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Focus International Voices

Standing Between the Two Worlds: Korean Student’s Quarantine Life

Jae In Kim April 6, 2020

Cover Photo: Jae-In’s bedroom. Before, occasionally used as a study space, now…a classroom every day.

My college life can now be described as an empty campus while moving from one zoom class to another in my bed. I remember the moment I had to watch parents picking up their kids in front of Morgan Hall and Temple Tower, and all I could do is wait for my mom’s call, 11,907 km away from Philadelphia.

“What should I do? I don’t know what the best choice is.” Perhaps these two sentences are the most I have said in the last three weeks. I’m sure that most of the other students, even many domestic students, feel the same. The whole transition was definitely unexpected, especially for a senior international student. Even though I know that planning the future is important for everyone, international students are in a more sensitive position because there are so many things we should consider: visas, money, and families in our home countries. We naturally have to plan a few months further or more than a few years ahead to estimate an appropriate time for visa applications, internships, or leaving the U.S. 

I had my whole plan for 2020 as well: participating in graduation commencement in May with my parents, starting my summer internship in June, and hopefully working for a year. My best friend in Korea was also about to buy a flight ticket to come to the United States to see me. With the onset of the pandemic everything has changed—it reset the whole plan for most international students. Now, I can’t go to the graduation ceremony and I’m not sure when I will get an internship position. The fact that I have to restart my plan from scratch scares me because no one can do it for me—not even my parents. 

I’m not sure if I will go back to Korea soon; however, as I worry more and more, I have realized again that living as an international student is like standing between two worlds–somewhere between Korea and America. Having two identities, Korean and an international student in the U.S., sounds like two times of happiness from the outside—which is true in some way—but sometimes it can mean belonging nowhere. We can easily experience both, but we easily get lost between both. And when both worlds are in trouble, I am stuck between.

On a practical level, the most common concern as an international student during this time is whether to stay in the U.S. or not. Some might ask, “What is the problem with going back to Korea? Isn’t it just visiting your hometown?” It’s somewhat understandable because returning to the home country is the way we fly back to our cozy nest. However, for international students who want to spend another few years in this country, it isn’t a simple choice that can be made with the flip of a coin. We must continuously think of what would be the best option without worrying about re-entering.

I know some of my friends have already gone back to Korea, but I am still staying here because I applied for OPT, a visa extension for international students. I don’t want to risk leaving the U.S. I remember when I talked to my mom a few weeks ago about whether I should go back to Korea or not, and she answered: “well, just hang in there for now.” I was so sad that my mom did not worry about me while other parents were persuading their children to come back. However, now I understand her because as an international student we need to draw a bigger picture. My responsibility—I can’t go back until I achieve something in a new country—it affects every single choice that I make. The “My life in the U.S. is not over” feeling keeps pushing me away from going home, and mom must have felt the same way.

On top of the physical environment, fear of what other people might think also makes international students less confident. If I stay in the U.S, I become a random “Asian” student who potentially carries a virus, and if I go to Korea, some people would think I’m an “American” college student who brought the virus overseas. 

For three weeks, I have encountered so many frustrating situations where people express their hatred toward me because I’m Asian. Some people don’t care about the fact that I have been living in the same environment as them. They don’t care that the situation in Korea has died down to the total of 10,000, whereas the U.S. is more than 250,000. I couldn’t take Uber and SEPTA after watching a video where an Asian couple was assaulted. I couldn’t walk either because I was afraid that people on the street might harm me. The moments gathered together and gave me a powerless feeling that I don’t belong here. I know it is hard to change myself for people who don’t change, but still I want to try. Coronavirus didn’t hit me yet, but the prejudice it brought with did. It’s an unwelcome “social distancing.” Sometimes, people’s eyes are scarier than the virus.

That doesn’t mean that going back to Korea makes me comfortable. The ironic part is that only a few months ago, I wrote about the Korean Coffee Hour event, where I once again found my identity as a Korean. However, in the end, I can’t completely be freed from the title “American college student.” After the positive cases in the U.S. and other European countries started to increase, many international students have headed back to Korea. The virus from overseas naturally flowed into Korea, and the confirmed cases have increased as well. Some students did not follow the self-quarantine rules and traveled within the country, making other Koreans explode with anger. 

I know that the criticism is toward a few cases, and most of the Koreans support students who study abroad. The people around me always worry about me, ask if I need anything, and tell me to come home. The Korean government has also put in their best effort to support the full medical system for all citizens. Still, some comments have generalized international students: “They left Korea for a better life and now come back for safety.” “Korea has died down, and now international students bring another crisis.” They make me think again if I’m living the same life as other Koreans. Not because there are mean comments out there, but because I can simply be defined by “American college student,” regardless of my struggles. Again, people’s eyes are scarier than the virus, it doesn’t matter where you are.

I ended My Last Semester Goal article with a message “pressing the PAUSE button doesn’t necessarily mean failure.” I didn’t expect that pause to be this long. The past few days, I have been looking for a good conclusion for this article: a hopeful conclusion that people expected and can summarize my situation. Yet I haven’t been able to find the answer to this one, have you? Uncertainty is commonly used to describe international students, and now adding the current situation has intensified it to a whole different level. But one thing I know for sure after finishing this article is to go and look for that conclusion.