Opinion: Queen’s international student experience of the pandemic on campus

The following is a submitted Op/Ed, with an explanatory foreword by the author, followed by excerpts from an interview between the author, a Queen’s University Professor, and some of her students. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

A lone car travels down University Avenue on a distinctly quiet Queen’s University campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in December of 2021. Photo by Daniel Tastard-Homer.

While it may be willful thinking that the worst is behind us, for many on campus, the first few semesters of pandemic seem like a raw, epic nightmare, now dissolving.

More than time for us to start taking stock of our performance in Covid-World, Round 1.

Despite popular insistence that “we’re all in this together,” events have shown that there are many different boats on the stormy sea, and voyagers are faring very differently.

Queen’s international students are a case in point. As campus closed in early 2020, many first settled into limbo, then eventually undertook challenging travels to their countries, neighborhoods, and families. Their experiences and assessments of the pandemic are often quite different from those of their Canada-based peers.

This curated “snapshot” of a long virtual discussion on Wednesday, Jul. 7, 2021, between a professor and several of her Chinese and Chinese-Canadian students enriches understandings of the pandemic. With it, we, the discussants, hope to further recognition of and openness towards each other’s unique circumstances and the insights that they engender.

We hope that such understandings will break down dangerous ‘-isms,’ such as anti-Asian sentiments that the pandemic has shirred.  

Jennifer Ruth Hosek
Languages, Literatures, and Cultures Professor
Queen’s University

Speakers in interview

JRH – Professor Jennifer Ruth Hosek

RA – fourth-year Politics major

ZI – third-year Linguistics major

XI – 2021 Queen’s graduate in Physics

JRH        What were your experiences of the pandemic, notably as an international Queen’s student who was in Kingston when the pandemic started?

RA         When I was in Kingston, I felt that the Canadians didn’t care that much about COVID. I still remember when the COVID news just came to Canada, there was still a Queen’s “Corona” party. All my family is in Wuhan, so I remember this very clearly.

To be honest, after that, I really dared not tell others that I came from Wuhan because a lot of the Canadians and Queen’s student became more biased or discriminatory towards Chinese, especially Wuhan Chinese. I was afraid they would see me as a carrier.

My mother came to see me in Kingston the end of last year, January, where the coronavirus started to explode in China. She tested negative and was healthy, but someone just told the school and the parents’ group that someone from Wuhan has come to Kingston who is very, very dangerous, and then he tells the whole parents’ group because my mother is also in that parents’ group. I felt that I was being discriminated, not only by Canadians but also by some other Queen’s students, and even Chinese students.

After I got back to China in the July or August, I saw that the COVID situation in Canada become very serious, ca. 3,000 to 5,000 increase every day. At that time, I was really not surprised, because in June when I saw people’s attitudes towards such a serious and dangerous thing—not wearing masks and the like —I just felt that that was going to happen. That is my Queen’s experience.

XI           I agree with [RA]. Some people who came back from Wuhan were shunned. Some Chinese students in the epidemic period in Queen’s experienced racism and prejudice. Everyone was in a panic, there is not so much clear news information, so people were panicked.

I have a different story, too. One classmate who came back from Wuhan, too, she quarantined when she went back to Queen’s. During her quarantine, many people offered her help. They left goods and food in front of her door.

ZI           I don’t really feel anything different besides the academic difficulties. My course load was mostly language courses. There was a lot of oral practice and group discussions, so it is challenging to study remotely. I’m not actually a socially active person, so the closed campus didn’t really affect my life.

JRH        Were you living in Queen’s, though? Mostly everybody was gone, right?

ZI           Yes, I’ve been living in Queen’s for three or four months in residence at the beginning of the closed campus, and, yes, a lot of people were gone. But a lot of international students had nowhere to go because their next year’s lease did not start till May or September, but the campus was closed around March. I think the Queen’s was really thoughtful to let some students who have difficult issues like that to continuing staying in residence. I stayed in the dorms until early May. Then I moved out.

One thing about myself when COVID first struck in Canada: I was in the supermarket and an elderly woman just started yelling at me in the supermarket. I was wearing a mask, but at that time, not many people were wearing masks. The lady just come out of nowhere and jumped in front of me. She didn’t even start with a hello, she just yelled that I shouldn’t waste my masks doing grocery, but donate them because people in the hospital weren’t getting sufficient supplies. I was quite in shock. I don’t know how to react, and I just walked away, but that was really traumatizing for me.

JRH        How did you have the mask? Had your parents sent it to you or something?

ZI           Yes, my parents have sent it to me, and some of my friends in North America.

