Life under the Covid-19 pandemic is hard for everyone, but it is particularly so for many international students who are studying far away from home. As international students studying and working at universities in London, we have found it challenging to be away from home at the moment.
Chinese students are the largest group of international students in the UK, and for many of them this past year has turned out to be very different from what they had expected. The pandemic has profoundly changed the way we lead our lives, and being from a different culture has added extra challenges and complexities.
Since March, most universities in the UK have had limited access to campus and most of the teaching and assessments have been moved online in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
Students are now attending their classes remotely via different online platforms. Some find this new teaching practice useful and effective, while others are still struggling to make the most of it. However, the challenges for Chinese students in the UK are not confined to virtual classrooms.
Probably the most difficult issue is how we manage two sets of health beliefs and practices, which are often widely circulated through media sources and social networks.
Most Chinese students use Chinese social media such as WeChat and Weibo every day. This enables us to keep close contact with our families and friends back in China. It also allows us to follow what is going on in China, which influences our perceptions and attitudes about the pandemic.
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Living in shared student accommodation with students from different corners of the world, we have experienced how the different beliefs and practices around the coronavirus pandemic affect our everyday lives.
Some of us don’t feel comfortable living with flatmates who are less cautious about the regulations. Some may refuse to take the same lift as someone who doesn’t wear a face covering. Some distance themselves from other students who violate the government regulations about social gatherings and who gather together and party with people from other households.
These differences in health beliefs and practices have resulted, in some cases, in nasty consequences. Many students suffer from stress or depression as there are so many uncertainties around the virus and the crisis. To make matters worse, some Chinese students have experienced discrimination, prejudice and abuse, both verbal and physical.
In March, Jonathan, a UCL student, was attacked while out in London. He was called “coronavirus” and punched by a group of four men without any particular reason. He was badly injured and ended up with a battered and bruised face. In fact, he is from Singapore and the only reason for being physically abused was his look and the colour of his skin.
The case of Jonathan is not unique. The rate of hate crime against Chinese residents in the UK from January to March 2020 was nearly three times higher compared with the same period in previous years.
The spike of these cases at the beginning of the pandemic added extra anxiety to the lives of many Chinese students. Some were very worried about their safety and chose to pair up when going out. While we might stay safe physically, it takes a long time to overcome the trauma and the feeling that we are not welcome.
Yes, we could go back to our home country (as foreigners are often told to do!), yet this is not an easy option. Because we are now in the UK where the virus is spreading fast, we pose a serious health risk to friends and family back in China and our return is not always welcome.
Despite the challenges, many Chinese students persevere and continue their studies in UK as planned.