Global Citizen vs. Étrangère: My Struggle with Coronavirus

It has always been absurd how people can stay completely unaware about their imminent change of fate. The day before Paris turned into an empty city, I was casually enjoying a five-course French meal with L in a nice little place in St. Germain-des-Prés. When the duck confit arrived at the table, L mentioned that the number of coronavirus cases in France rose to over 400 today. I said yeah, holding a duck leg, the Tufts in Madrid program just got cancelled an hour ago, and continued gnawing on the bone. As night came, young Parisian people filled the street. When the waiter brought the next dish, my phone vibrated once, and then started shaking crazily with new messages. 

An evacuation email came from Tufts, saying that, in order to remain in the Tufts in Paris program, students must return to their country of origin before March 17th. 

I looked at the date: March 11th. I had six days. 

As an international student from Shanghai, I was aware of the chaotic situation unfolding in China: Although the number of Covid-19 patients was drastically declining, the quarantine policies were only getting stricter. The Chinese government, after just managing to contain the first wave of spread, was doing everything they could to stop foreign cases from pouring in. The country was traumatized by the sudden outbreak. People paid the price in tears, blood, and life. And now, after exhausting its financial power and manpower, China wanted nothing but security. However, as the situation in the US and in Europe was getting out of hand, lots of Chinese citizens abroad were trying to return. Airports and hospitals were overpopulated by potential Covid-19 carriers, and airlines were cancelling flights out of the fear of cross-infection on flights. Flight prices were sky high and ran the risk of cancellation and cross-infection, not even to mention the mental fear and the physical hardship of not eating, drinking, or taking off the mask while traveling. 

“Now might be the worst time to return to China,” a friend texted me after just returning to Shanghai. 

“How many returned today?” I asked innocently. 

“Twenty thousand. Airports and hospitals did not expect so many people returning from abroad. They want to make sure every potential carrier is quarantined to avoid the second wave of spread. But there isn’t enough staff to handle us. I’ve been stuck in the fever ward with a group of forty other people for over ten hours now.”

“None of us dared to take off the mask to eat or  drink,” she added. 

“Stay safe.” I did not know what else to say.

“Wait for another week to return,” she suggested.  

“Hopefully they will figure it out by then. It all happens too fast.”

L finished his duck confit, saying, “You should not return now. I’m worried.” 

I opened my phone to read all the messages from other students in my program. They were all disappointed and anxious about the change of situation, but no one seemed to be facing the same difficulties as me. I realized that I was the only person in this program who would have major problems returning home. 

“I don’t think that Tufts took the situation of Chinese international students into consideration when they made this evacuation policy,” I said to L.

“Yeah, you are the absolute minority in this program.” 

L thought for a while. “So is Tufts saying that you will be expelled from the program if you don’t return to China in five days? Like, can you go to the US or other countries where you have family?”

“I don’t know.”

“If so, It’s like a threat, almost. Either go back to China or get expelled.” 

“Plus, if you want to go back to the US, you will have to be quick. The US border will close in two days—” L looked at my face and did not continue.

We left the restaurant without eating the last course of the meal. 

————

I made lots of phone calls to Tufts Medford that day, but no one from the Global Education Program picked up.     

The second day, Senior Director of  the Global Education Office, Mala Ghosh, responded to my email by saying that: 1) Tufts denies my request to stay in Paris after the 17th, and 2) Tufts also denies the option for me to return to Medford, without explaining why.     

I went to see the local program director, J, in her office to explain why Tufts’s evacuation policy was not reasonable for Chinese students. 

I talked about the risk of China’s strict quarantine policies, the mandatory health check, the risk of being cross-infected in the airport and hospital and the quick change of policies every day.

The second I opened my mouth; J turned her face away. 

“Elaine, I did not make Tufts’s policy. My boss did. There is nothing I can do.”

“Can you give me the contact information of your boss?”      

“I don’t have their phone numbers.”

“I emailed every possible person. No response at all. I called every number. No one picked up besides interns.” 

J went on to explain how this is not her responsibility and she couldn’t help me at all. 

I said, “Would you please let your boss know that this policy is unreasonable and life-risking for me?”

“Please,” I started sobbing out of embarrassment and helplessness, “All I need is another week.”

She opened her palms and laid them at me, as if I was being so ridiculous. 

“Can I ask your boss if I am allowed to return to my family members living in other countries that are not China?”

“You can try. But I don’t think Medford’s decision will change.”

“Can you please help me— “

“Elaine,” J said in a harsh tone. “If you are not in China by the 17th, you cannot stay in our program. I will have to remove you.”

