Go home: Coronavirus, national protection, and the lost path towards home

This is a guest contribution from Yunpeng (Dery) Du, A PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics, based at UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom.

Two weeks ago, an elder shouted hysterically at me when I was in Walthamstow Reservoirs, a small wetland sitting close to my accommodation in north London. “Go home!”, the shout created ripples of echoes that disturbed the tranquil peacefulness of the location – the reason why I have been using the riverside there as a jogging route. What the elder might not know was that I have been anticipating comments of this kind since Coronavirus started to be viewed as an Asian/Chinese virus. The hostility that has emerged all around London has made me quite capable of identifying the recurrent signs addressed to me in outdoor spaces, including intentionally coughing loud next to me, acting visibly defensive when I pass/run by, and protecting the baby chair as if a plague is coming. And honestly, I thought what happened last month was the worst it could get: someone stopped walking after seeing me approach and started wailing “six feet!” when I was at least ten metres away. I indeed got involved in a few verbal and physical conflicts in some of these racist events that have become so frequent yet are no longer widely protested as problematic in the on-going pandemic. But none of them really caught me on the spot like the “go home” comment, despite the fact that I am more than familiar with this cliché used by some locals against so-called outsiders. For some reason, I was put in a trance by being asked to go home at that very moment, and I continued jogging without realising that I did not react.

Rather than being slightly annoyed as usual (I have to admit that I have got so used to the experience that I do not feel ‘triggered’ by these encounters anymore), I was embarrassed by this mundane discrimination. I was embarrassed not because I saw everyone turning their head to me not knowing what to do, but because the imperative function of “go home” inadvertently hit a weak spot of mine as one of the Chinese international students who are experiencing Coronavirus in a foreign country. Can I go home? Technically, yes. I am sure about this because “go home” has become the most discussed topic in my social life. Many of my Chinese friends in London have been going home since early March in order to escape from the intensified racialisation of the virus, as well as the frightening increase in the number of cases in the UK. And “go home” later became a trend shared by the large community of Chinese international students across the world as the spread of Coronavirus in China was kept in control after months of strict national quarantine regulations. This led to a change of situation that to some extent reversed the power relations embedded in the question about which place/country is ‘safer’ in the pandemic. In this process, I witnessed how the inclination of going home got stronger in my social network. I could not deny that the conversations that I engaged with about going home were unsettling my plan of staying in London, in particular after universities in the UK “strongly recommended” international students to return to their home countries.

This trend went on for a few weeks until it got disrupted by the shutdown of most international airline services in the name of preventing cross-country transmissions. Consequently, thousands of Chinese students were put in lockdown in a range of countries who were facing the unpredictable development of Coronavirus with little local support. This problem was soon acknowledged by the Chinese government which initiated new policies aimed at taking Chinese citizens home. Since late March, the Chinese embassies have been issuing a small number of chartered flights each month to global cities like London, with tickets sold based on the principle of “first come first serve”. And among those who are eligible, students, particularly those under 18, have been the priority.

For a while, I was considering using this opportunity. As education has been largely moved online, going home means I could be with my family and friends in a relatively safer place while continuing my study. But I immediately discarded this idea after I started to know more about this special offer. I will never forget the moment. It was in early April when the initial price of such flights from the UK was officially announced and the topic quickly occupied social media. Whilst I was disappointed to find that the flights were exclusively business class or above and cost more than £3000 – way more than I could afford – what really shocked me was the burning comments under each post reporting the news. Examples as follow dominated the mainstream online platforms in China and have continued to do so:

“To those who think it is expensive, why not die abroad? No one forces you to come back.”

“They are all from either wealthy or corrupted families. It’s too cheap. Should be at least 30 thousand pounds.”

“For a group of future British citizens, this is nothing compared with their tuition fees.”

In these comments, a number of references were brought up which took me back to the time when Chinese returnees first emerged as a hot topic in the pandemic. With the significant drop of new cases inside the border in the middle of March, the institutional attention in China was shifted to what is termed “cases from abroad” (境外输入). From then on, the detailed number of these cases was reported on a daily basis and for a while stood in drastic contrast with the domestic rates of infection. Meanwhile, some of these cases were reported to violate the new protocols for returning to China, which resulted in getting more people infected. The protocol is to report travel histories and stay in one of the designated locations (official hotels) for a two-week isolation period. But reports suggested that some people were using antipyretic drugs to reduce their fever and avoid being identified as sick, whilst some others lied about itineraries. There were also a few reports of people making unrealistic demands of the official hotels for self-isolation, while at the same time, claiming that these demands would be fulfilled in the “developed western countries” where they just came back from.

When these cases were circulated as news online, those involved were severely criticised for selfishly ruining the efforts of the entire Chinese population, and more problematically, for being ungrateful and irresponsible to their home country who saved them from the “capitalised west” (西方资本主义). These criticisms quickly gained popularity along with the uprising narratives of “narrow nationalism” on social media, and to some extent equated the entire group of Chinese returnees to troubles that should be prevented for the collective good. Under such discursive conditions, China’s efficient controlling of the virus was spoiled, and this discourse was strategically mobilised by some netizens and profit-driven media agencies that instated the national dichotomy between “the virus-free China” and “the dangerous west”. Anyone who returned home from a western country in the pandemic was facing a sensitive situation in which any trivial misconducts could be interpreted as embodiments of west-favouring attitudes and thus position them as “not welcomed by the home country” (家乡不欢迎你) who should simply “go back to where you are from” (从哪来的回哪去).

