My family spends their days holed up in our ninth-floor apartment in Seoul, protecting themselves from the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. But I’m not with them — I’m stuck 7,000 miles away in my dorm room in New Jersey, grappling with the knowledge that most of my classmates have either already moved out or will be gone by the end of the week.
As an international student from a high-risk country, I will be part of a handful of students allowed to remain on a campus that has been traumatically emptied out. This creeping sense of loneliness is a new normal I have to get used to, as everything I’ve grown familiar with has changed, quite literally, overnight.
Watching parents help their children move out earlier this week, I felt stuck between wanting to go home and being scared to do so. As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, so does the fear among international students like myself — of which there are currently over a million in the United States — that travel restrictions and health risks may bar us from returning home even once the academic year comes to an end. And we, too, will have to leave our dorms then.
If we cannot return to our countries, where will we go next? And if we do get to leave, will we get to come back? Also on my mind are logistical concerns: If I were to leave but not allowed to return, what would happen to my academic visa in the fall? What about my friends who were caught in the middle of applying to postgraduate visas when the coronavirus shook our lives? Will they get to stay, too, in this country?
Yet heavier than the logistical burdens are the emotional ones. Ever since last week when Princeton declared that all students were required to leave campus, with some exceptions, and all classes would switch to online learning, I’ve been reflecting on loneliness. It crossed my mind when I watched students singing classic Queen and ABBA hits on a lawn near my dorm room, or when I baked one last cake at my co-op, hugged my senior friends goodbye, and sat in my room afterward, alone, trying to make sense of it all.
But I am familiar with loneliness, and specifically the variety that stems from being far from home. Although this loneliness is hard to bear at times, I admit it is also a twisted badge of honor: that I made the sacrifice to become a lonely child miles and miles from home, in the hope of repaying the sacrifices my family made to get me here in the first place.
For three years, I’ve put 12-hour plane rides between myself and my loved ones for the sake of a “good education,” which, for my whole life, I’ve been told I had to leave home to attain. I’ve left behind home-cooked dinners and family nights in search of vaguely defined notions of “better opportunities” abroad.
That sacrifice has meant milestones I have never had in college: my parents moving me in, coming for parents’ weekend, inviting my friends home for dinner. Every Thanksgiving, my friends in New Jersey have so kindly welcomed me into their homes. I’ve been grateful for having a seat at their tables, yet a little sad that my mother, who has a sweet tooth, has never tasted homemade pumpkin pie. This loneliness is compounded by the way this country defines me: a “non-immigrant alien,” a perpetual outsider in a category defined by what I’m not, rather than what I am.
I know that being the perpetual foreigner was a trade-off I willingly signed up for when I chose to leave home, and, I’m also aware, it’s an incredible privilege. Besides, in an age of technology, I’m never too far from those I love — virtually, that is, through video chatting, group chats, and email. It is jarring, however, to know that technology will soon be all I ever know. As classes move online, tech will not just be my connection to home, but to my friends and to my learning, and it doesn’t feel right at all.
Now the remaining student body at Princeton numbers in the few hundreds — a stark contrast with the thousands that filled the labs, libraries, and sports fields just two weeks ago. My residential hall is eerily quiet; board games sit untouched in the lounge and the washing machines sit empty and dry. Meals are served twice daily — in disposable take-out containers — in the one cafeteria that remains open out of the usual roster of six, served by staff who are kind and caring and worrying about kids and their families back home.
Across many campuses, there are international students like us, navigating two worlds.
After winter break in my junior year, I had a layover in Beijing on my way to Newark from Seoul, just days before the coronavirus began spreading in China. As I waited in the non-citizen line to clear immigration at the airport, I noticed that everyone around me was a student: lined up one after another, we held our immigration documents at our chests, fiddling with our signal-deprived phones. When it came time to approach an agent, each person had their well-practiced stories: where they were going, where they had been, why they were here, now, in Newark Airport, asking to be let back in. In our acts of self-justification was a quiet solidarity that none of us spoke of. But I felt deeply that day in my jet-lagged body, moved to be among those who understood, how important that solidarity can be.
As the virus spreads, dissolving the transnational bonds that have helped me reach the United States in the first place, I find myself wondering how my companions in that airport queue are doing today. I know that, as classes move online and students are told to move out all across the country, everyone is hurting. But international students face a unique situation. To us, the coronavirus is a stark reminder of how far we are from home. Small gestures — like checking in on us — can mean everything. Offers of open homes and emotional support can feel like blessings in this land far from family.
It is a lonely time for all of us. A simple greeting, whether on the phone or computer, can offer warmth that slowly chips away at the isolation.
Jimin Kang is a writer and current junior at Princeton University, where she is majoring in Spanish & Portuguese and works as a journalist with the University Press Club. Originally from South Korea, she was raised in Hong Kong and spent a year in Brazil before starting school in the United States. Find her on Twitter @jiminkanggg.