Should I stay or should I go?

Perspectives of an international student in the UK during a global pandemic

Sarah Tan

home, transnational families, international student

On 12 March 2020, my university announced that all teaching activity would be delivered online for the remainder of the academic year, with graduation ceremonies indefinitely postponed.  The atmosphere on campus that day was like no other.  There was a shared gloom of premature farewells, as students prepared for early returns to their family homes.  For international students like myself however, there were added complications. With lockdowns and border controls falling into place around the world, we needed to rapidly decide whether to stay put, or uproot the lives and homes we had made in the UK without a proper farewell – and if so, when.

There was almost a collective fear of the consequences of inaction.  In an atmosphere of intense uncertainty when so much was out of our control, the privilege of still being (somewhat) transnationally mobile allowed international students to in some sense, reclaim agency amidst the chaos. Students made up and changed their minds in a matter of hours.  Messages from concerned family were constant; as parents became serial sharers of ‘Whatsapp’ chain messages detailing how to stay safe at airports and on flights.  Social media was riddled with stories of swift departures and students disappointed about their university experiences abruptly ending.  Where return trips in normal times are carefully planned around academic commitments and visa obligations, limited one-way tickets home were sold at massively inflated prices.  Many were grounded, unable to afford these higher prices.

Where is ‘home’?

The current global COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the topic of international student mobility into the spotlight, with questions about how space is conceptualised and how ‘home’ is understood and experienced posed.  As a Malaysian student in the final year of my undergraduate degree at LSE, like many, watching this pandemic unfold and navigating the unique challenges it has posed for international students has been both difficult and strange.

Immediately returning to Malaysia was not an option for me.

When LSE moved online, my family in Kuala Lumpur were observing 14 days of strict isolation after having direct contact with three friends who tested positive for COVID-19.  To me, ‘home’ has always held strong connotations of safety, security and comfort, as an ‘affective construct’.  In a situation as anxiety-inducing as a global pandemic, intuitively, ‘home’ would be with family in Malaysia.  But when that option became so vividly ‘unsafe’, I was made to (re)configure what ‘home’ in practical terms meant to me.  Migration has been understood as fundamentally, a home-searching process.  Although unusual, unexpected, and extreme, this experience represents just one of the many circumstances through which international students have to negotiate our multiple belongings to multiple ‘homes’ in our everyday lives transnationally.

At the same time, my ‘home’ in London felt threatened, with my landlord trying to conduct rushed property viewings, before his next set of prospective student-tenants left on planes.

Following university advice, I quickly learned my tenancy rights and how to protect myself and my ‘home’ legally and physically from such risks.  University support here was crucial in combatting how scared and alone I felt navigating these multiple foreign circumstances, but it raises questions on who is and should be responsible for the safety of international students?

I also have an underlying breathing condition.  In an already foreign situation, remaining in a foreign environment and if anything should happen, having to rely on a foreign health system that may fundamentally see you as foreign, is worrying.  In those few days, ‘safety’ felt like a distant concept.  Every potential move and decision posed its own unique set of risks.  For those who did not immediately return, we watched as more flights got pre-emptively cancelled, with plans of our eventual returns perpetually evolving.

A familiar distance in an unfamiliar circumstance

For many people, the pandemic has acutely highlighted that technologies can act as a medium to counter physical distance and introduce different ways of connecting with family and friends.  With being away from family forming a defining part of the international student experience, student-migrants have long engaged with these technologies as a means to sustain transnational connections.  Yet, in an era when human connection is especially important, and familiarity amidst uncertainty is longed for, it has become impossible for me to not be perpetually conscious of this physical distance.

This consciousness of our transnational lives was much less apparent when we could immerse ourselves in our ‘student’ roles as student-migrants, similarly independent from our families as other students.  But, in the months since the UK began its lockdown,  whilst adjusting to our new lives indoors, we have also had to adjust to new forms of transnational living. With our ‘normal’ lives put on pause, we more actively engage with our transnational ones. With opportunities to connect prioritised and much less managed around complex schedules of study, these cross-border connections seem to have actually strengthened.  Previous technological barriers, such as my parents’ adamance in insisting they do not know how to operate a video call, were forcefully stripped as they became frequent users of ‘Zoom’. Simultaneously being present and participating in multiple spacetimes has become our new norm.

For those of us who have stayed, our lives ‘here’ have changed beyond recognition; and its new form has been co-constituted by our families and our new shared experiences across space.  With everyone bound to their homes physically, the lines between both spaces of ‘here’ and ‘there’ have been increasingly blurred.  We meticulously track the news in two countries equally, celebrating any good news and worrying about upsetting news in both our ‘homes’. Our feelings are twice amplified.

The geography between both spaces has never felt so defined, but simultaneously, the geography has never felt so obsolete.  I now concurrently occupy both ‘homes’, in one confined space.

As a graduating student myself, the uncertainty that already characterised post-graduate plans has been exacerbated.  Even with an offer in hand, plans for further international study now seem far from concrete.  However, because of this pandemic, transnational families like mine have adopted new and improved means to effectively combat physical distance and maintain cross-border connections.  Unintentionally, this may work to boost international student mobility (or perceived mobility) in a post-COVID-19 world.  My prior understandings of what ‘home’ is and can be has been destabilised, as I have learnt that these are malleable to changing circumstances.  In my lived experience as a transnational student-migrant in the UK during this pandemic, in a bilateral sense – I have brought home my other home.

Sarah Tan is a third-year undergraduate student of Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  She has just completed her undergraduate dissertation which explores how Chinese-Malaysian students in the UK navigate complex decisions about return migration. Email: sarahtanhuiann@gmail.com