Thanks for bearing with me while I got through writing this blog post. There’s been a lot going on for me at the minute, settling back in to Edinburgh and getting back into Chinese classes (more on my current situation below). Anyway, when I left off I was in Zhangjiajie and had made the decision to return to the UK via Shanghai.
With all the necessary flights booked, things didn’t slow down. Not half an hour after I booked my flight back to the UK I was in a taxi to Zhangjiajie airport. I was sort of expecting there to be extra security measures in place after hearing whisperings of the start of travel restrictions so I had headed to the airport about five hours before my flight (though admittedly I had nothing better to be doing so I figured I might as well be waiting at the airport as at my hostel.) However there wasn’t anything so I just had to hang around for a while.
When it eventually came time to board my flight I was one of the few people not wearing a mask. Now, unless you have the right kind of mask, they don’t really do much. The flimsy surgical masks are all but useless but even some of the more robust, complicated looking ones will not actually protect you in the right way. However it does provide a certain level of comfort and I think its perfectly understandable to search for that and grasp on to anything that might provide it. They’re certainly not going to hurt!
I had actually searched for masks in any supermarket I’d gone into in the few days prior but they had all sold out. It was the start of what has turned into a global shortage of masks, partly due to the increased demands not just in China but also in other parts of the world (shops in Edinburgh have even had to advertise that they don’t have any masks for sale because of the amount of people asking for them), but also partly because workers all across China, where a large number of these masks are made, have been self-isolating since the start of the outbreak. Back in the airport, a girl in the boarding queue gave me her spare mask for the flight back to Shanghai after asking why I wasn’t wearing one and telling me the situation was too dangerous not to. I did feel better wearing it, even if that was just because other people stopped looking at me warily for not wearing one.
I got back to Shanghai and the boys’ flat by about 10pm. In our best effort to make light of the situation (because it was all pretty overwhelming), Conlan and I spent the evening having come Coronas while watching the film Contagion – hey, we were there, we’re allowed to enjoy some dark humour at the expense of our own experiences. There was some last minute cleaning and tidying before we went to bed, ready for our flights the next morning.
Both our flights were at a similar time, just from different terminals, so we got a taxi out together. For a city the size of Shanghai, the streets were empty. When I got in to my terminal, the only new procedure was a temperature check as I entered the airport. The airport was busy considering it was the day after Spring Festival but checking in still went smoothly and before long I was on my flight and ready to go. Almost every person on my flight, including some of the flight attendants, were wearing masks for the entirety of the 13 hour flight.
13 long hours later and I arrived in Paris where I would transfer to Edinburgh. There were lots of people wearing masks waiting for us when we got off the plane but all they did was give us a leaflet. A piece of paper was the extent of the extra safety precautions. I made it through all the security and transfer procedures to get to my terminal for my next flight, all while wearing my mask, and then took it off once I was through.
I felt so relived and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I had been holding. I started to cry. It was like I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t feeling safe until all of a sudden I was released from the masked prison and finally did again. It was also probably the stress of the past few days catching up with me, as in the moment I didn’t have have the time or the energy to deal with it.
I waited in Paris for around five hours but from there everything was smooth sailing. I had a tearful reunion with my mum in the airport but it was different from previous ones. While it was of course lovely to see her again, there is usually at least a little bit of me that is glad or ready to come home but in this case there was none. Every bit of me still wanted to be in China. This was more than just on the selfish level of wanting to be able to continue with my year abroad. Still being in China would mean that the coronavirus wasn’t a thing, or at least wasn’t a big issue. It would mean all my new friends still in Dalian, Chinese or international, would be safe as well as the 1.4 billion others at risk.
I felt like I was torn away from this experience without any kind of closure. Coming home at the end of the year would have undoubtedly also been very difficult but the advantage would have been that I would have been prepared for it. When I started, I always had that end date. But within a matter of hours I went from travelling around a country that was really growing on me and looking forward to another semester in a city I love with amazing friends and the prospect of continuing to get better at such a fascinating language to being on a plane back to the UK.
I am obviously devastated to have had to leave China but being able to leave, to return home to another country where I feel safe, is such a privilege. Yes, it’s a shame my year abroad has been cut short. Yes, it’s a shame my language and therefore degree will suffer. Yes, I would love to still be there. But not in the current situation. I have spoken to friends who are only able to leave their apartments every two days to get food. Most international students have returned home and those that haven’t, some because they can’t afford it, are stuck inside like everyone else. This is what I was scared of more than anything else, more than actually catching the virus.
On returning home, everyone was very happy to have me back but also very understanding as to why I might not be so pleased. I had so many conflicting emotions. I was so excited to see my family and catch up with all my friends but I was also dealing with fact that this was only possible because of the unsafe situation that I has left behind in China, that my friends were still in in China, and I had a lot of guilt around that.
Being at home again also made my time in China feel so distant. In Dalian, I had created a life for myself – I had friends, I had routines, a favourite coffee shop, my usual lunch spot. That was my life. But returning home, slotting back in to what had been there for the 21 years before China and is still there now, it made me feel so distant from that experience. It was like I had come back to my ‘real life’ – but did that mean that China hadn’t been real?
I arrived home on Sunday 26th January and four days later the University of Edinburgh officially recalled all students studying in mainland China. I spent a lot of the time in between getting home and receiving the official recall notice in tears. I found being home very overwhelming. I was battling excitement, guilt, relief, uncertainty, fear. In the few days between me arriving home and the recall notice everything changed so quickly that I was in tears at least once a day from some new development in the situation. There were travel restrictions, cancelled flights, the WHO declaring it a global emergency and the number of people infected started to jump by more than 1,000 a day. I was constantly having to readjust to the new reality of the situation which was hard, as it conflicted with my hope that I would be able to go back soon. I started to come to terms with the fact that it might not be this year that I make it back to China.
Right after being home, my plan was to go take some time to rest after a long semester, at least until the end of February which is when I would have been starting classes again in Dalian, before going to France to get in my compulsory time there. I figured that if I was able to go back, at least then I would have that over and done with and would be able to stay in China until the start of the next academic year. However, the University of Edinburgh got in touch to tell us that they would be putting on an intensive language course for all the students that had to be recalled and I decided to stay and make the most of that option while it was available.
I am now at the end of the second week of courses and they are going well. I decided to push myself and go for the higher class seeing as I don’t have the constant stimulus of being surrounded by Chinese now and that was the right decision for me. I am also working at trying to organise a work placement of some kind in France, probably from sometime in April, after this course ends, until August.
I am not done with China, not even with Dalian. I still had so many plans, things I wanted to do, places I wanted to see – I haven’t even been to the Great Wall of China yet! I found my first semester to be a slow burner but by the end I was having such a great time, I felt like I had found my people, I was in a groove with the language, and was just feeling settled and at home in general. Before I had to leave I was already considering coming back to Dalian to study more once I graduate, to really cement my language.
I know leaving was the right decision but I also know I’ll be back.