Mingxi Li is a Chinese student living in Edinburgh. She reports about the challenges and possibilities arising from these new definition of “home” and togetherness.
My family lives in China, so the they were affected of the pandemic outbreak and all its consequences a little earlier. Their lives were undoubtedly affected, but as they are not living close to the Wuhan area, there were not too many cases in their area. Most of my family members are staying in Chengdu, Sichuan and my mother and my stepfather are staying in Shanghai.
They were not very nervous about the disease, but surely it was difficult not being able to visit each other. My parents were working from home but perhaps their experience was different from what other people went through because my mother and my stepfather are working as freelancers. My dad stayed home for a bit more than 2 months before he was informed to got back to the office. Fortunately the outbreak happened during the New Year’s celebrations because during these days, most people were already safe at home with their families. When the lockdown was imposed, they were not alone and able to stay close to their loved ones. At least that was the case for my family and many of my friends.
During the lockdown, the access to my grandparents’ housing compound was restricted until the end of May. People living there were sometimes allowed to go out – one person per household had the permission to go and they were facilitating cars to people in order for the to get around. But no one was allowed to enter. It felt quite sad when I heard from my dad that on my grandfather’s birthday, their meeting was confined to just simply spending some time on the other side of the housing compound together.
My family did not try to persuade me to come back, they just asked me how I felt and what life was like in the UK. When I told them that half of my kitchen mates have left and so that there was enough space for us in the flat to have our own zones, they understood it was probably best for me to stay where I was. Taking a 15-16 hour international flight in the minds of a pandemic would have been much less safe. Besides, travelling is getting stricter and stricter. Not only have prices increased, but there are now new restrictions put in place that whoever wants to travel home as a Chinese student from the UK has to undergo COVID-19 testing to prove that they have not contracted the virus. But in the UK you cannot simply get tested if you wanted to – only if you show symptoms you are eligible to do it. A lot of Chinese students were frustrated about that because they wanted to fly back now at the end of June and got very confused how to get tested so quickly. Even though most of the study visas are valid until March next year, many people would like to return to their families during the summer months. Even if you can stay here, finding accommodation is another problem.
The most difficult time was during March and April where everyone just stayed inside. I still tried to maintain a healthy routine. I go out to exercise in the meadows at least every couple of days. During these two months there was nobody there. You would not get too close to people within 10 meters. We have a supermarket just downstairs so it was easy for us to get all our groceries, but I heard from friends in England and London that you could not find everything in their supermarket anymore. There were reports of NHS workers returning home late and finding shelves of essential goods like eggs or milk empty. There were shortages in delivering goods, not just toilet paper.
I did not understand why people in the UK were so reluctant to wear masks. My stepfather is Dutch and he explained to me at the outset of this pandemic why people in Western countries would not like wearing masks or why they would think that anyone who wears it is sick. But I was wearing a mask because I wanted to protect me and people around me as well. I am fine if everyone is not comfortable putting on masks but it was hard to understand why people were so actively against it. The government has been way too careful about this issue too – they did not even want to call it “masks” but actually were very cautious about their wording and framing. First, masks were only available for people in the health care sector. Then they only suggested people to use “face coverings”, including scarfs.
This is also reflected in how language turned around from “you must stay at home” – which was announced by Boris Johnson in March – to “you must stay alert”. That really amused me, what do you mean by that in a practical sense? Can parents send their kids back to the kindergarten or not? Could people go out and meet their friends or not? Do they work from home or not? The authorities have been so vague. And people are getting upset because nothing has changed except the language and everything is so unclear. At least Scotland is doing a slightly better job because they just stick to the stay at home order. But I do see people now going out more often. When I go to the supermarket and see so many people, it feels like everything is back to normal. The meadows are not fully packed, but you don’t see that we are actually experiencing a pandemic. People just go out and have fun.
University courses are still online. Fortunately, the timing of the lockdown almost coincided with the end of courses in the last days of March in the UK. We almost finished all our classes by regular attendance – it was only a few sessions and assignments that were conducted online. The library was closed on the 26th March and I managed to get some very crucial books for my dissertation just before that date. As all their due date automatically were changed to September, I can conveniently do my research over the summer, but not all of my colleagues were so lucky. Some of them have kids or other family. I saw in the Whatsapp group that people are sharing those experiences – it is not that people are complaining, but they are trying to organise themselves to make their issues heard with the university administration. The university has been trying to be supportive. The reception in our student’s hostel building and usually, all the cleaning which used to be taken care of is not happening. But the maintenance workers were still doing their job, because they checked our building in the middle of the night, around 3 am. Two guys came in just simply to ask whether everything was fine. As part of university staff members they showed us that they were actually trying to take care of us. Even though maintenance tasks were probably a very risky job.
I am lucky because I am planning to stay in the UK for further studies, so I am not necessarily compelled to go back this year. Right now I am doing a MSc in Psychology of Mental Health at the University of Edinburgh. I enjoy staying in the student hostel. In the beginning, it did not feel as if we were flatmates, because the architectural layout of our building is not designed to be very interactive – it felt like a hotel so I would say at the beginning of the academic year we were neighbours but not more than that. That has significantly changed now. It was simply good to see other people during those times. As so many of the others in the hostel left, those of us who stayed behind really bonded. We were on our own, we had to make our own rules and even though you could see the tensions in between we are still learning a lot and are living through this pandemic together.