Chinese students in US struggle with impact of Covid-19

People wearing face masks walk past a clothing store in Oct 26, 2020, at the University of Michigan campus, where state health officials in Michigan issued a stay-in-place order for undergraduate students.
People wearing face masks walk past a clothing store in Oct 26, 2020, at the University of Michigan campus, where state health officials in Michigan issued a stay-in-place order for undergraduate students. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - For nearly three months at home in Shenyang, high school senior Alan Liu woke up at dinner time every day, had a quick meal with his family and then logged on to the computer for online classes.

He would then go to bed shortly after breakfast.

Like hundreds of Chinese students, Alan returned home from the US earlier this year to escape the Covid-19 pandemic but the complete difference in schedule, he said, has created minor tensions within the family.

Yet, he is one of the lucky ones - others stuck in the United States have found themselves evicted from hostels, isolated from their families and, in some cases, caught in the crosshairs of rising US-China tensions.

In September, the US cancelled more than 1,000 Chinese student visas under a presidential measure denying entry to students and researchers deemed to be security risks.

There are nearly 370,000 Chinese students studying in the US, or about one-third of the international student population in the country.

Many of them pay a significant sum to study at top American institutions but a growing number, like 18-year-old Steven Yu, are in high school in the US to prepare them for tertiary education.

The Henan native, who is attending a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was unable to return home earlier this year after flights were repeatedly cancelled as the pandemic swept the globe. After rescheduling his flight five times, Steven decided it was just not worth the trouble.

"Of course, there were scalpers selling tickets but these were going for nearly 100,000 yuan (S$20,600), it's ridiculous especially when you know someone else is profiteering from this," he told The Straits Times.

But remaining in the US has led to other challenges; the high school senior has been unable to take the SATs, usually a requirement for university applications in the country.

"In theory we could drive four hours to the nearest town where there's an open test centre, but I don't have a driver's licence or a car, and the bus does not start till dawn.

"Staying overnight is not an option because we are below the minimum age of 21 for unaccompanied hotel stays. So if the test starts at 8am, what options do I have?" he said.

Many of those who choose to remain in the US are from more modest family backgrounds, the teenager added, and they have been trying not to ask their parents for more money so as to not worry them.

While most US colleges have made SATs optional for applicants this year, Steven said there is still difficulty in applying for schools.

For others who have made it to university, freshman year during a pandemic has also proven challenging: orientation parties and gatherings, usually key in welcoming students to schools, have been curbed.

During his three months in college, engineering student Caleb Jian found himself in quarantine twice after Covid-19 cases occurred in his student dormitory in a university on the east coast.

"In the beginning, the school was testing us once a week to make sure that we were clear of the virus but now they have stopped because there are too many cases," he said.

The 21-year-old said that while he constantly wears a surgical mask, sometimes two, and tries to maintain his social distance from others, his schoolmates have been less cooperative.

"They are still continuing to party in the dorm rooms with 10 to 15 people at each do," he said.

"It's as though getting the virus is a badge of honour because when they recover, they feel invincible."

Mr Jian requested that his university not be named and a pseudonym be used because he is the only Asian student in the dormitory, and worries that he would face even more discrimination should it be found that he had complained.

He plans to return to China within the year but has found it difficult to renew his passport because the Chinese consulates in the US have been closed.

But those who have returned home are struggling to keep up with the huge time difference as they continue virtual lessons.

High school senior Lily Chen, 19, who went to school in California, said that she even fell asleep during a term test.

"It was a nightmare I completely slept through my calculus paper and when I woke up, it was over," she said, adding that she "cried and cried" after the incident and considered stopping school.

But she still hopes to go back to the US next year.

"Many schools have been offering virtual classes but this is unsustainable because we are living on an opposite timetable. That is no way to live."