Although this set of views was openly contested by the government, the overall discourses attached to returnees still managed to generalise Chinese international students as a group suited for the same negative image, the image that could partly explain the reactions to the chartered flights quoted above. As a result, online platform users like me have been unavoidably confronted with hurtful posts targeting students abroad in specific. Sarcasm has been everywhere in the headlines and the most-liked comments on the news, all of which point to the ‘traitor nature’ of us who, in someone’s view, abandoned our home country for an imagined better life in the west and now desperately take refuge back home at the cost of everyone else’s lives when the west failed. The most popular saying mocking Chinese returnees perfectly illustrates this point, which could be roughly translated as “you were not home when the development of your home country needed you, you are the first coming home when people bring back virus from a thousand miles away” (家乡建设你不在,千里投毒你第一). Taking this saying to the widely reported violence against Chinese/Asian students in London, Chinese students are facing a painful irony: in the UK, we are people bringing ‘Chinese virus’ to London who should just go home; and going home, we are people bringing ‘British virus’ to China who should just go back abroad.

Logically, I am aware that the comments online were made by particular people for particular purposes under the long-standing national discourses, and that the fear underlying these comments was to some extent justified by the fact that the trend of going home could potentially cause another wave of Coronavirus. But personally, I hope there could be a sign assuring me that I am not deprived of the right to go home when a human crisis is compromising my safety, to my home where I know without a doubt that I will be welcomed and taken care of by my parents. And this sign, which is now offered by my home country as the special flights, is complicated by the public attitudes towards us returning to our national home. To many people, we Chinese international students are nothing but a migration-aimed social group who have made and will make no contribution to the prosperity of the country – there exists an emerging argument of popularity on social media that normalises the linkage between the legitimacy of citizenship and paying taxes, which successfully as well as ‘proudly’ excludes international students. If we are not being ‘good’ citizens, why should the country help us at all? In other words, not all of us are morally qualified to go home, and we are not supposed to feel deserving of going home in the first place.

While these voices prevailed across platforms, what failed to draw attention was the desperate call for help from students stranded for days in foreign airports, who were driven away from their accommodation with overdue visas, who had graduated but could not go back to find a job, and who are being shouted at “go home” every day while they cannot make it home. In this sense, I am lucky. I have been staying in a relatively safe flat in London with little impact from the virus itself. In Beijing, although there are ups and downs, my parents and friends are proceeding to an after-virus life. On the 4th July London also reopened and more international flights are being arranged at more reasonable prices. During this seemingly fine progress, what I find hard to bear is how I am constantly reminded of and think about “home”, be it whilst jogging, on the internet, or in a daily conversation. It is a home that is now perfectly guarded by the nation-state’s border under strict policies tackling Coronavirus, which no longer seems to open its entrance unconditionally for me. Going home is deeply intertwined with the dominant national discourses and a series of institutional regulations that point to the prerequisites which returnees need to meet, that is, I am only welcomed home in the condition that I deserve to go home, I am no harm to home, and I am grateful for my home to take me back. If this is the case, what does it mean to “go home”? Is it still the place where I grew up with my family’s love and support?

But is it really the case? According to most of my friends who have been through the procedure of going back to China, it seems to be an enjoyable process consisting of lower hotel fees, friendly staff, and a guaranteed safe environment for themselves and others. Is the discourse I have illustrated here just a superficial online narrative that has nothing to do with real life? I would say no. It is these discourses that provide me with the major resources to keep my connection with home on the other side of the world. These ubiquitous forms of knowledge production about home challenge my beliefs in that peaceful place in my heart which I could always rely on no matter what – even if I might not be able to or need to physically go there. And when going home became more of a national project than a personal and emotional endeavour, the meaning of home that I have been holding for my entire life is distorted. What I need to rethink is what “go home” refers to at this historic moment of human society. Does “go home” and “go back to my nation-state” share the same meaning after all?

I cannot predict how the public image of Chinese international students will evolve during and after Coronavirus at “home”. What I can say for sure is that the historical controversy about the market and symbolic position of western degrees and Chinese students abroad is being reinforced by the current discussions. For months now, I have been surrounded by news focused on explaining why the coming years are the hardest for us students in particular. My own account on Zhihu (a question-answer platform in China, similar with Quora) is filled with nominated questions asking my view on the devaluation of Chinese international students returning to China, the professional obstacles faced by them, and the despicable future of those, including me, who at the moment remain abroad. I do not know how to react to these. What I do hope in this difficult time of life is to keep a simple imagination of “home” in which borders, labels, and the virus are all gone, in which I am getting ready for that routinised welcome dinner prepared by my parents, with my dog sitting next to me wondering where I have been after all this time. This is the real “go home” to me, and I want to have the final say in it.

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