I looked at J, this middle-aged Parisian woman, her brows furrowed  and eyes wide open out of annoyance, and suddenly realized that she will never help me. There was a conflict of interest: She wanted to keep her job, but that was at the expense of me risking my life.

On my way back to Rive Gauche, I walked down the same streets as usual, and realized that Champs-Elysées, the Parisian avenue as famous as the Fifth Avenue to the American, was emptied out. Paris stayed pale and dead silent from Champs-Elysées all the way to Arc de Triomphe. Nothing was leading to triumph. 

————

The next night, I emailed President Monaco about my situation. A friend suggested so.

“Fight for it,” he said. “Don’t let them decide your life.” 

I sounded so aggressive in the email that I barely recognized myself. Magically, the second day after I sent the email to President Monaco, Mala reached out to me on the phone. However, I soon realized that instead of helping me, she was merely calling to justify the lack of communication. After hearing about the risks involved in returning to China, Mala paused for a second and asked,

“Why didn’t you return to Medford? Did you read our emails closely? You could have applied for on campus housing.” 

“You sent me an email days ago saying that option was denied.” Mala clearly couldn’t remember what she sent to me.

“Why didn’t you go to Japan to stay with your other family members?”

“Because I was told that I can only return to China, otherwise I will be expelled.” I was so surprised that Mala did not remember any of the things J told me. There either was a severe lack of communication, or she purposefully chose not to remember. 

Mala went on justifying why Tufts could not respond to me for three days while posing more questions I had already previously addressed. I stood on an empty street near a couple closed bars, rubbing my hands together to stay warm. Whenever I tried to say something, Mala always found a way to interrupt. 

“Mala, you are calling to help me. But this isn’t helpful for me at all.” 

“But Elaine, this is helpful for me. At least I’m more familiar with the situation now that my questions are answered.”

“I’m glad at least one of us is getting helped then.”

Mala was silent for a while, “How about we get you back on campus in Medford?”

“But the US border is closed now. I’m neither a citizen nor a green card holder. And plus, I don’t want—”

“I’m asking now to see if you can return from the UK. Tufts will pay for your flights. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” 

The call ended. I wanted to tell her that I was fine going back to China. All I needed was a couple more days for my parents to arrange things in Shanghai for the quarantine. Not until this moment had I realized how much I missed my parents, and my friends. Within the last two days all my friends in this city were gone. They all went home safely. Paris is no longer the city it used to be. Cases rose over 2000 in one day. And I was stuck here, all alone. 

————

The next day I went to J’s office again. She used the money in her work account and bought me a one-stop flight to Shanghai connecting in Frankfurt. When I was about to leave the office, J looked at me and said in French, “Elaine, thank you for making this choice that works for us. I’m sorry your experience in Paris ended in such a way but did you have fun before things fell apart?”

I said yes—I had lots of fun. I looked at J again, probably the last time. The wrinkles on her face and her familiar voice reminded me about all the good times. She’s only a human, trying to do her job. Maybe she was not very professional dealing with the crisis, but she did care about me, as much as her job allowed her. 

On my way home, I again passed by Montparnasse, the famous French district written by generations and generations of American expatriates. This once frenetic place, where poverty was even a luxury, went dormant. It lost all its glamour now. The bright neon signs were grey and there was no more Brett Ashley to be found. I looked up to the sky. It was a cloudy day. The Chinese always say that above the clouds, there would be a new sky. 

I couldn’t wait to see it.

Part II

————

Days after the unpleasant incident with the Tufts administration and the end of the expulsion threat, I thought I was all set to leave Paris and fly back to my home country. Little did I know that my trip to China had only just begun. My parents sent me a news article saying the flight J purchased with me was unsafe; everyday around four people were confirmed with coronavirus on that flight. Mom said she was afraid that the flight had become Noah’s ark for unconfirmed infected patients. I emailed Tufts about the news, asking if they could help me get a non-stop flight. No one responded, as usual. I looked up the flights and realized there was no non-stop flight until a week later, and the next one cost way over 5,000 USD. 

I went to six pharmacies in Paris to look for hand sanitizers, a thermometer and masks, which were all scarce resources. Masks were only by prescription I got the feeling that I was fighting a war, but with an unknown enemy. When I got home, however, my host mom came to tell me that my flight was cancelled due to the high risk of cross-infection on board. 

Tufts wanted me to stay in Paris indefinitely.

“We can’t find you a flight and we can’t take the risk of you being cross-infected on the flight, or later in China during quarantine. But we can’t have you stay with your host mom either. We will find you a new place by yourself.” 

On the other hand, my parents wanted me back in China immediately. “We can’t take the risk of you getting corona in France. We can’t afford the high medical fee and we have no friends or family there to help you. Paris isn’t safe anymore.  If you are infected, you are on your own.” 

