Documenting the Chinese student experience at an American college during the pandemic

This past summer, I took part in an oral history project designed to collect stories of the University of Iowa (UI) community’s reactions to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic in textual and oral formats. As a current student in the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, I joined the oral history project under the supervision of the university’s University Archivist; and conducted interviews with several Chinese students on campus. The stories they shared with me were fraught with frustration and sadness; and were an integral perspective to integrate into the local community’s public memory of the pandemic as they documented the traumatic experiences of Chinese students on campus during COVID-19. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, the university’s administrators, faculty, and staff have paid particular attention to international students on campus. Thus, the University of Iowa Libraries’ University Archives and Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio have subsequently partnered on this project to collect and preserve first-hand accounts of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, as an international student of Chinese origin who has an academic background in history and library science, I feel grateful to have been invited to join this institutional oral history project and conduct interviews with Chinese students via Zoom.

The students I spoke with were not only vulnerable to COVID-19, but also to rising anti-Asian sentiment; as well as were the victims of the strained US-Sino relationship caused by the pandemic. Thus, in reflecting on my time as a part of the oral history project, I will address challenges that Chinese students have been facing in my university’s community via two students’ experiences; and how these experiences highlight how this continuing pandemic has profoundly impacted their lives. I have used pseudonyms to protect the two students’ privacy.

Allison Li

Allison Li graduated from UI this spring. Like many recent college graduates, Allison feels disappointed by how the pandemic has deprived her of the opportunity to celebrate her graduation with her families and friends. However, as an international graduate, she also suffered from the possibility of being exiled; which primarily refers to the prevalent assumption in contemporary Chinese society that Chinese students abroad may carry the virus back to their home country. Upon graduating, Allison had originally planned to go back to China and find a job. However, the pandemic drastically impacted this plan.

The partial suspension of airlines between China and the United States also made the possibility of returning home difficult. Every morning when she got up, the first thing she did was check flight availability and affordability. As a result of the limited number of flights between major cities in China and the United States, the price of tickets has spiked in the last few weeks. However, Allison needs to return to China as she may be penalized and punished for not leaving the United States after her student visa expires; which is a problem that has been causing her stress and impacting her health.

Jason Zhang

In contrast with Allison, Jason Zhang is an undergraduate senior at UI, busy preparing for graduate school. Having resided in Iowa for several years, he felt the local community was friendly and hospitable to international students. However, Jason has seen a change in community actions and support during the pandemic. For example, on a Saturday in early May, he went to a grocery store near his apartment and a white man suddenly yelled at him and condemned the Chinese residents in the city as the carriers of the “Chinese virus.” According to Jason’s testimony, it was the saddest moment in his time in the United States.

Motivated by the assumption that COVID-19 originated in China, Asian Americans and immigrants have been scapegoated and misclassified as the cause for the pandemic worsening across the United States, which has been widely reported on by publications like Time. So, in contrast to the places featured in these reports, including but not limited to New York, there is no “Chinatown,” “Koreatown,” or other significant Asian ethnic communities in Iowa. Thus, the limited number of Chinese nationals in Iowa City have been on the receiving end of anti-Asian sentiments inspired by the pandemic, and their experiences have been rarely covered in the media.

While my institution’s project is not the only library-sponsored, pandemic-related oral history project being incorporated into universities’ responses to the pandemic, I feel it may be one of a few projects taking the diversity of student voices into account. In turn, on behalf of the proliferation of international students at the University of Iowa, I believe the effort to document the everyday life of people of different cultural and racial backgrounds during this pandemic is a step toward promoting social justice in the community.

Shu Wan is a current LIS graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa. While working on a community-based oral history project focused on collecting Chinese and Chinese American residents’ testimonies of their encounters with her local community during the pandemic, she expects to raise local people’s awareness of the deteriorated Asian-targeted racial justices in American society.

Photo by Anshu A on Unsplash

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