Matt Song ’23 had a sandwich, a plastic container of pudding, Doritos, and a bag of fudge stripes for lunch one day in late March. The dining halls were closed. His friends were gone from campus. He ate alone behind the stone and concrete walls of Morse College. Without bicycles littering the courtyard and students crowding the common room, the space is cavernous. As of April 10, he is one of ninety-nine students who are remaining on Yale’s campus after the University asked all undergraduates to return home for the rest of the semester on March 14.
Yale hired a group of local movers to help the fifteen first-years remaining on campus move their belongings from Old Campus to residential colleges, where they’ll reside for the rest of semester. On March 19, the overworked movers shifted Matt’s boxes to Morse College. Among his possessions were a microwave, packets of frozen food (“In case Yale Dining is not feeding me,” he explained), and his books. Matt, like all students who remain, has swipe access only to the gates and entryways of his college, the kitchen, and Trumbull College, where his meals are distributed. Twice a day, Matt picks up his meal in a brown to-go bag provided by Yale Dining. He makes it a point to have his dinner outdoors, in the vacant Morse courtyard, to feel more normal.
How can you return home when there is no straightforward answer to the question of where home is? Evacuations from college campuses, shelter-in-place orders, and travel restrictions have forced people to decide where they will hunker down for the long haul. But a significant minority of students do not have a place to go. Foster youth, LGBTQ+ individuals living in hostile home environments, and international students are particularly vulnerable. Yale is allowing students to remain on campus for a limited number of reasons: if they’re from CDC Level 3 countries, emancipated from their parents, international students affected by travel restrictions, or students who would be in unsafe living conditions if they left. After speaking to three Yale students who chose to not return home, I realized that home could be a place of our choosing, or a place that we have no choice but to return to. And if you are one of the lucky ones, it might be both.
When I left Singapore, my family’s home for five generations, to fly back to Yale in January, I told a friend that I was simply going from one home to another. After all, nestled in a hundred-year-old brick building in New Haven, was my sunlit desk, my books, my towels and sheets, my spare contact lenses, and my favourite stuffed bear. Home was a feeling. It was swipe access into dining halls and Monday dinners with my debate team. It was meeting kind-eyed Muslim leaders in New Haven for an article I was writing. It was knowing which cubicles in the Sterling Library hold shelves had the good seat cushions and which were best for a cry.
But over spring break, while I was in Mexico, I was banned from reentering the United States because I had been in Europe in the past 14 days. I had celebrated my mother’s 60th birthday in the UK. Initially, I had planned to return to my off-campus apartment in New Haven to retrieve my belongings before returning to Singapore later in the month. But now, with only a duffel bag of summer clothes and none of my books, I scrambled to find flights to Singapore that did not layover in a U.S. airport. Chicago, Texas, New York, San Francisco—the biggest aviation hubs were now sealed off to me. Minutes passed and the earliest flight I could find left Mexico City in a week. Around Latin America, countries were closing their borders in response to a rising number of coronavirus cases. I did not know if Mexico would be next. I imagined being stuck in Mexico while flights out of the country were grounded. I wanted to cry.
When I realised that I couldn’t board a plane taking me back to New Haven, I understood that home was no longer the warm feeling I got cycling down Cross Campus on the first day of spring. Home became a legal term, the only place I knew with certainty would always take me in.
Only U.S citizens, permanent residents, and certain immigrant visa holders were permitted to enter under the travel restrictions placed to manage COVID-19. As a student visa holder, I did not qualify. The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said that all Singaporeans abroad will be allowed to return home—they would never shut their borders to their citizens. Even though I was stranded in Mexico, my displacement was only temporary, a mere blink in the long view of life. I eventually found an Air Canada flight that would take me back home. But what about people without a passport, without citizenship, who shuttle between iron-clad borders every day, unable to find a place that would accept them? Refugees and stateless individuals are going to be among the hardest hit by the virus if they are left without access to healthcare and sanitation.
This reminded me that I am in mere transit in this country. America is not my home, however much I want her to be.
As I waited for my flight out of Mexico, I thought about why I was upset at this situation, even though I understood the strong necessity for travel restrictions. I realized I felt betrayed; America had softened me, deceived me. In the ease and freedom of life in her coffee shops, highways and gas stations, I grew too accustomed to thinking of her as my home. The welcoming how-are-you’s and cheerful smiles of her bus drivers and cashiers, her college professors and high schoolers, her watch engineers and religious leaders, had lulled me into complacency. I drank up what she had to offer and sank into her sheets each night believing I’d still have a place here tomorrow. This reminded me that I am in mere transit in this country. America is not my home, however much I want her to be.
