Summer holidays are one of the most cherished periods in students’ academic lives. In ‘normal seasons’ most students hang out with friends to have fun and to refresh their minds from long and tense classroom learning. Others prefer engaging in part-time jobs and internships to earn some money. This break is particularly important to international students, since these months give them the opportunity to visit their families and loved ones who are at a far distance. However, this year’s summer break was entirely different from previous years. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, the education sector has been severely affected as all teaching and learning activities have been halted at some point. To top it all, the border closures, city lockdowns, and prohibitions of social gatherings make life difficult for everyone – especially the international students who are feeling nostalgic.
We interviewed some international students stranded in Hong Kong’s universities to understand their experiences and the ways they adjust to this challenging environment by overcoming hurdles and maintaining the bonds with people back home.
Although the coronavirus disease has affected most parts of the world, Hong Kong’s situation is quite extraordinary. Here, the Asian global city has been shaken by the ongoing protests – the Anti-Extradition Bill (Anti-ELAB) movement – and the use of force by police for more than one year. Since March 2019, international students were already facing a dilemma before the disease aggravated the situation: worrying about their safety but having no means to leave the city. When we interviewed an exchange student from the Netherlands, he shared with us how his journey in Hong Kong was affected by the pandemic. He narrated:
‘A few months ago, the university where I originally exchanged told me that they are closing the campus because of the growing risk of infection, meaning that I have to leave. I was frustrated because I had no idea if there is still any flight going back to my country.’ (Interviewee A, male)
Another international student who is a postgraduate from mainland China also depicted the plight of her situation:
‘This is so unfair to us [students from the mainland]. We suffered a lot in both incidents [Anti-ELAB movement and COVID-19 pandemic]. I was extremely nervous when there were protests, especially the one which happened on campus. I couldn’t even leave my hostel with the fear of being attacked. Now there is a new disease and people here are blaming us by saying that it is a Wuhan virus … I really want to go back home if possible.’ (Interviewee B, female)
Immobility, together with uncertainties and the rise of xenophobic sentiments, has brought difficulties to many international students stranded in Hong Kong this summer. Beside the above examples, we also met others whose big days such as graduation ceremonies and weddings have been put on hold . However, to most of the international students we interviewed, what makes them really feel daunted is losing the long-awaited chance of reuniting with their families and loved ones far away.
We then sought to understand the ways they mitigate the pain and maintain the bonds with people back home. Not surprisingly, virtual engagement – for instance, live video calls or simply text messages – is one of the forms of coping that international students rely on. Besides, some of them also remit to their families to show love and care. These remittances, as we observed, are not limited to cash but also include items such as protective equipment, particularly in the context of the pandemic. As an undergraduate from Indonesia shared with us:
‘My parents sent me face masks from Indonesia because I couldn’t get one here in Hong Kong. People were all scrambling for face masks and hand sanitisers when there were many cases [of infection], so these items were soon running out of stock.’ (Interviewee C, male)
Remittances are an established practice that migrants adopt to maintain their transnational ties given that an actual visit is not always possible. While it is usually migrant workers who send remittances to their families, remittances can be more than just one-way flows. As in the case of Interviewee C, international students are often recipients of reverse remittances, sent by their families back home. Therefore, we were surprised to find out that students were also remitting to their families during the pandemic. As a student from Ghana who is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Hong Kong explained to us:
‘The emotional bonding is natural and happens daily and even unnoticed. Caring for each other is common in my country. People will go to others’ houses and check on them if they have not seen them for some time. So, sending money back home at this difficult time is heart-fulfilling, surprise, and joy.’ (Interviewee D, male)
In this article, we have described the experiences of international students stranded in Hong Kong’s universities this year and looked into the ways they maintain the bonds with people back home in times of immobility. The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming at the time of writing. In Chinese societies, people believe that the moon is the brightest and the roundest on this day, which also symbolises family (re)union. We wish these international students can soon have a great reunion with their families and loved ones.
Ka Wang Kelvin Lam is an MPhil student in Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where he is researching international migration and immigrant integration. He also volunteers for the Refugee Union, a local refugee-led organisation, and has initiated a number of projects for asylum seekers and refugees stranded in Hong Kong.
Aikins Amoako Asiama is a PhD student in Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). His research focuses on crime and deviance, particularly in the areas of cybercrime and drug addiction among adolescents.