Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.
I didn’t think I’d be spending the first month of my first year of college quarantined in Chinese hotels, but here I am.
For international students at Duke Kunshan University, returning for the 2020-21 school year seemed all but impossible. China has been closed to all but a handful of foreigners since March, a result of the country’s stringent COVID-19 prevention protocols that have essentially eliminated local transmission. I had been expecting to spend the first semester of my freshman year taking my courses on Zoom from my home in Seoul.
But then I received an email from our international students office: As Korean students, we would be allowed to travel to China to begin our studies.
I was torn. International travel in the throes of a pandemic? What would I do during my mandatory 14-day quarantine once I arrived in China?
Upon receiving the official green light from DKU in early August, I decided that prioritizing an on-campus academic experience outweighed the logistical nightmare of traveling to China. As a prospective natural sciences major, I would have access to in-person lab courses and office hours with my professors, many of whom also received special permission to return to China.
After many back-and-forth emails with our International Student Service, Residence Life, and Campus Health offices, I purchased a Sept. 25 flight to Shenzhen, a megacity in Guangdong province. Immediately, I set about applying for my X1 visa, purchasing SIM cards and visiting the local hospital for mandatory and optional vaccinations.
South Korea’s rise in COVID-19 cases forced me to pay attention to policies that could change on a moment’s notice. Three days before my departure, I received messages from my peers that DKU would require a total of 28 days in quarantine. I would have to spend 14 days in Shenzhen and then two more weeks at an off-campus facility until I could even set foot on campus. Despite this unwelcome surprise, I held to my decision.
Transiting through Incheon International Airport in South Korea during the pandemic was a stark contrast from my previous journey to Boracay, in the Philippines, in February. Masks were, of course, mandatory in the airport and on the airplane. I also had to present a negative test report to the airline while checking in, and I received a WeChat QR code after entering my personal information. Throughout the flight to Shenzhen, I had to fill in four documents, including two health declaration forms.
Upon my arrival at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport, I followed a one-way track to have a temperature check, immigration process, COVID-19 testing (one for nose, and one for throat) and picked up the luggage to ride on a bus. The QR code was primarily used for the airport's verification process and later replaced with a barcode sticker on my passport's back page to check in. After getting on a randomly designated bus, I was invited to a WeChat group chat for the quarantine hotel and filled in the personal information about my health conditions and my final destination.
It took more than 90 minutes to arrive at La'nou Hotel in Yantian, where I’ve been staying for the past two weeks. Luckily, one of the sanitation workers spoke Korean, and she was in charge of informing all the rules. I was assigned to room 8301 on the third floor and received a gift package including face masks, laundry detergent and towels from the hotel.
Since then, I’ve been isolated in my room, opening the door four times a day to receive two meals and one snack (usually fruit) and to have a temperature check around 10 a.m. I also had one more coronavirus test (for throat only) on the second day. Now, I’m awaiting results from a final test I took today—as today is my check-out date. In the meantime, I dine on French toast and Nescafe coffee for breakfast; for lunch, stir-fried rice noodles with beef or Sichuan style fried pork on rice.
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Until Sept. 30, I spent most of my time catching up with pre-recorded courses—a result of the hotel's unstable wifi. After China’s National Day break began on Oct. 1, I’ve been trying to pass the time watching “Grey's Anatomy” on Netflix, doing home workouts from YouTube, Facetiming friends and preparing for upcoming finals. Every afternoon, I answer the doctor's phone call: “Are you okay?” he asks in English. Thanks to WeChat’s translation function, I’m having conversations with hotel employees without much difficulty.
As of this week, I’m about halfway through my monthlong journey to DKU. When my 14 days in Shenzhen are over, I’ll take a quick flight to Shanghai and head to an off-campus apartment in Kunshan, where I’ll spend another two weeks in quarantine—albeit with less-severe restrictions.
By the end of the month, I’ll be able to join my peers on campus, eagerly awaiting the day when my classmates from around the world can do the same.
Semin Kim is a first-year in the third-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.