Matt realized he hadn’t used his voice for a day. He has not had a conversation in person, hugged a friend, or spent time in someone else’s presence in over a week. Seeing a person on the street now strikes him as a noteworthy event.
Around 11 a.m., he goes to Trumbull College to collect his paper-bagged meal. He sees a couple of other students like him picking up their meals; it’s one of his rare moments of human interaction in a day. He is the only Morse first-year still on-campus, “which makes me special and also lonely,” he said through a phone interview, laughing.
At night, he walks around Yale’s unoccupied cobblestone-lined campus, alone, looking at the stars. Just two weeks ago he was with his friends, adjusting to his first -year in a new country as well as a new school. Now, it is completely empty.
When Matt first received the email asking all students not to return to campus after spring break, he knew he wanted to stay in the U.S. He had lived in Shanghai since he was twelve, but the home he grew up in no longer belonged to his family. With his mother and grandmother in Michigan, and his father in Shanghai, it was simpler for him to stay on campus, as he’s from a CDC Level 3 country. Furthermore, flight tickets to Shanghai were expensive. It would have imposed a greater shock on his life to move back.
As a Chinese student, he began to notice racist behaviour on the rise in the U.S. His friend from Shanghai told him that on the subway in Boston, a stranger began yelling at him to go back to China and to stop eating cats. “In America, it’s treated not only as a health problem but also a foreign attack,” Matt said. “Some people really do seem to think that Chinese people caused this.” He has begun to feel less at home in the U.S., less welcome and less safe in this country. “It made me miss being in China and made me miss that community of people who knew what it means to have yellow skin,” said Matt.
He has been trying to manage the stress of living alone. He and his friends on campus have been practicing social distancing, and for him, that means near-complete social isolation. “A weird sense of hollowness sneaks up on you,” he said, “but for me it’s not like other people where it’s immediate soul-crushing loneliness or boredom.” His mom wishes to visit him, but the travel from Michigan to Yale would be too risky, especially because his elderly grandmother is staying with her.
On March 28, Matt was relocated to another college to make room for first responders dealing with the outbreak in New Haven. When I asked him where he would call home, he paused for a long time. “I think it doesn’t exist right now,” he said. “Because I feel like home is one of those things that only appears when you have a certain set of conditions met. It has to be a familiar space. It has to be a comfortable space. It has to have people you know and love and care about. There is no place that would feel like home if I was there right now.”
For Michelle ’22, whose last name has been omitted to protect her privacy, Yale is home. When the school told students to return home for the rest of the semester, she knew she wanted to stay.
Growing up in a sunny California suburb, Michelle had what she now describes as a difficult upbringing. In her parents’ house, studies always took precedence over socializing or play. They carried with them a mindset forged by a childhood of poverty in China, forcing the children to finish every last scrap of two-day-old food waste, even if it was growing sour. And they didn’t shy from the use of a ruler or stick for discipline. “If it got leaked what was happening to me at home, I’d probably end up in foster care,” said Michelle. When she came home from school, it was always to an empty house. “I felt I really had to raise myself,” she said. “I feel bad for saying this, but the strongest ties to my house are almost purely financial.”
When she arrived at Yale in 2018, she instantly felt at home. Two-hundred-year-old Elm trees grew on Old Campus, elegant neo-gothic spires rose toward a bluebird sky, the stained glass windows glimmered in the sunlight. After being pressured by her parents to be pre-med in her first-year, she met peers that inspired her to pursue her interests. “I feel super liberated being here,” she said. She is now a Computing and the Arts major. She knew that it would be better for her mental health and happiness than if she were to return home to the Bay Area. “I see New Haven as more of the place that has brought me up in the correct sense.”
For fifty hours, I am in transit. At Mexico City International Airport, I try in broken English, using hand gestures, to ask a big-bellied man where I can find the airport shuttle to Terminal 1, where my flight out of Mexico would leave at 5:25 a.m. He does not understand me and points in some distant direction. Vision blurry, face hot, back aching, I wander the terminal where travelers snooze on metal chairs. Then, I see the words “sleeping capsules” shimmering in the empty airport bay like a mirage.
