Stuck on the Outside

Article by XIANEASE

On March 28th, China closed its borders to foreign nationals in an attempt to prevent a reintroduction of COVID-19 to the country. As a results, many people who previously had been living in China are now stuck on the outside and are left with the question, “What happens next?”. At the time of writing this article, there is no definitive answer. As the virus continues to spread across the world, there has been no indication of when the restriction may be lifted. To find out the impact that this action has had, we interviewed several people about their current situation. Here is their stories.

Dr. Karen is an associate professor in the field of neuroscience at Xidian University. Originally from the Czech Republic, she has lived in China for more than 10 years. She left China on January 16th to visit her family and friends who are living in the US during the Spring Festival holiday, as she does nearly every year. When asked about her initial reaction to the virus, she had this to say, “My perspective (at that time) was that the virus would remain in China instead of spreading around the world, making it impossible for me to return to China.”

As time dragged on, and the virus spread across the globe, Dr. Karen’s situation began to change as well. “I cannot stay where I am at any longer and I have no place to go”, she said when asked about her current situation. “All of my belongings are in China, because that is my primary residence.” She also expressed concern about the state of her research. “I also need to continue my work, research, and collaborations in China, which is not possible overseas.” Over the past several years, universities in China have courted academicians from around the globe to come to the country in order to conduct research in a wide varieties of fields in order to promote domestic growth and development. Now with many of those researchers stuck abroad, their projects are up in the air.

“It is of utmost importance that I return to China immediately to continue my work.” With the currently limitations on entry and travel, returning to China is nearly impossible. While some allowances for foreign researchers have been made in the entry ban, these exceptions are mostly being granted to those focused on epidemic research and other related fields. Her employer is also trying to assist her in this matter. “Xidian University is doing its best to have me return safely.” Hopefully, a solution can be found soon so that will allow Dr. Karen to return.

Ed, not his real name, is a post-doctoral researcher at a university in Xi’an who originally came to the country in 2018. After leaving in mid-January to spend some time at home with his parents, after staying in Xi’an during the previous summer break. “The epidemic wasn’t even on my radar at the time,” he stated, “Once news of an outbreak in Wuhan started to come out, I began to follow it very closely.” Ed noted that, while several sources that he followed did a good job of raising the alarm, most of the mainstream media outlets dropped the ball. Starting at the end of January, flights to China were starting to get cancelled. “I was getting really worried about going back given the information coming out and a wave of flight cancellations, at the same time I was getting worried about the possible spread of the virus in my own and my girlfriend’s countries.”

Communication about the situation was not initially forthcoming from the university. “From where I was coming from and the information I was getting, the situation on the ground looked quite dire,” Ed stated when asked about this, “not necessarily in terms of the scale of the outbreak in Xi’an, but talking about very strict population control measures, which were even stricter on campus, and a somewhat lack of information on what would be coming next.” By February 10th, the university sent out a notice: Don’t come back until told to do so. This notice remained in place up until the border closed.

After his flight was eventually cancelled by his airline, Ed altered his flight so that he could join his girlfriend, who was living in a third country at the time. “This has been a huge upside from the pandemic situation for me, we have spent more than two months together now,” he said, trying to remain positive. “At the same time, being away is disruptive for my work.”

Ed also commented on his current situation. “(Being able to stay with my girlfriend) has been a huge upside from the pandemic situation for me, we spent more than two months together now.” But not everything has worked out so well. “At the same time being away is disruptive for my work,” he went on, “Our arrangement for weathering the outbreak is very ad hoc, the apartment is tiny, we both work from home and we don’t even have a proper desk. We handle it as you would, doing our respective works the best we can.” Some of the responses from people online have irked him though. “I am tired of rich people on the TV telling us about working from home, how you can be even more productive and read all the books you never had the time for before – all while sitting in their nice houses or apartments.”

Still, he is doing what he can. “(We are) keeping ourselves entertained with good food, Netflix and YouTube, and going out for walks and some light exercise around our compound.” Hopefully, the message will come through soon allowing him to return.

Sam (another pseudonym) is a high school teacher here in Xi’an. Like the others, he had decided to travel back home during the long break in between the two semesters to visit family. “Watching from afar,” he said, talking about the early stages of the outbreak, “there was not a lot of information about the situation in Xi’an, but I was naturally concerned for my friends and family who were still living there.” After the announcement that schools would not be reopening on time, he began to prepare for the inevitable online lessons.

Now, several months later, he’s still at home with his family. “The main challenge,” he said when asked what difficulties he was facing, “is finding how, given the circumstances, to prepare the students for their exams without being able to speak to, and supervise, them face-to-face.” This difficulty has been felt by many teachers, as the difficulties involved in distance learning have become apparent to more and more teachers. With graduations looming, and an uncertainty about various programs, many teachers are worried about the future.

“The main worry at the moment, much more than any health concerns surrounding the virus, is the uncertainty of my situation,” he laments. “I do not know when and how I will be able to return, how long I must continue teaching online, or when I will be able to see my friends and family again.” This disruption and uncertainty has left many unable to look to the future. “Usually I like to make plans and goals for the future, and at present that is impossible,” Sam says.

While there has been no indication of when the ban will be repealed, it is hoped that it will happen sooner rather than later. For many of those who were trapped on the outside of the ban, those that had their work and lives in China, life has entered a state of limbo, where the future is as of yet unclear.

Where you caught on the outside when the ban came down? If you or someone you know are experiencing difficulties as a result of the entry ban, let us know by sending us an email at