Having to video call my family in the late hours of the night to counter the time difference between Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, cooking to brighten up my days and furthering a hobby despite not having roommates around to share my food with — this is my new normal.
A twinge of homesickness hits when I wake up to texts informing me that the rest of my family and extended relatives in Asia spent hours playing a board game on an online platform while I was asleep. As an international student at USC, social distancing and quarantine have brought with it a unique set of challenges. They are small things, granted, and I remain grateful for financial stability, the (virtual) support of my friends and loved ones and the routine that online classes offer. But the small things add up.
And when they add up, they widen the gap between my experiences and those of my friends, the majority of whom happen to be from this country. USC has felt like home for more than two years now, and I credit that to my community of friends, who, with each passing semester, made me feel less like a foreigner and helped me believe that this was where I belonged.
But in a time where these friends have moved to social distance in the comfort of their family homes and the adrenaline-pumping nonstop nature of college that leaves little time for homesickness has eased, my sense of belonging starts to waver. When the orders to stay at home were first announced, people around me sighed about having to “go home” for quarantine. But for someone who’s spent almost three years trying to make campus feel like my new home, what does “going home” even mean?
Coming to college approximately 7,000 miles away from home meant branching out and making a space for myself in the world. True, it was never explicit; I was never told that I had to move away and have a home of my own post graduation, but for as long as I can remember, it seemed inevitable that I would travel to a different continent, to a city where I knew absolutely no one, to pursue an education that would allow me to live an independent life. There is little space in that narrative for what you are supposed to do when your education, the primary purpose behind that life, is functionally put on pause.
At a time when visa restrictions are in flux, when travel bans are self-imposed by other nations, and when both the administration’s rhetoric and federal policies within the United States are increasingly unpredictable, the safest option for international students seems to be to “stick it out.” To stay here — perhaps alone, on or near a campus that has likely become a ghost town — is to avoid the possibility of being told that once this is all over, we might not be able to return despite the fact that this is now where we call home. To evade being caught on the wrong end of American travel restrictions, staying away from family for a few months seems a fair price to pay. After all, making it on our own is a force of habit by now.
“Why come all this way for college?” is a question I have heard time and time again in the last few years. The promise of a more prestigious education, perhaps? Or, more accurately, the promise of a land of endless opportunities? Not being American does not mean that I escaped growing up with the ideals of the American dream. But now, with federal social distancing policies here lacking in comparison to those facing my family back home and the growing rate of coronavirus cases throwing into sharp relief the flaws in this “more developed” American system of governance and health care, I begin to wonder if studying abroad, as we sometimes jokingly refer to it as, is deserving of the rose-tinted glasses we international kids are taught to look at it with.
It may not be rose-tinted anymore, but I am still beyond grateful for the experiences studying in the United States have brought. Staying away from my family is not easy, but the unending support from friends who know I am weathering this storm alone is a constant reminder of all that I have gained.
Reach out to your international friends, even if it is just a text to remind them that you are there for them. The knowledge that our Trojan family is here to support us goes a long way.