The Overseas Chinese Students Trapped Between Two Pandemic Realities
Three years into the pandemic, people who cross China’s borders increasingly feel like they’re entering a different world. While countries around the world have started building a path back toward pre-pandemic normalcy, China is persisting with its strict virus-control policies, using lockdowns and travel restrictions to keep the virus contained.
No one has been more affected by this than China’s overseas students. Before the pandemic, well over 500,000 young Chinese were leaving to study abroad each year. In Australia, one-third of international students are from China, and many universities depend heavily on the fees paid by Chinese students.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and an entire generation of young Chinese found themselves trapped between two pandemic realities. Many haven’t seen their families for years. Their futures remain mired in uncertainty. Meanwhile, they’ve had to cope with homesickness, discrimination, and the complex emotions of witnessing events unfold in China from a distance.
As a photographer who lived and worked in China for years, but hasn’t been back to the country since January 2020, I’ve also seen my life turned upside down by the pandemic. So I was keen to speak with Chinese students in my hometown of Brisbane, Queensland, to understand how they’ve coped during three turbulent years caught between two countries and their vastly different education systems, cultures, and policy approaches.
These are their stories, in their own words.
Liu Yufeng is in the first year of a bachelor’s degree in film and screen media at Griffith University. Originally from the southwestern city of Chengdu, he was supposed to start the program in 2020. But Australia’s tightened border policies forced him to put his life on hold for two years. Once the Australian borders opened back up in February 2022, he immediately booked his flight.
I was supposed to be here in 2020, but COVID came. I forgot why I chose Griffith University, because it was back in 2018. I was trying to get into some local film schools, like the Beijing Film Academy, but I failed. The only thing I could do if I wanted to continue my career was just go abroad.
You get your visa, then suddenly everyone is telling you that even if you have all these things, you still can’t go. But I just felt I had to go to college. So I decided to wait. I kept thinking, if Australia keeps its doors closed, I might not get a chance to study abroad or go to college at all.
But I still love my homeland. I still miss it, and feel homesick, and maybe kind of lonely. I don’t have that desperate desire to move to Australia. I want to go back to China and spend the rest of my life there, but I just want it to be better. China is worried about everything, and sealed up all these places. That makes me question some politics in China.
Will I get paid well after I get back to China? I don’t know. It’s very competitive there. All my classmates from high school are now getting their master’s degrees. They’re working for companies, working really hard, and getting better and better degrees. Even though I’ll be returning with a foreign degree, I don’t know if it’ll be enough for me to compete with them. I don’t feel very optimistic.
Liu Baifeng is in the first year of a master’s degree in educational studies at the University of Queensland. She’s adapted quickly to life in Australia, finding a part-time job teaching English and a local partner.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got my master’s offer right after the borders opened. But it’s been so weird being here — I don’t know how to describe the feeling.
In the beginning, it was nice that China controlled COVID, but now it feels like it’s a bit of an overreaction. I heard from my friends that it’s really hard to get a job in China right now, because the pandemic and employment issues seem to be getting more serious. Generally, the “zero-COVID” policy didn’t really affect me that much. After February, I was in Australia, so everything was totally fine.
The attitude toward studying here is actually really different. Here, they’re working really hard and studying for themselves. In China, we’re forced to study from really young, but we’ve never studied for ourselves. I was top of my class in high school, but I wasn’t happy at all because I usually just got good grades to try and please my parents. Here people have a clear goal about what they want to achieve in their lives.
I’m really grateful for the chance to come here and continue studying, because I don’t think I could have survived in that kind of environment in China. I want to stay here and go on to do a Ph.D.
Liu Zelin is in his final year of high school at the Queensland University of Technology’s International College. He came to Australia as a 14-year-old to attend school. He’ll soon travel to visit his hometown of Zhongshan, in south China’s Guangdong province, for the first time since the pandemic started. He wants to study interior design at university.