I thought about my health insurance with International SOS. A friend once told me the story of how he dealt with all the paperwork, phone calls and bureaucratic things just to get reimbursed for 40 bucks. And he still hadn’t got that money back. I imagined living alone under the fear of being infected. I looked at the fun-loving family videos my friends sent during their home quarantine and realized how much I wished to be with friends and family. 

I told Tufts I was going back to Shanghai anyway. Tufts said that if that was my decision then they could not provide any help and would not be responsible for anything that might happen. I said that was fine and started searching for flight home. Chinese quarantine policies were changing every day. One news outlet said all international flights to China were diverted to Beijing, while others said Hong Kong and Taipei were no longer open for connection flights. Most of the airlines cancelled their flights from Europe to China. After several frustrating and unsuccessful attempts, I managed to get a flight departing a week later from Paris to Shanghai, connecting in Beijing. I packed all my belongings and went to sleep, thinking about how it would be like being quarantined in Beijing.  

————

I hadn’t slept over four hours per day for the entire week. Around six in the morning Mom called. 

“We got you a flight straight from Paris to Shanghai!”

“Oh awesome.” I buried my face in the pillow with my eyes barely open, “What date does it leave on?”

“March 18th. It leaves in five hours.” 

“What?” Now my eyes were wide open. 

The rest of things happened in a blur as I fled Paris. I bumped elbows with my host mom, the sympathetic woman who truly cared about me throughout the whole thing. She decided to host me no matter what. She said that if Tufts did not want the risk of taking care of me, she would. 

And now it was time to say goodbye. 

The flight was completely full, with the last five rows left empty. The crew members took every passenger’s temperature twice through the eleven hours. Everyone wore masks and gloves. Some wore giant rain jackets and goggles. I did not see anyone eat anything—no one wanted to risk taking their mask off. After we landed, the quarantine process started, different from what my friends who had returned already told me. People with fevers, coughs, or headaches left the cabin first. Then every fifteen minutes, thirty people were allowed to leave to decrease the chance of cross infection. Airport staff and doctors were very friendly. After waiting for my test result in a hotel room for half a day, I tested negative and was sent to my apartment by government staff. 

The first day during my home quarantine in Shanghai, I started to realize the awkward position I was in. As a Chinese national, I was exposed to racism abroad. From being called “corona” all day walking on the street, to witnessing other Asians being beaten up for wearing masks—I was aware of how fear can lead people down the path of hatred. However, I never thought that the same thing would happen to me in my own country. 

Neighbors could not stand my existence. Since my apartment was on the first floor near the entrance, every day I could hear people talking about me. 

“She came from abroad? Where?”

“Paris? That’s terrible.”
“She lived right below us. That’s awful.”
“She’s very inconsiderate to choose such a time to come back!”

“And she might bring the virus back too.”

“She’s a danger to all of us.” 

Comments on social media were even more vicious, calling Chinese students returning from abroad selfish traitors and suggesting the government to close the border to returning citizens. I told my parents about these public opinions, and my sister jumped in: “You’ve experienced so much racism abroad. This kind of hostility should be nothing to you.”

I was at a loss for words. I realized that I was seen as an ungrateful intruder to the community, a burden to my own country. In a xenophobic era, the idea of the global citizen is not much different than being a stranger to every country. 

My neighbors’ concerns soon came to an end on the day when my mom came to “visit.” Since I was in quarantine, she could not come in. We stood on two sides of the same window. It was a very strange feeling, which reminded me of those moments when prisoners are visited by their families in the movies. A neighbor saw the “visit” and angrily went to the neighborhood council to report me for “standing too close to the window.”

Before the neighbor returned, I got a phone call. A person who sat three rows in front of me on the flight was confirmed to have coronavirus. According to the policy, I was in close contact and thus had to be strictly quarantined in a government mandated location. My mom started to pace back and forth—she did not say anything.

The ambulance arrived shortly after, with a doctor to take my temperature and some neighborhood council people to facilitate the process. Everyone hid behind masks, goggles and quarantine clothes. I could not see their faces. As I clumsily moved my two huge suitcases with all my life packed inside, they carefully adjusted their own position to keep a safe distance away. People were spraying on the hallway where I passed by. I threw the suitcases into the ambulance and looked back outside.

  Some neighbors who happened to pass by stayed and watched, happily talking about my situation. And my mom, standing with everyone else a distance afar, silently watching me struggling with my luggage. I knew she cried. I realized that this was the first and last time I would see her for at least two more weeks      

“I will see you after fourteen days.” I said, as the ambulance drove away.