• Amber Shan

Chinese New Year during COVID-19: what it means for international students, families, and communitie


a view of the Nanjing Nan train station during new year

“I still feel like we are still in 2020 even when it’s already 2021, just because we have not celebrated the Chinese New Year,” says Vivian Kou, a freshman currently doing remote learning in Shanghai. In normal times, the week before the Chinese New Year (CNY), the airport and the train station would be crowded with people coming back to their hometowns. But this year, with the Covid-19, how is the CNY different from the past years?


Due to the ongoing pandemic, the Chinese government has restricted people from traveling back to their hometown and encouraged people to stay local for the spring festival. The words of a Chinese blogger on Weibo (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter) captures the feelings of disappointment prompted by not being able to celebrate CNY with family back home: “I feel lonely when I’m alone in my apartment in Shanghai, I can only have quick-freeze dumplings for dinner. I facetime with my relatives and I feel even more lonely...”


For those who insisted on traveling back to their hometown and to visit relatives, the government released two major restrictions: 1) returners have to have a negative covid testing result from a hospital three days before boarding a train or airplane; 2) the returners should have a green health code — which is a covid tracker that monitors whether you have been to certain places with significant covid cases — green denotes that you are safe while red indicates that you were exposed to the virus.


In contrast to past years, airports have been empty, and it’s less noisy and festive on the street. “I returned to my hometown Beijing last month, I did my covid testing the day before I went on the airplane,” says Gina Qiao, a resident of Shanghai and the mother of Stevo freshman Amber Shan. “They checked my health code a few times in the airport. I feel that everything’s worth it when I see my relative’s face.” She reflected on the complexity of returning to hometowns: “It’s definitely a lot more complicated to return to our hometown this year. But I think it is totally reasonable and we can limit the spread of covid cases.''


Being able to see relatives’ faces is a blessing, but imagine celebrating Chinese New Year all the while studying for online school, when you have to wake up at 4 a.m. to log onto Zoom with unstable internet connections. “I’m glad that we can spend our Chinese New Year at our hometown, but at my grandpa’s house we have no internet, so I have to use my unstable cellular network to do Zoom,” says Janet Zhou, an international student from the Master’s School, a boarding school on the East Coast. “My connections are really unstable, and I have to bring a lot of textbooks, science equipment, and acrylic paints back to my hometown, it’s really inconvenient. Especially when all of my cousins are at breaks, but we still have to do our homework and essays, it’s really hard to concentrate.”


We should be grateful that we can still come back to our hometown, and see our relatives’ faces. Hopefully next year, people can celebrate Chinese New Year in their hometown without any obstacles but instead plenty of the usual social chatter and festive atmosphere in the street. We will hopefully be able to hug and kiss all of our loved ones without being socially distanced in 2022.


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