I’ve been here for five years. When I first came here, I lived with a homestay family. The first one was really kind of racist, and they kicked me out. One day, I finished up at school, and came home to find all my stuff piled up outside the front door. They didn’t give me any warning. Then, I switched to a homestay family from Shanghai. I think they treated me better than their own child.
My parents decided to send me here because I struggled to cope with the pressure at school, and my grades weren’t looking great. They thought Australia’s education system was much better than China’s. In China, school is just a lot of work — in class and after class.
I didn’t know anything about what’s here in Australia. Nothing. Because of COVID, I’ve had to stay here for the last few years without going home to visit family. I just had to try and find stuff to do, people to hang out with. I’ve spent a lot of time with my friends. We arrived in Australia at the same time, and started from the very beginning together. We have that in common; it’s made it much easier to make friends.
We love to play mahjong. I bought an auto mahjong table, and I invite all my friends over to play with me two or three times a week. I love to play poker with them as well. Sometimes I win. But I don’t have a good poker face; they can all read my facial expressions.
I want to go back to China, because I haven’t been there for two years and I miss my family. But at the same time, I want to stay here, because I can go to university here and study interior design. I want to take things slowly and enjoy it.
Song Jinru is a 16-year-old student at the Queensland Academies of Creative Industries. She first came to Australia because of her father’s work in 2018. During the pandemic, her family has faced many tough decisions as they tried to live and work between China and Australia. She doesn’t know what she’ll do when she finishes high school, but she’s interested in studying film.
I still scroll through Chinese social media, and I feel like I’m so close to the information. But at the same time, I’m also far away. When I watch those clips, and when I’m able to discuss what’s happening right now with others on the internet, I feel like I’m really Chinese. I’ve not been there for a long time — long enough to forget some of the things that happened in China.
The pandemic changed a lot. I feel what affected me most was hearing about what was happening in different places. In the beginning in China, there was always news about COVID. I wasn’t in that situation, but I could understand how people were feeling back in China. How they had to get a COVID test every day, how it became a regular thing that they’ve gotten used to.
My dad came here for work in 2018, and his work contract ended in 2021, so he went back to China. My mom decided to stay here and help me transfer schools and adapt to a new environment. Now, my little sister needs to learn Chinese, so my mom decided to go back to China. She was going to go this year, but outbreaks flared up again in China, so that plan got delayed. She now plans to go back at the end of December.
I’m not sure how I’ll feel after my mom leaves. I don’t think I’ll go back to China, though. I’m used to how things operate here, and also the culture. Australia feels like a place where I can do things I really like with like-minded people, especially right now at my school.
Wang Zun is also in the first year of a bachelor’s degree in film and screen media at Griffith University. He was originally due to start the program in 2020, but he was visiting China when Australia closed its borders. His studies were delayed for two years as a result.
The first time I came to Australia was in 2018, but I was back in China in 2020 when the border closed. I couldn’t attend class because Griffith required students to be on campus. So I spent two years at home in China, shooting some advertisements for hotels and cars. I just worked with my dad’s studio: he has a company in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China. Then, in March this year, I came back again to study.
If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I would have finished my degree this year. I don’t have plans for next year. Maybe even for tomorrow. I might go to France to study more. I want to make films in China.
I know there’s a history in Australia of white supremacy. They just put the racism on the table. One time, I was buying groceries at Woolies with my friend, and a middle-aged woman was just saying to us: “F*** off, get out of this country.” This happened a few times when I was living on the Gold Coast. I prefer Brisbane, because no one cares who you are. But on the Gold Coast, everyone lacks energy, so they just don’t treat people very well.
When I was homesick, I would go to the beach. There was a really bright star there. I don’t know what it’s called, but I’d go there and kowtow to the star. It was very weird, but when people experience hard times they’ll do something weird.
Portraits by Christine Schindler. Other visuals were contributed by the profile subjects, and edited by Ding Yining.
Editors: Fu Beimeng and Dominic Morgan.