Reluctant journeys: International students traverse a world of obstacles as U.S. limits entries

By RAIN JI

Normally, it takes at most a day for You Tao ’22.5 to travel from Beijing to Middlebury College. This year — between the passing of travel bans and the global Covid-19 pandemic — it took him almost a month. 

On Jan. 31, President Trump announced that all aliens who had spent time in mainland China within the past 14 days would be denied entry to the U.S., including F-1 visa holders such as You. 

You became one of many Chinese international students forced to make a decision about whether or not to return to campus. To bypass the proclamation, he knew he had to spend 14 days in a third country open to Chinese tourists. But the resources associated with spending 14 days in a different country posed a challenge, not to mention health risks during international travels. 

At the end of July, You finally decided to return to Middlebury. 

“Being able to see my girlfriend was the decisive factor,” he said. “But it wasn’t the only reason.” He explained that poor internet connection and the substantial 12-hour time difference make taking remote classes from China difficult. 

You did not expect that he would be facing such a difficult choice. He had hope that the Trump administration would lift the travel ban before the end of summer. 

Before flying to the U.S., You first spent 14 days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His family did not support the trip at first because they thought the journey was too long and risky, but his mother eventually deemed the travel route safe enough.  

Tao said, “people are just casually going about their days.”

In Phnom Penh, he completed mandatory room quarantine while waiting for his initial Covid-19 test result. He was then released on the second day, upon which he observed that life in Phnom Penh had seemingly returned to some semblance of normalcy. “People are just casually going about their days,” You said.

When asked if he was frustrated during the arduous trip back, You said that there was general organizational chaos throughout his stay in Phnom Penh. “We were packed into a poorly air conditioned auditorium [to get tested],” he said. “It was a little bit irresponsible, because you don’t want the testing center to become a petri dish for the virus.” 

You admitted that this entire journey back to campus made him feel like he was in a “magical realism novel.” He said that he was not overly shocked that the travel ban was not lifted in time, given the U.S.’s tumultuous relationship with China.

Having been an international student in the U.S. since high school, You never felt too stressed at the border. However, after the president’s proclamation restricted certain Chinese students from entering America, he felt more pressure than he usually would, even though the proclamation applied to graduate students.

You arrived on campus on Aug. 26 after more than 20 days of traveling. Upon arrival, he had to begin room quarantine because he was unable to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“I now quarantine without any defiance,” he said jokingly. “Quarantine doesn’t feel like oppression anymore.” 

Coincidentally, while You traveled from Beijing to Middlebury, Liu Bo ’23 left the college for Chongqing, China, which he calls home. 

Bo took this photo at the Seoul Airport, a transfer spot during his trip.

After the college evacuated students in March, Liu decided to stay on campus and wait for the situation to develop. But in May, the college’s plan to ask all students to leave campus prompted him to begin looking for a ticket home. In early August, he was finally able to secure one. His host family took him to Burlington, and he flew to New York City with “pure luck.”

Liu described his journey as “ordinary.” He traveled through Burlington, New York City, Seoul and Shenyang to finally reach his destination of Chongqing. Without the pandemic, Hainan Airline runs a direct flight from Chongqing to New York City twice a week. 

“The most memorable part about the trip was finally being able to eat hotpot,” he said of a food that Chongqing is famous for. 

You and Liu decided to travel in opposite directions after carefully considering their individual circumstances. The Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbated by complicated international relations, created an entirely new universe for international students. 

One thing remains certain: academic work goes on. On Tuesday, You and Liu began taking remote classes from their rooms located on opposite ends of the globe, one in Forest West and the other in Yubei, Chongqing.