RA         What I felt is there’s no difference compared the hatred towards Wuhan or compared the hatred towards China. Also, even though I told people that I had not been back to Wuhan last year, they still moved away from me, as if I were carrying the virus.

Furthermore, there are 13 million people in Wuhan, while there were only over 100,000 total cases in all Hubei or in Wuhan. Compared to Canada, it is a very small percent. It is zero-point-something percent. Unlike Canada, China has a zero-COVID pandemic control policy.

This is a university. Everyone should have a scientific attitude and not discriminate against others. For example, I will not discriminate against Black people.

XI           This is my experience. I came back in Canada in February and was really close to the coronavirus outbreak in China. When I just had a few days break in my home in Canada, I saw the news: just several day before my flight, there was a case confirmed. I was very worried about myself and about infecting other people. So, I started my quarantine, and I told to my friends, so they kept a distance from me. Happily, I got some help from my peers. The international students delivered some fruit in front of my door. That really impressed me a lot. I was really grateful, because during that period, I was crazy-worried.

Also, during my quarantine, I told my instructors the reason why I could not go to lecture. He was really confused about why I needed to be absent. As [RA] said, many people didn’t have an awareness of the severity of COVID virus during the pre-epidemic. My instructor felt very confused, but when I came to his office couple weeks later, he told me, “you were right.”

It really took a long time for people here become aware of the severity of COVID. In turn, this really had a very negative impact for those people who had travelled and who were international students.

JRH        Just for clarification, just after classes started, you came back to campus to start classes, and then you quarantined, not because the Health Unit told you to do it, but because you knew that you should do it. Is that correct?

XI           Yes. I did it because I thought that I should quarantine. At that time, there were no instructions for travellers about quarantine. Many students like me self-quarantined to protect ourselves and those around us at Queen’s and in Kingston. They thought that they needed to quarantine, so they did it, but when they asked for accommodation, many people were confused and asked, “Why do you need to quarantine?”

ZI           I think it was very late, in March when news came out about quarantine. Many students travelled January to February. It was too late to control COVID spread efficiently.

XI           The pandemic started during the end of my first year at Queen’s. I am not an international student. After campus closed, I was moved from Leggett Hall to Brant House. Students had their own room and bathroom, and were discouraged from gathering the common rooms. One dining hall, Ban-Righ, remained open and social distancing was encouraged at the dining hall; there were workers who would sanitize tables and in the dessert section, the individual bowls and plates were all plastic-wrapped (they weren’t like this before). There was an option to get the food to-go in takeout containers.

I don’t think a mask policy was enforced. At least, not in the first few weeks, or not at all. I didn’t have access to masks until two weeks into staying in my new residence and I don’t remember being told to wear a mask. Masks here were really expensive and out of stock at many retailers, so family members in China shipped me some. I pretty much stayed holed up in my room. People didn’t really wear masks, but practiced social distancing. This might have been before Public Health recommended wearing face masks.

At the end of the semester, my parents picked me up and I went back to Toronto. Some of my friends are international students from China and either stayed in Canada in a homestay or went back home, often through many connecting flights. It was difficult to buy tickets, and flights were also often cancelled. One of my friends had to fly from Toronto to Mexico, then to Japan, then to Shanghai. After a quarantine period, she could finally see her family.

I was fortunate not to have experienced things that [RA] and [ZI] did. However, there were some incidents where people yelled at me from their cars in March and April. I do not think they were all related to COVID or to my being Chinese. One time a person yelled something about Tibet. There were two instances also around that time when I was walking in downtown Kingston and people approached me aggressively; I was scared, and so walked away quickly.

I don’t think many of my non-Chinese classmates were very aware of the coronavirus, and if they were, they took it very lightly. I remember hearing about the corona party, as well, and feeling very hurt. My memories are a bit blurry, but for the most part, I didn’t really hear people bring it up until we were told that the school was closing. I remember that in the early stages of the pandemic, people in China had difficulty obtaining masks and some Queen’s students organized a donation at Queen’s. I think they got some donations. I guess all of us had very different experiences.

JRH        What do you think about Queen’s University’s response to the pandemic, particularly in relation to international students? For instance, what did they do well, and what could they have done better?

ZI           As I mentioned, Queen’s gave international students an option to continue to stay in the residences if they needed. I think that’s one thing good for Queen’s. I’ve heard some universities in Canada just cast all the students away when the campus was required to close.

The normally-bustling intersection of University Avenue and Union Street out front of Stauffer Library on Queen’s campus stands empty in stark contrast to the usual scene at the hub of campus prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Daniel Tastard-Homer.

Another thing, the course arrangements were really suitable for international students. If you were in a different time zone, you didn’t need to really participate all the synchronous courses. For the group discussion, you could email your group members and arrange another time was suitable for everyone.

