From Durham to Hong Kong: an international student’s lockdown experience

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When I left Durham in March, I remember frantically booking my flight home, staying up with my housemates, stressing over delayed and empty trains, and my sixteen hour journey home. The moment I reached the airport, my mother baptised me with Lysol. After this, I spent 14 days morphing into a walking, talking quarantine cliché. I baked banana bread, tried and failed to learn Tiktok dances, painted unsightly watercolours, did the 14-day Chloe Ting challenge, watched Tiger King in one sitting, and spent hours on Houseparty.  

‘The moment I reached the airport, my mother baptised me with Lysol’

Some time after my 14-day quarantine, the COVID-19 restrictions in Hong Kong slowly started to relax, while the UK was still in lockdown. By May, I was able to go out and meet friends in very small groups and study in coffee shops. Then, I was worried about studying for my exams: it didn’t help that my upstairs neighbours were constantly drilling (and had been since June 2019). Luckily, with the help of free online resources, caffeine, and course mates, I was able to manage fine. 

By June, I was eating dimsum with my family and reading by the pool: I recognise that I am very fortunate to be able to do this. Not knowing what to do with the rest of my free time, I (and many of my friends) applied to extracurricular activities and internships in a caffeine-driven haze. It didn’t help that everyone and their acquaintances became a motivational speaker overnight, flooding LinkedIn with lengthy and unsolicited updates. 

‘It didn’t help that everyone and their acquaintances became a motivational speaker overnight, flooding LinkedIn with lengthy and unsolicited updates’

As someone who is all too familiar with the gnawing anxiety that comes with unproductivity, I definitely overcompensated in June. I was worried about facing questions and insecurities that I had long avoided, specifically about my body image and academic performance. 

Much of this stems from the environment I grew up in. Back home, constantly being compared to my peers and internalising these comparisons felt normal. It was only until I went to university, where I could show up to seminars without visualising an incessant chorus of “what did you get, what did you get”, and where I could eat as much as I wanted at dinner without feeling acutely self conscious, that I realised this was not normal.

While spending time at home, I went through my diary entries from school. Most were benign, poorly written, and hilarious, but what shocks me most was at the age of eight I was already creating food rules for myself. 

‘Back home, constantly being compared to my peers and internalising these comparisons felt normal.’

I began my speedy metamorphosis into a hermit during the third wave of coronavirus in Hong Kong (starting in mid-July). While working from home, I baked cinnamon rolls, soufflé cheesecake, mochi-filled cookies and pineapple buns. Unsurprisingly, my body started to change after a sedentary month of 9-5 and copious amounts of baked goods. 

Until very recently, this would have wreaked havoc on my mental health. Now, I find that I am much more at peace with myself, because spending time alone has helped me reconcile these feelings. Coming back home in the middle of a global pandemic has reminded me of how fortunate I am. Even though my family constantly barges in, I’m still unbelievably lucky to have a room of my own to read, write, and reflect. And if anything, that makes me luckier.   

Image: Jerry Zhang via Unsplash

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