Amid the tightening restrictions and drastic increase in COVID-19 cases during Hong Kong’s fifth wave, many international students have opted to leave the city and return home for the semester. For the majority, the decision to go back factors in how most Hong Kong universities have moved their classes to online and adopted a remote teaching method.
While many have already left, a handful of international students decided to stay back and wait for the fifth wave to fizzle out. In light of the tightening social distancing measures, online teaching adaptations, and increase in COVID-19 cases, the social and academic life in Hong Kong has become either nonexistent or entirely virtual—so, why have these students decided to stay?
Skyrocketing expenses to return
For many international students who have chosen to stay back, the decision to do so stemmed from an entirely financial perceptive; with Hong Kong’s strict and fluctuating quarantine guidelines, getting here was both expensive and difficult.
I spent so much money to come here and quarantining was so expensive, so going back feels like a waste of resources.
“I spent so much money to come here and quarantining was so expensive, so going back feels like a waste of resources. I was stranded [in India] for a year and a half so finally being able to come after all of the mental and emotional struggles and just deciding to go back after a minute into coming here seems unreasonable. Going and coming back again and going through that quarantine again is not something that I would be comfortable asking my parents to do for me as it would be unreasonably expensive,” said Vaishali Rathi, a second-year international student from India at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
Quarantine and flight expenses can add up to a considerable amount. International students, many of whom have just made their way to Hong Kong like Vaishali, have chosen to stay and wait out the pandemic in hopes that the tightened restrictions will loosen up before the end of the semester.
Not ready to go back
Unlike many locals who have started to experience cabin fever — a state of mind that can develop when a person is confined in isolation and unable to have social interaction — some international students decided to stay simply because they are not yet ready to go back.
Dora, a Greek student from the University of Glasgow at HKU, came to Hong Kong on an exchange program for a year.
She says, “As an international student, I have travelled very far from Europe to come to Hong Kong. It was also really hard to come to Hong Kong with the COVID restrictions, so I’m not ready to leave yet. I also have some commitments in the university in the form of an internship in a laboratory, so up until now it’s been in person, so I have to be here for that.”
Exchange students, many of whom only come to the city for a semester or two at max, have a relatively unique situation. Although Dora has decided to stay back because of her academic commitments and her desire to explore Hong Kong more, many other exchange students have left Hong Kong to travel to a different part of Asia. Those who have stayed back hope that they will be able to explore Hong Kong properly once the fifth wave dies down.
Family in the city
Despite being foreigners in Hong Kong, many international students have relatives or family friends residing in the city. Having someone familiar in an unfamiliar place during unprecedented times brings a sense of comfort and safety despite the escalating COVID-19 situation.
“I have an elder brother who also studied in HKU and is currently working in Hong Kong. He was one of the primary reasons I chose to come to Hong Kong for my tertiary education since I would have family here. While most of my friends chose to leave for their home countries as soon as the situation got worse here, I decided not to, since I had my brother living here as well. Instead, I chose to move out of my hall, and move in with my brother so that I could be with family during these tough times,” said Maanav Gupta, a second-year international student from India at HKU.
Like many other international students, Maanav’s journey to Hong Kong was a long one. He first did a 21 days washout period in Serbia, followed by 37 days of quarantine in Hong Kong. After facing numerous challenges to get to the city, many international students, including Maanav, have decided that it is better for them to stay in Hong Kong for the time being.
There are a handful of international students who despite wanting to go back home, are unable to do so because of certain academic commitments. Whether it is needing equipment for a class or the possibility of doing a summer internship in Hong Kong, some international students have decided to stay back to fulfill their academic commitments.
Jimin Lee, a second-year international student from Korea at HKU, is staying back in Hong Kong for both academic and financial reasons.
I decided to stay back in Hong Kong because one of my classes requires me to borrow equipment from school.
“I decided to stay back in Hong Kong because one of my classes requires me to borrow equipment from school. I’ve also been renting a flat and living here so if I were to return to Korea, I would have to pay a massive amount of passive expenses,” said Jimin.
Sasha Stepanova, a second-year international student from Spain and Russia at HKU, raises concerns about how students may not be able to come back in the summer if they have academic commitments then.
When asked why she decided to stay back in the city Sasha said, “I intend on completing a summer internship in Hong Kong. Applying and trying to negotiate for a remote position will be quite difficult in my opinion, especially as no one knows what the situation will be like in summer – hopefully, by then the fifth wave will end and the majority of the restrictions will be lifted.”
The choice to stay undoubtedly comes with many challenges. Many international students are concerned about the ever-changing and uncertain COVID guidelines in Hong Kong. While some students are worried about rumored lockdown measures, others are concerned about what will happen to them as international students if they are infected by the virus.
With the new tightened restrictions and increasing cases in Hong Kong, many international students have experienced a significant effect on their mental health.
From feeling homesick to having to see all their friends leave, international students who have chosen to stay back have reported feeling isolated. Despite these challenges, they have an optimistic mindset as they hope for the COVID cases to stop increasing and for new pandemic control measures to quickly loosen.