Away, But Not Apart
story | Xie Yihui, Staff Writer
photos | #FightforWuhan Chinese Student Association in North America
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, 5.86 million overseas Chinese students woke up not to festivity from home, but to news of a surging number of coronavirus patients and saddening reports — real and fake — flooding the internet.
The new coronavirus is the first national crisis that this generation of Chinese university students have experienced. Among many other things, Chinese students abroad must reconcile the many conflicting emotions they feel.
As of Feb. 16, 2020, the number of infected patients in China reached 66,580 and the death toll 1,524 as reported by Caixin, a Chinese media outlet. Any epidemic of this scale would cripple a society at multiple levels, leaving not just physical but also emotional and psychological aftermaths.
Worry went viral
For those from Wuhan — the locked-down city with the most number of infected patients — the impact is felt strongly. Zhu Yixin NUS ’21, who came from Wuhan, said he worries about the health of his family and friends in Wuhan as the lock-down increases the chances of infection for healthy residents. He is also afraid that his family might run out of masks, food and other daily necessities as most shops are closed.
“I tried not to think about the virus,” he said. “But you hear about it everywhere, from daily conversation to information on WeChat and Weibo (the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter) about common folks’ daily life. So I am feeling very depressed. Very anxious and uneasy. It is hard to calm down.”
Zhu also expressed concerns for some “[whose] infected parents or even grandparents can only self-quarantine or, to put it bluntly, wait to die at home, as there aren’t enough hospital beds.”
He described Wuhan as a city pervaded by the virus: “Even if you are merely walking on the street, you might get infected.”
The local healthcare system in Wuhan is overwhelmed, with life disrupted and the city in chaos. With merely 4% of China’s population, Hubei has seen 95.6% of the all the deaths from the virus, according to statistics from Caixin.
The Internet is just as overwhelmed by the virus as the physical infrastructure has been. “My online chats with my friends both individually and in groups are mostly centered about the epidemic,” said Qi Siyi, a student at University College London who came from Xi’an, a Northern Chinese city. She follows a Telegram account that posts news about the virus, and checks it whenever there are updates.
Watching events unfold far from home, Zhai Qiutong ’23 said she sometimes felt powerless as there is not much that she can personally do to mitigate a crisis of this scale.
In the midst of helplessness and anxiety, Chinese students studying in all parts of the world feel the need to help and represent their country.
#FightforWuhan Chinese Student Association in North America, a fund-raising organization consisting of more than 2,000 overseas Chinese college students across the globe, has raised $200,000, according to its organizers.
To achieve these results, students from the organization worked around-the-clock to manage the flood of donations, as well as the shipping of medical supplies from more than 10 countries to Wuhan.
“We slept less than 10 hours in the first 3 days of the virus outbreak,” said Charlie Dai, a Chengdu native at the University of California Los Angeles who is one of the main organizers of #FightforWuhan. “While everybody is really tired, I have to keep going because I am a Chinese.”
Even then, their donations are far from enough. According to an estimate by the BBC, Hubei, the epicentre of the virus, requires two million masks daily for medical staff alone. That is 10% of daily mask production in China, which produces half of the masks globally.
When most domestic supplies have run out, mobilizing resources from abroad is also far from easy.
Huang Leike, a recent Temasek Junior College graduate from Guangzhou, organized a fund-raising project to address the shortage of medical supplies. He said, ”We have to keep finding resources non-stop because whenever we find a supply, it almost always runs out immediately.”
“All we hope is that we can do something for Wuhan,” he said.
Help not delivered
While many have tried to help, they often found that their contributions do not reach front-line hospitals.
Zhu has donated all of his living allowance and internship salary to Hubei Provincial Red Cross, and was saddened to learn from the newspaper that the Red Cross is not distributing the donation to those in need.
According to Red Cross’ “Report of the Use of Supplies” published on Jan. 29, 2020, 15,000 of 245,000 masks went to a hospital not treating patients infected by coronavirus, with merely 3,000 going to Wuhan Union Hospital, one of the hospitals designated for the epidemic.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs requires all donations to go through one of five government-backed charitable organizations, including Hubei Provincial Red Cross.
According to Caixin, the Red Cross warehouse, as big as two soccer fields, was filled with resources, but hospital workers needed to wait long hours and go through complicated procedures before getting access to it. Out of desperation, many hospitals resorted to social media to plead for medical supplies.
“This is really agonizing,” Zhu said. “I have done whatever I can…but for a variety of ridiculous reasons [my donation] does not benefit the people who need it the most.”
“I have thought that Chinese government will slowly get better. But in reality they did not walk out from the corruption they showed during SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak,” referring to the major epidemic in 2003.
“It is a completely preventable man-made disaster,” he said.
Distance and belonging
All interviewed students expressed a sense of connection with the country that they had left three, four or five years ago. As Dai put it: “While we are overseas, we stand together with our country.” Physical distance seems to have amplified their strong sense of solidarity with their homeland.
Zhu, who spent the first 16 years of his life in Wuhan, is thankful that his local friends in Singapore are caring and understanding of the situation, but does not feel truly understood. “Their concern is mostly to me or out of politeness,” he said. “They still have a mindset of bystanders; it makes a difference when you are actually involved in this, when your loved ones are under danger every single moment.”
Experiences like this prompt many overseas students to think about their sense of belonging and nationhood.
In fact, the emergence of modern Chinese national consciousness occurred during tumultuous and demeaning times when China was called the “Sick Man of Asia” and forced to sign unequal treaties and leases on its territory.
This draws interesting parallel to today when China is again called “Sick Man of Asia”, when the epidemic is named after, and eventually equated with China or Wuhan, and when its people are shunned, victimized and discriminated against.
Many news outlets adopted the term “Wuhan virus” despite the World Health Organization’s guidelines in 2015 discouraging the use of geographic locations when naming illnesses.
“This is racist, hostile and deeply disrespectful for the people there,” said Zhu, speaking against naming the virus after his hometown to which he feels personal and cultural attachment. “[It is the place where] all my family and friends gather to celebrate Chinese New Year every year.”
“I call for everyone not to discriminate against people from Wuhan, Hubei, or China,” he said.