In the past five weeks I’ve seen only two Chinese people in person. Cambridge is eerily empty, and that is more starkly obvious given its tiny size.
I’m lucky enough to be quarantined in my college’s extensive graduate accommodation, near the railway station. Built for 60 people, there are about 10 of us left here. Since lockdown, my friends and I have spent evenings playing cards, weekends basking in the sun on our miniature meadow and long days finishing off holiday work assignments.
The two Chinese people that I’ve seen in person live in my accommodation. Wanting to maintain strict social distancing, they have politely refused my offer to join my friends and I for company. When I knock on the door to ask how they are doing, I’m greeted by masked individuals and brief responses.
Their concerns were reflected by my other Chinese classmates, who became increasingly nervous as Europe became the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. As the situation got worse in the UK the Chinese groups I’d got to know in Cambridge over the past year began sharing nationalistic articles from the Chinese state media, in addition to suggested shopping lists for six months of supplies. Homemade remedies to the virus, such as eating garlic with each meal, were passed around by Chinese acquaintances too.
Initially, their anxiety was exacerbated by concerned parents back in China. Hearing reports of how their homeland was grappling with the virus, the students now faced it on their doorstep in Cambridge. As the UK rolled out lockdown policies, many of them said they’d feel a lot safer back in China. They joked and laughed at the irony of feeling safer in Wuhan than in London. But many refused to go home and decided to wait the virus out in their Cambridge dorms so as not to “burden” China.
Others felt let down by the initial reaction to the outbreak in the UK at large, although some note the positives when they are due. For instance, after the Queen’s Speech earlier this month many of my Chinese friends posted links and opinion articles on their WeChat accounts to express their admiration of the sense of leadership in her speech and how it showed a “strengthening of British values and community”.
The consensus on our prime minister is more mixed, with a lot of my Chinese friends agreeing he is not renzhen (serious) enough.
One friend told me, “I’ve always been attracted to the British way of life, the history and the sense of humour, so I think that the Queen’s Speech is something of a reminder of that. Chinese people have respect for that kind of leadership and the ability to unite people. I also like participating in the evening rounds of applause for the NHS – it makes me feel part of British communities.”
Indeed, the work of the health service, which has adopted a wartime mentality to react to the pandemic, including the opening of a 4,000-bed intensive care unit in London in just two weeks – has not gone unnoticed. Just as the Chinese people took part in a day of mourning for their own healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic, my Chinese friends recognise the value of the NHS. I knew that even before the pandemic, as my international friends would speak positively about the healthcare here.
My classmates and I are getting on with our (now desk-based) fieldwork in preparing our theses. The faculty has also made adjustments for students who are unable to carry out fieldwork, such as requiring a more straightforward, extended literature review to pass the course. What was supposed to be a rigorous 10-month Master’s now feels more like a fancy six-month certificate. When you consider the premium that international students pay on their tuition fees, they can be forgiven for feeling a bit disappointed in their academic experience this year.
UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge.
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