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What COVID-19 means for an international student

By Petrina Yuen

I felt like I had no choice. I sat on the floor tossing tossing into my bags I looked up at the poster I had just put up just barely two weeks ago, I didn’t grow up in Sydney it felt like home and now I had to leave.

 I came to UNSW not just to get an education, but to explore Australia and partake in a culture other than my own. However in recent circumstances being outside, hitting up Newtown, meeting friends, the typical hallmarks of a uni experience now felt dangerous, irresponsible even. This was all made more ominous by the sudden notice of border closures and a message from  authorities asking me to return home as soon as possible.

Studying in Sydney was supposed to be an experience of a lifetime, and it was, till hand sanitisers started appearing in front of building entrances, face masks started sounding like a good idea and feeling weary around others became the new normal. There was a new urgency to try and fit as many activities and experiences before everything had to shut down and I had to leave. I had already booked my flight, my days were numbered, and I was determined to still make the best of my time. I filled my days with friends at Coogee and Bondi, the wide expanse of ocean, sand, and sunshine offering respite from the onslaught of breaking news articles on the growing pandemic. Yet deep down a wave of sudden onset nostalgia was raging, I had fallen in love with the stunning sprawling landscapes of Sydney and something told me it would be a while till we would meet again, and that even if we did nothing would be the same. The next day I woke up to an email informing me my flight home had been cancelled. Normally not a morning person, I was now wide awake and urgently trying to book the earliest possible flight, just like that my desire to enjoy another day in Sydney had vanished.  

Just before I left I went to see the harbor one last time, like a new lover saying goodbye. I was struck by the eerie stillness that surrounded the opera house, a once crowded world attraction was now empty. Shops that have always been filled with tourists were now closed, just like the opera house. Plans that I had once made with a friend to watch a play at the iconic landmark now seemed so frivolous and distant. There were other things on my mind now, like sudden farewells, strange online classes, bags, too many bags and how I was going to haul all that stuff home by myself. Oh and not to forget a healthy dose of impending doom, gloom and fear.

My last day came both too soon and not soon enough, it was bittersweet. I didn’t come all the way here to leave after barely a month, it was way too much effort but perhaps it was worth the memories. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry of relief when I boarded the plane, the snaking lines at the airport reflected the desperation and gravity of the closing of borders.

As the plane took off I knew I couldn’t wait to be safe at home, when I could finally take off my mask.

Unfortunately, I was not able to bring everything home, instead, I gave all my food and toilet rolls away knowing what a commodity they had become, everything else, I packed up in storage, securely awaiting my return, whenever that might be. It’s been two weeks since I left Sydney and have since completed my required quarantine at home. I eagerly await my return to UNSW once again.

Petrina Yuen is a Singaporean, currently in her first year of a Master’s of Commerce at UNSW. She has extensive work experience in the tech start-up industry and is the founder of Shophouse Sixtyfive. She has also started the volunteer initiative Letters For Joy.