The year-long lockdown has diminished the cultural experience of international students in the UK. For those young people who study overseas hoping to combine travel and education, just how much does this diminish their experience?
Yuxin Mo, a 21-year-old Chinese student, rode all the way from Newcastle’s city centre to nearby wheat fields. Due to the lockdown, the whole city was deadly silent. His imagined view of people walking through the colourful streets did not happen. There were no runners in the rural parks as well, and only knee-high wheat stalks were sweeping across his legs in a winding road under his bicycle tires. The wind and drizzle drenched his hair, yet Yuxin enjoyed it. “It’s a new experience. I wouldn’t have thought of participating in outdoor activities in the UK if it weren’t for the cancellation of exhibitions and performances,” said Yuxin.
Last October, he arrived in rainy Newcastle from Sichuan, one of the hottest cities in China, with the expectation of travelling around the UK and Europe. However, since March 2020, the UK has undergone repeated lockdowns for a year, meaning all museums are closed and people can only buy essential supplies in a limited number of shops within the specified time. Each region also follows a travel ban.
This is quite different from his original intention of studying abroad. “A one-year master’s is very short. I want to seize the opportunity to go to different places and feel everything as much as I can,” said Yuxin. “But obviously expecting to travel is very unrealistic.”
“It is what it is,” said Yuxin. “But the most important part is how you deal with the restrictions. We still have a lot of choices. Outdoor sports are one of them.”
From time to time, heavily protected and fast-riding people rush by him on the street, which was not common in his hometown. “Most people in China ride bicycles only as a means of transportation rather than a type of entertainment. I didn’t understand how it could be fun,” said Yuxin. “But they suddenly appeared in fluorescent-coloured clothes, which didn’t fit, in the lifeless streets after the city went into lockdown. They seemed to have activated the dead city again and made me interested.”
After borrowing a bicycle from the dormitory, he rode slowly from the centre of the city to the outskirts. Without a precise destination on purpose, lakes parks and grasslands instead of the high buildings fall into his eye along the way. “I was very nervous when turning a corner because I was not used to the traffic rules of driving on the left in the UK,” said Yuxin. “But I seem to understand why the British love to ride bicycles.”
“All your stress can be slowly relieved in the process of pedalling. The most important thing is that they don’t have that tall building, so you can have a broad view at a glance, and the mood will become more comfortable. But in China, it is difficult to find a place with few people so close to home that you can sit down and have a daze,” said Yuxin. Although there were so many detours on the road that he almost fell asleep when he got home, he also felt the long-lost fulfilment.
Yimeng Wu, a Chinese female student from the University of Liverpool, similarly enriched her life in hiking and rock climbing. “Every time I stand on the top of the mountain, I feel that I have been full of strength. It’s a sense of I have conquered a life of misery,” said Yimeng Wu.
From the small park closest to her apartment to the small hills in the suburbs, she steps by step successively carried out five mountaineering and countless short hikers. standing at the top of the hill and looking at the distant city always makes her feel calm and satisfied. “This year has been too difficult. The feeling of standing on the mountain is a very rare sense of accomplishment in controlling your own life,” said Yimeng.
She came to the UK with a promise from the university that there will be a few face-to-face teachings, but her hopes fell through under the increasingly severe pandemic. “So powerless, everything seems to be at the mercy,” said Yimeng.
“Many students I know returned to China in March and April because of that. Anyhow, it seems we couldn’t do anything if we stay,” said Yimeng. “But I was just not reconciled. I should rule my life, not the damned Covid.”
Ziqi Wang, a Chinese girl also had a similar mood which accidentally made her start to like London. “Being forced to go wandering in the park and on the street due to lockdown, it was the first time that I felt the romance of the UK,” said Ziqi.
The elegant old lady with white hair, yet meticulously painted red lips, with boots and umbrellas and buying groceries at Tesco, lovely grandparents kissing under the sunset over the Thames and the young men creating sketches with a pen and paper in parks and alleyways. As Ziqi describes those lovely memories, her voice reveals her irrepressible excitement. “It’s almost unheard of to see elders in China have this exquisite kind of attitude to life or to be unapologetic about their love for each other,” said Ziqi. “You can always find things that amaze you if you go out and about.”
“But it’s not easy,” said Ziqi. “During the first month, when I had just arrived in the UK, my family had a great big celebration in China for the Chinese New Year, while I was struggling with a deep sense of loneliness.”
On that day she borrowed a projector to full-size screening the Spring Festival gala evening celebration over her room. Sitting curled up on the floor, she carried a bowl of quick-frozen dumplings. The image of tables of people eating the reunion dinner has bespread the walls. They surround her as if she were there. “That way I’m not so lonely,” says Ziqi.
“The first month was a perfect interpretation of no life. It was dark outside just after I turned off ZOOM. The days seemed to be cut in half,” said Ziqi. “I was arranged with my friend who is studying in Glasgow to cook hand-made dumplings together in her apartment. But due to the lockdown and fully online courses, I had to cancel my plan and stay alone day after night.”
In order to visit London more conveniently, she rented a student apartment in central London at a price of ￡470/week, which is one-third higher than the market price. She can sky-view landmarks including the Shard and the London Eye from her room. But even those historical icons standing close enough to touch at his window, she never had a chance to actually visit them.
“But I live in the heart of London! – I have to go to the Thames to bathe in the sunset, that is the life I deserve,” said Ziqi. Eating cold quick-frozen dumplings in the surround of projected virtual celebration, she decided to make a change.
Ran through the British Museum to Covent Garden and came back with a cup of coffee from the British Library, with her new plan she begins to start her day in a brand-new way. The long-lost energy back to her again. ” My routine is even healthier than it was before the pandemic. And I can finally learn to cook Western-style food since I have more free time,” said Ziqi.
From simple steaks and pasta to more complex desserts such as tarts, cake and puddings, she learns a new dish on average every one to two weeks. “I think I’m professional now. It would surprise my mom if I cook for her” said Ziqi. “I never used to cook at home, but now I can cook three or four dishes in half an hour.”
“People say that the meaning of studying abroad is to broaden your horizons. At a deeper level, the meaning of broadening your horizons is to become a better version of yourself,” said Yuxin. With more time to stay alone, he began to be a part-time blogger in the study abroad section on The RED, a popular social platform among young Chinese. “It’s enriched and memory my life,” said Yuxin. “More importantly, it helps others to know the real-life of study aboard.”
The most frequently asked question is whether or not to come to the UK in the new semester, and the answer is very firm: come, said Yuxin.
“The general public values mechanical benefits, like teaching resources and qualifications, which are changeable,” said Yuxin. “Learning skills, language ability, independent and stable characteristic or like skills… Those internal promotion is controllable and much valuable than a degree.”
“Challenge or chance, it’s actually depending on what action you have taken,” said Yuxin. “We can’t control the world, but we can control ourselves.”