Week in Review

A Chinese international student’s plea to NZ

An international student at the University of Auckland grapples with when and how she might return to NZ amid the coronavirus outbreak, and what challenges she will face if she makes it back. 

I am a Chinese international student at the University of Auckland. Having completed my language course and postgraduate diploma, I’m now doing my masters.

Because I’d been in New Zealand for two years without a trip home, I bought tickets in the middle of 2019 and planned to go home to my city in central China for the 2020 spring festival. I couldn’t wait to meet up with everyone again and eat the familiar food that I’d dreamed of in Auckland.

After 20 hours of travelling, I finally arrived home and my parents came to the airport to meet me. We were all very excited. My mum gave me a mask to protect me from breathing in the cold air, but very few people were wearing them at that stage.

My city is the capital of the Shanxi province and is nearly 40 times smaller than New Zealand, but more than four million people live there. I thought I would experience reverse culture shock going home, with the full buses and constant noise of cars horns. I didn’t realise what was ahead.

I remember two days after arriving, I saw some messages on WeChat from friends saying they were very happy to be going back to New Zealand where they didn’t need to wear masks and could enjoy the sunshine again. I didn’t understand them and didn’t give them another thought.

A week before Chinese New Year's Eve, everything was normal, with lots of people in the shopping centres, and the roads full of people, bicycles and cars. Even at night, the roads were as bright as daylight with the lights of stores hoping to attract customers’ attention.

Then the government announced that Wuhan city would be closed two days before Chinese New Year because of a new virus. I saw more and more people starting to wear masks and there were very few people on the bus when I took it to my grandparents’ apartment on New Year’s Eve.

We would usually stay late, but this year they asked us to leave after lunch because of the virus outbreak. When we took the bus home, we noticed several windows open very wide. The driver explained that they had been told to open the windows on buses to circulate air to reduce the risk of infection.

That night, while we were watching the Spring Festival Gala on television, which has been broadcast for decades, a new programme was suddenly inserted into the middle of it, hosted by well-known presenters talking about coronavirus.

Now my city has almost emptied out. I don’t see any pedestrians or cars, and very few buses on the road. And when we go out to buy food, everyone we see is wearing masks, as we are. All the stores and restaurants are closed.

On the fourth day of Chinese New Year, I started to taking screenshots of infected numbers released by the Chinese government. Since then, it’s become an everyday routine. Now, checking the infected number is the first thing I do each morning, and I have to prepare myself for the shock of seeing it increasing like a rapidly-rolling snowball.

Many people have been affected by this new disease. When we went out to buy food, we found that restaurant staff were selling their vegetables and some cooked food, such as roasted duck and chicken and streamed buns, on the edge of the road. Because they’re not allowed to open, their stored food was beginning to go off, so they had no choice but to sell it cheaply to passers-by.

According to the usual calendar, all the students should be back in school after the Lantern Festival. However, schools have asked teachers to give courses online and students have to study on their laptops. Most teachers are not used to teaching live online, especially not older teachers. Students are also trying to keep up with their studies without textbooks.

The television news and messages from the government strongly advise people not to go out and there is a huge demand for 3M or medical-surgical masks. Experts recommend the public put a sterile napkin inside medical-surgical masks to increase their effectiveness because it’s so hard to buy them now. Therefore, my family wear two masks: inside, a mask that isn’t as effective, with a medical-surgical mask over the top.

In China, most people live in apartments and the government has asked the people responsible for looking after these buildings to refuse entry to anyone who doesn’t live there, including delivery people.

The residents of these apartments are being asked to take their temperature and write it down before they leave to go out. They also need to provide their name and ID to building security, and cleaners are being asked to spray disinfectant into the corridors, stairs and lifts. Since the numbers of people being infected by coronavirus have increased so sharply that the situation is getting more and more serious.

I am now increasingly worried about my journey to back to New Zealand. Some countries, including New Zealand, are blocking entry to Chinese international students and I’m very anxious about my course. I only brought my laptop home and left all my other study materials in Auckland.

If I can’t go back, I’m not sure whether I can graduate on time and if I have to ask for an extension, do I therefore have to pay extra tuition fees? All my plans for the future may need to change and I’m sure I’m not the only Chinese international student in this position.

Then there is the problem of accommodation. Renting a place that's relatively cheap and near the University, and has easy-going roommates is not easy to find. Moreover, rent in Auckland is much higher than in Beijing and Shanghai, let alone other cities in China.

Some students like me don’t have a rich family background and rent is a heavy burden for them. I think I’ve been very lucky this year because my landlords agreed I didn’t need to pay rent while I wasn’t in New Zealand.

However, they have since changed their minds and are hesitating about whether to rent me the room after all. They also want me to self-isolate somewhere else for 14 days after I arrive back from China.

After careful consideration, they have now told me they are hoping I can pay half the rent from the day I should have been back in New Zealand. I appreciate their kindness, but I don’t have anywhere to go into isolation for that amount of time. A hotel will cost too much.

One of my friends also has this kind of problem, because her homestay family also suggested she go somewhere else for 14 days before going back to their house. The most problematic thing is we simply don’t know when we can come back to Auckland. Our flights have all been cancelled and we need to pay more to buy new ones, but we don’t know when that will be.

When my visa expires, I planned to pay my tuition fees after I arrived back in New Zealand and applied for a new visa. But now I don’t know what to do. Some students may have to postpone or even decline their university places. And although University of Auckland staff are doing everything they can to help us study at home, we can’t stop worrying.

As a Chinese international student, I hope we can come back to New Zealand and continue our studies as soon as possible. I also hope the New Zealand Government can provide Chinese people who arrive here somewhere to self-isolate. This will not only help us solve the problem of rent but also reduce the risk of infection. We all hope we can come back soon to see our lovely supervisors and enjoy the last of the summer.

*Newsroom agreed not to name the author.

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