The woman at the counter of the small capsule hotel pretends not to notice that I talk to her through tears. She gives me clean socks and leads me down a long, lightless hall where sleeping pods are stacked atop one another, glowing with blue neon light. I swipe my access card to unlock my pod and see the clean sheets, the pillows, the duvet. As I stand under the warm shower, I feel the day’s stresses dissolve from my greasy skin until all that is left is me, a lump of soft flesh.
Travellers drift, faces covered by foam masks and hands rubbery with disposable gloves. There are old women being ferried to the gates in wheelchairs and small children being carried in their parent’s arms. It seems too normal. I wonder if they are going home.
I board a flight from Mexico City to Vancouver. The plane is so empty that I can sleep lying down across all three seats in my row. I use Stephen King’s memoir On Writing as my pillow. The plane touches down over the desolate Canadian landscape and I see craggy, snow-capped mountains. For a moment, I am transported out of this human drama into the eternal world of stones, mountains, and the sky. They existed long before us and will certainly outlive us.
In Vancouver, the airport is emptier than usual and you can feel it. Canada had shut its borders to non-essential travel by foreign nationals. Only two staffers tend to the passengers making international connections. When I sneeze into my sleeve, a short-haired Caucasian woman shoots a dirty look at me. She ushers her daughter along, distancing herself.
As I watch two boys play football over an empty row of chairs, I call Sara, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, to talk about her experience.
Sara ’21 was sightseeing with her friend in Seville, Spain, when she received word that the Trump administration was considering a travel ban in Europe; she needed to book the nearest plane ticket back.
Ticket prices had risen to as much as $18,000 for a one-way ticket from Madrid to JFK Airport, but she managed to book a one-way flight to London, and then a seat from there to New York.
She calls me from Chicago, where she’s staying at a friend’s apartment indefinitely. She is from a CDC Level 3 Country and did not consider returning home. If she flies back, the U.S. might implement travel restrictions that would prevent her from returning to New York for her summer internship in finance. Without this internship, she will lose her chance at getting a full-time job offer. “My family is very worried about me, but I don’t think they necessarily want me back because they know how much my job means to me,” Sara said. Although she is a foreign student, a “non-resident alien”, in the United States, and like me, cannot call it her home, it is home to her ambitions, her dreams, her future.
“I think the impact on international students is present in a way that isn’t always recognised,” Matt said.
The sense of displacement, Matt explained, accompanying isolation from one’s family, can be dangerous for the mental health of these students. Now, he is passing time by writing poems. In one, he asks, “Homecoming, coming not. / Who knew celebrations stopped for breath?”
Boarding the plane from Vancouver to Tokyo, I see dozens of Japanese students returning home. False eyelashes and fair skin peek out from beneath their face masks. I can tell it is a flight full of Japanese students because hardly anyone has put their seat down—they are acculturated to be considerate. I feel guilty for lowering my seat as far as it can go; America has inflected my behaviour with unabashed individualism.
From Tokyo, I fly to Singapore. The plane is less than a quarter full. I count only nineteen heads in my cabin. Soon, international flights to Singapore will dwindle to no more than a few a day. By then, I hope that my friends will all be safely sealed into their homes, certain they’ll have a place to wait out the pandemic.
I think of how the virus is encouraging countries to put up borders and bans in the interest of national security. But when Vietnam stops exporting rice and Europe hoards medical supplies, rice bowls in Asia may go empty; hospitals in developing countries will suffer. I remember the first day of international orientation at Yale, when I climbed the hill to the planetarium to watch the solar eclipse with my new friends from Kenya and Malaysia, and Taiwan and Indonesia. We squinted at the burning orb through a pinhole camera, and I thought of how this coin-sized star illuminates not only the seven continents we call home, but our entire solar neighbourhood. I wonder when I will meet these people again.
When I said goodbye to my best friend and travel partner in Mexico, arms wrapped around him, tears seeping into his shirt, he told me that he will see me back home—our real home, not the one where we can be barred from reentry. Yes, I say, our home, as if to remind myself that it is a real place.
As the plane descends over Singapore, I see the narrow river of lights lining the causeway to Malaysia. Our closest neighbour closed her borders just days before. The aircraft grounded in the airport wink at me; they were once bound for a different destination. To them, Singapore is just a port of transit. To me, it’s my only home.
–Ko Lyn Cheang is a junior in Grace Hopper College.