Long distance and social distancing: the UK, China and in Between

Frida Liang is a master’s student from China who, unlike her European counterparts, was unable to return to her family during the lockdown. What it means to find friends, love and community in times of social distancing.

In China

When I heard about the pandemic just about two weeks before the Chinese New Year’s Celebration, I immediately told my parents to get prepared. Just like in Europe, people were very slow in taking the danger seriously and I was really worried about them. They wanted to attend a wedding but I persuaded them not to go and eventually the whole celebrations were cancelled. My parents live in a remote town called Zhangye City, in the Gansu province. The city is very far away from all the big cities so luckily there have been no cases registered whatsoever. Yet, there was a lot of panic and people started stockpiling food and medical supplies because a strict lockdown was imposed. I told my parents that they should get prepared just a bit before government orders came so they had enough at home. Each province has ts own guidelines to be adjusted according to the number of cases and these rules are overall stricter than in other parts of the world. For example, there is not only the premise of social distancing but also there are restrictions on all sorts of outdoor activities. It was not allowed anymore to go for walks, and only one person per family could go out to do grocery shopping.

As teachers my parents are both a little worried about their jobs – not because they are afraid of losing their positions or of salary cuts, but because there are difficulties in teaching. My father is a sports teacher. To motivate and train people over online courses for sports is probably a little more challenging than in other subjects. Most of his students were exercising in their homes for the longest time but later my father went to the gym with them even though he did not get paid during the period of the lockdown. With the largest national sports exams taking place in April, there was a lot of pressure. Whereas the entrance exams for regular courses were postponed for a month, subjects like arts and sports still had to stick to the schedule I order to get admission to specialising colleges and universities.

First, I worried about my family and friends in China. Then, this became a global pandemic. The first case in Scotland was registered on March 7th in a hotel in Edinburgh. Just one day later, I attended a women’s day event in the exact same hotel. When I heard the news, I wanted to get tested because I felt that I had a fever and a cough. I called the hotline and described my symptoms. When I reported that I had not faced any shortage in breath, they cancelled out the possibility for me to get tested saying I would only have a cold. But imagine  – if I have difficulties breathing I would call an ambulance right away, not the coronavirus hotline! In China they would have immediately brought me to the hospital to get tested but here in the UK you have to have really severe symptoms. I was only asked to self-isolate.

In Between

It was quite interesting to observe how people from different countries reacted in distinctive ways to the news of the pandemic. Whereas the Chinese students were prepared to wear masks and so on, the Europeans were not taking it very seriously. However, this changed when their home countries also started locking down and my European friends went to their respective homes. For the most of Chinese students, there was no possibility to return, because almost all flights were cancelled and the remaining ones were too expensive. Leaving the UK never really occurred to me because I came here for a one-year master’s programme and I wanted to make the best use of it. I am starting to like it and I want to see more of the country. For example, I really wanted to see the Edinburgh Festival. Originally I had planned to do a Europe tour as well and visit some friends. I have never been out of China before. My family is neither really rich nor poor but I know that if I had booked a ticket to China, I could not have afforded to come back. So that would have been the end of my journey here. Even if I have retracted mostly to the four walls of my accommodation for now, I feel like I want to be here. My boyfriend is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and I feel a special bond to my flatmates. In fact, I met my boyfriend in our kitchen too!

Some of the Chinese students were emotionally blackmailed by their families to come home, but my parents supported me in my decision to stay. They suggested that it would be best to find a job in the UK so I could remain here at least another year. But this is hard to imagine with little things opened. The day they closed the law library it felt like I am losing one of the purposes of why I am here. I love this space and I hope this was not the last time I saw it. After that all the online courses started and we lived on online deliveries. In our kitchen, we came up with our own rules to ensure we can live together under lockdown.

I am really lucky I can stay with my boyfriend during this time – who knows how we would have managed to see each other otherwise.

In the UK

Initially, I wanted to find a job in China after studying because that is a culture and society I am used to. For the first two months in the UK it took some time for me to get orientated. But this changed during the last months, and even though it was a rough time I was really glad for all the support I received. Sometimes I have mental health problems which negatively impacts my academic performance. But I saw how the University of Edinburgh is trying their best to support me to overcome this which is making me feel very welcome. I would love to work here if there is so much inclusion. Initially at the beginning of this pandemic, I did not own a laptop. I had ordered one from China because the prices in Europe are about three times higher. But it could not get delivered during the lockdown. Originally, I had asked the university for an extension of the submission deadline for a paper. The lady on the phone was so kind and not only granted my request but also contacted the IT department to see if any technical support was available for me. Two or three days later I received a parcel with a brand new laptop which the university just bought me.

Luckily, the lockdown was implemented just a few days before the end of the teaching parts of my master’s degree. That’s why there were hardly any classes moved online. However, even before the official lockdown there was a high level of uncertainty because it was not very clear from the UK government’s side what their policy was. One professor from Italy who got stuck there during the lockdown decided to let the class take place in a classroom through a video call. While almost all Chinese students wore masks when they sat to listen to the lecture looking at the big screen, students from other countries just weirdly observed the Chinese and the professor was slightly worried about seeing in which situation he had brought the students. Some of my Chinese friends wanted to convince some of the other European students to wear masks as well, but hardly anyone accepted it. A few of the Europeans just laughed and said that their immune system would be stronger than ours and therefore they did not need it. But when these returned to their country, they strictly followed the guidance of their respective governments with regards to preventive measures, so they listened to their respective authorities at least.

The Chinese students uploaded a picture of this scene to Weibo (the Chinese Twitter equivalent) capturing it by saying more or less: look, the University of Edinburgh is protecting its professors by putting them safely on video call without having to enter the classroom while we are exposed to the virus in a crowded space. This grabbed a lot of attention in China. But actually this was wrong because as the professor had explained to us, it was not that he did not want to teach the class in person, it was rather that his flight was cancelled and he did not see any other way how to conduct the class.

When the UK government announced that they were thinking of encouraging herd immunity this sounded like a bad joke to me. I felt a little depressed to constantly read bad news and it was hard to motivate myself to work but I got to think a lot about my life. Even though we have a great community in our flat, not everyone was able to deal with this situation so easily. One of our flatmates is a mother who has a small son and she felt so stressed and so pressured that she hardly left her room at all. Not even for cooking, even though we sanitised all the utensils and surfaces regularly. She looks really fragile now. We want to help but it seems like she feels more comfortable alone.

I am currently working on my master’s dissertation. It is a little bit tricky to get the materials for this with the library being closed. On the day before they shut it me and my boyfriend got a tip that this would happen so we rushed to the library and borrowed everything we could. We cannot afford to buy the books we would need to study because they are usually really expensive. Our professor has talked to the library and requested them to make available online as much material as possible, but there are limits to this.

Regarding the time after the lockdown, I am a little anxious of finding a job to be able to stay here and how to maintain my visa status so that I would not have to leave and take up all the difficulties that are currently faced by those who have to travel long distances. Especially with Brexit, I do not know how many job opportunities will be left for foreigners. But for now I am staying optimistic because I have found a sense of community in this period of my lockdown and I am really grateful I had my friends, my boyfriend, and a supportive family.

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