I have a friend who is studying in US, and her university required all students to participate in all synchronous courses, and so when she got back to China, it was very painful for her to continue her study. I think that’s another good thing for Queen’s.

XI           I agree with [ZI], because distance study really helped international students a lot. During the epidemic, it was a great challenge for us to live in a foreign country. It was less stressful if we could stay in our own homes.

It would have been better had Queen’s been able to better support the international students in the pre-epidemic period. For example, giving guidance to the instructors about how to respond to student when they asked for the quarantine or to wear a mask in class. These things were not only challenging for the student, but also for the instructors.

Similar to my quarantine experience, a student I know wore a mask in the class, and the instructor told her that she was overreacting and making the other students in the class feel bad.

When I met this situation, I felt worried and uncomfortable because it was really hard for us to communicate well with the instructor because we didn’t want to try to force them to understand that it was a really severe situation. And yet, we just really needed to take action to protect ourselves and others, but since there was no clear, timely instruction from the University, there was a lot of misunderstanding and stress for all of us.

RA         I think the Queen’s reaction was really, really great later on, in that it really closed down very soon and changed all the courses into remote.

And, I’m just wondering, if we are not using the school amenities like the libraries and classrooms, I wonder whether our international tuition fees shouldn’t remain so high.

ZI           I understand that we pay the same tuition as before. Though we are not on campus, there are people on campus who are maintaining the university, especially the instruction, and that we need more people to help to maintain our website. I totally understand that, but I can’t understand that the tuition just went higher.

JRH        Generally, the responses of the universities are that the costs remain fixed.  It is too bad that there’s a reduction of services, and at the same time, what students are paying for is also the degree. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s certainly the case that the costs to the university are the same. I can understand the frustration, especially with the cost of international tuition.

JRH        More broadly, what do you think about responses to the pandemic globally, particularly in higher socioeconomic status countries in Asia, Europe, and North America? For instance, what do you think about how COVID testing was handled, about how the media responded, about how critical Public Health messaging around the severity of the virus and the use of hygiene measures such as masking were being handled, and are being handled?

              I think that the reason that I ask about higher socioeconomic status countries is because my sense there is that those countries can direct their responses more, perhaps, than countries that don’t have as much wiggle room because they just are very impacted by poverty. I might be wrong about that, and so if you’d like to talk about other countries, feel free.

XI           I think that most countries, other than China, had less awareness of the epidemic at the beginning and that, as attention rose, those countries acted in various ways, according to their culture and economic status. For example, in Britain, I know they used home self-testing, which created problems. I heard on the news that some students wanted to escape from school, and they used some juice or other things make the test result positive case. Not everyone can follow the instructions carefully and seriously.

ZI           I have spoken to my family members in many areas of China – Shandong, Shaanxi, and Gansu and Hubei – about it. Once the government realized the severity of this novel virus, it responded quickly and seriously. Patrols made sure people adhered to lockdown and government workers delivered food. Some people grew vegetables on the roofs of their apartment buildings. Methods of detection and isolation were tailored to the circumstances.

XI           It surprised me that some rich countries did not have enough infrastructure to meet the pandemic. For instance, an analysis of COVID spread in Italy showed weaknesses in Italy’s medical system. Its public health care system has been underfunded in the last decades. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were insufficient PCR tests everywhere. In China, we used CT scanning instead, in order to see lung abnormalities. But Italy lacked basic medical infrastructure and couldn’t even do CT scanning. They also did not have enough medical personnel. Actually, as you probably know Dr. J, many Cuban doctors came to Lombardy to help.

RA         We are in a war against the virus. China made some mistakes in the beginning. At first in Wuhan, the government was too relaxed and slow-moving. Of course, it was a totally new disease, but that is why the situation in Wuhan become that serious.

But after that, we got immense support. First, in terms of medical services, in two weeks, two fully equipped hospitals were built. Doctors from other provinces came as volunteers, giving up their spring festival to help.

The socialist structure implicates equality and the government’s ability to intervene during emergencies. We have big government, and with it, a different social welfare system and different market economy system. For instance, when people hoarded and resold masks, the government intervened and set mask prices.

There are certainly rich and poor people, but for nearly all people, the health system, especially in [terms of] COVID, is the same. There is always corruption and I’m not saying every single square metre of China is equal. But we are trying to care for everyone as equals.

The whole pandemic really brought huge changes to everyone. It has revealed weaknesses in societies everywhere. And problems, such as Asian hatred in North America, especially towards Chinese people. I hope that, thanks to this pandemic, those problems get better.

In China, there is a saying that danger and luck are connected. I hope this experience will help people improve and bring more equality for different religions, races, and peoples. That would be great.

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