Editor's note: As China was fighting against COVID-19, many international students stayed in China. This is a letter from Noor-ul-Huda, a PhD scholar at University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (institute: Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences).
It was January when I received my graduation certificate and after completing all formalities, I booked a flight of January 29 to get back to my home country Pakistan.
Being the first girl in my family to achieve a doctorate degree, especially from a well-reputed university in China, was something worth celebrating with my family. As it was my birthday on January 30, my family had planned a big party to celebrate my birthday and my PhD on my return from Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province.
But all of a sudden, there were announcements of locking down Wuhan city. Through all possible communication means I had: my supervisor, International Students’ Office, friends, news pages on WeChat and even my telecommunication company reminding me to stock essential items, I learnt that the entire city was going to be shut down in two hours.
Those two hours were too short for me because my visa would get expired by the end of January. At that time the Hubei provincial government and my school – Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, stood by my side and provided me with all the possible assistance one could expect.
My visa got automatically renewed for 60 days without any fee and my ticket was fully refunded too. I couldn’t stop praising the efficiency of the Chinese government. They had an emergency plan for residents of Wuhan before announcing quarantine for the city.
The next step was to compromise with the situation and to make my family understand that staying in Wuhan was the best choice. They got worried about my health and food. So I showed them all the food I had stocked and later showed them my life here via video calls. They could see how I wore the mask, gloves, thick jacket, scarf… and how the security guard checked my body temperature before my friends and I went to the market for shopping together.
We were also provided with masks, fresh vegetables and fish by our teachers as a caring gesture. Our health status was recorded daily as well, so my family got relieved for I was safe and under good care here. Muslim community in Wuhan also gifted us fresh vegetables, halal meat, rice and wheat flour as a unity gesture. Community shopping was a wonderful experience on its own and staff members tried their best to provide what we needed.
When situation got eased, we eight international students were divided into two groups. Each group could go shopping once a week to buy necessities for us all.
During quarantine, the government of Pakistan advised all students to stand by China in this hard time and cooperate with local health authorities. The two countries are iron friends since long. I chose to spend the memorable time by witnessing a strong nation fighting with this epidemic.
I witnessed Chinese army and paramedical staff coming from different parts of China to assist Wuhan. I witnessed my country proudly supporting China. I witnessed tired yet determined faces of health workers and the marks on their faces. I witnessed research centers working hard to develop remedies against this virus. I witnessed transparency of the data shared by China.
I myself donated money to buy protective gears for frontline workers and witnessed a boy silently leaving boxes of masks to the policemen. I witnessed people performing their duties even in the snow. I saw my supervisor, Professor Xie Shouqi, dragging a cart and distributing vegetables among community members. I celebrated my birthday all alone in the room singing birthday songs to myself, which was a unique experience.
I recorded a video in Urdu language for my country mates on basic preventive measures against COVID-19 that I practiced during the lockdown, so that my experience could help them. It was watched on social media and well appreciated among the Pakistani community.
Noor-ul-Huda holds a banner of University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. Photo: Courtesy of Noor-ul-Huda
My friends and I also started making meaningful public service slogans about COVID-19 and the importance of quarantine, especially self-quarantine at home, in English and Urdu. We circulated it among all friends, family, teachers in both countries so that they could save themselves and others. The slogans were: “Quarantine is not a prison; it is for greater good.” and “Quarantine is not a curse. This isolation will save you and the whole nation.”
Apart from raising public awareness, another reason of making these slogans was to condemn the discriminatory behaviors we were facing from different parts of the world. People should understand that virus respects no geographical boundaries and gender. Mass gatherings could be the main source of its spreading; quarantining Wuhan and social distancing was the best possible solutions to contain it, and working on its remedy is the best practice. These were the footprints China offered the world to follow, and were the best answer to all the fabricated "truths" and false propaganda.
When others were busy in passing the buck, China was busy in constructing two hospitals in record time. I had full confidence in the Chinese government’s efficiency and its health facilities. I also believed that the situation would be better soon and Chinese economy would roar again. The special period proved China as a role model to other nations. Now Wuhan is back to life, China has almost been healed, and the country is helping other nations by all possible means.
When I look back, I sum up my experience during the lockdown as ‘roller coaster of emotions’ as homesickness, increased number of cases, decreased number of deaths and suspected cases, possible cure for COVID-19, caring gestures from the community, motivational words from teachers, family and friends used to bring multiple mood swings within a day.
Death is not just a human body loss but is actually the loss of an entire source of expertise, and those gaps are hard to fill. I would like to pay homage to all people in the world who lost their lives in the pandemic.
A screenshot of Noor-ul-Huda’s social media post with captions reading
“A birthday in quarantine” and “Come on, Wuhan.” Photo: Courtesy of Noor-ul-Huda
Photography and sightseeing are my hobbies. I once won photography competitions in my institute. Moreover, I am “Belt and Road Tourism Ambassador” appointed by Belt and Road Travelers Alliance to promote the charms of Hubei and Wuhan to the world.
I learnt to sing Huangmei opera during my Chinese language class and have sung it on various events. I always feel good when I get praise from Chinese people for performing the opera, though I am far from perfection. I got an opportunity to publish my experience with Chinese culture and Huangmei opera as an expat in the Changjiang Weekly.
Such cultural exchanges will always connect me with Wuhan. During the lockdown, I seldom went for running or took pictures of spring inside the institute to freshen up. I got plenty of ‘me time’ in my room which served as ‘my space’ for self-realization. I got time to relax after graduation, and to know my strengths and tolerance range under stressful circumstances.
I call Wuhan my second home and I would like to express my sincere wishes to the Chinese people. I wish Wuhan prosperity by leaps and bounds.