere to shelter in the US, some returned at the urging of relatives, and others wanted to spend this unusual time with family. 

Some of my relatives have scolded my mom for not letting me go back home. “Even if we die, we should die together as a family,” my uncle said, as my mom told me. My grandma also called, crying, and tried to persuade me to return.

With more people from foreign countries flowing into China, there has been a spike of “imported cases” of coronavirus there. The Chinese government has imposed restrictive measures on all foreigners and significantly decreased international flights. Many Chinese students’ tickets back home were canceled or rescheduled to a much later date. In doing this, the government has been able to shape the narrative and tell many ordinary Chinese that the virus threat was now a foreign one. 

On the internet, Chinese netizens have reacted actively to this narrative, questioning the Chinese government’s responsibility in bringing overseas Chinese nationals home. They have done little to hide their criticism of those who chose to go abroad for study and work. 

“Overseas students all went out to contribute to other countries. Why should we care?”

“Going abroad means leaving China behind. They don’t love China. Why should China bring them back?”

“If they chose to go abroad, they should take the risk of doing so. China does not have the obligation towards them.”

Xinhua, China’s state media, reported that for the first half of April, the daily number of passengers arriving in China through airports was restricted at 2,000 to 3,000. There were no more than 20 inbound flights each day during the period. From March 4 to April 12, sixteen Chinese charter planes flew to Iran, Italy, Britain, the United States, and Spain to bring home Chinese nationals. Among them, there were 1,449 students. 

Parents of 200 students in the New York area wrote an open letter online to the Chinese ambassador to the United States, praising China’s support for its citizens overseas and pleading for flights to bring their kids home. To reduce the burden for the government to accommodate for incoming passengers, the parents said that the flights could land anywhere in China as the government chose, but they hoped they could depart from JFK airport. “We volunteer to pay for the flights.”

“We have always firmly believed that a Chinese passport can take you to more places, and in an emergency, can take you home,” the letter read. “Chinese students overseas will thank China for the upbringing and rescuing. Upon finishing their studies, they will repay the country abundantly.”

Whether a Chinese passport can really deliver a much-needed homecoming has yet to be proven. An estimate of 1.4 million students remain overseas at the moment. Some elected to stay put, while others check travel websites and group chat updates regularly to find the next available flight to hop on. Most recently, people in the WeChat groups have been discussing layovers in Mexico on their way back to China, and the possibility of taking a gap year if they can’t come back to the states.

Despite feeling more homesick than ever, I’ve accepted that I will finish graduate school before getting to see my family. My grandma has backed down from urging me to go back. She understands my dilemma, and wants me to continue my studies. “But come back at once after you graduate. Many people have inquired about your well-being.” In our most recent video call, she told me she has learned to tune out all news about the pandemic in the US to maintain peace of mind. But she took comfort in seeing me well. 

“You’ve gained weight,” she said, as our lines got connected. “That’s a good thing.”