The forgotten goodbye: the last days in the States for an international student
March 13rd, 2020:
“We don’t want you to go back home because of the risk of catching the virus while traveling,” my parents said sternly.
March 14th, 2020:
“Stay wherever you are,” my parents said and hung up after I told them classes would be online for the rest of the semester.
“You’re staying right?” My friend, who is a senior, asked me.
“Yeah, they said it’s too risky for me to go back,” I answered, a bit worried.
March 15th, 2020:
“Get back home, now!” my parents said anxiously. “Book the earliest flight you can. If you can’t afford the tickets then we will pay for you. It’s important that you leave as soon as possible.”
And just like that, I was given only two days to pack everything I own, make necessary traveling arrangements, take care of visa documents, email my professors, and say goodbye to my friends. Everything happened so fast that it felt like a blur. Day one, I was buying groceries and disinfectant wipes to prepare for the virus; day two, I was making group fitness plans with my friends to make sure we stay healthy everyday; day three, I was canceling everything and rushing back home.
The last two days on campus everything felt gloomy and depressing. Everywhere I went, I saw people with their families carrying out boxes, one by one, to put them in the trunk before driving away from Beloit. I saw friends exchanging hugs and saying their last goodbyes filled with an uncertainty of whether their paths would ever cross again. In Commons a heavy and tense silence engulfed the atmosphere. A girl was sniffling over the phone because she could not say goodbye to her friends in person. Everyone was busy texting or was in their own little world. The friend I went to Commons with was also deep in thought, maybe taking the time to register what had happened.
Knowing that this was my last time eating in Commons as a junior, every interaction with the staff became more cherished. “Thank you,” I said and looked at the old woman who has been swiping my cards at Commons for three years with a forced smile. Three years here without knowing each other’s name yet but she always knew what time I would be coming and what my meal plan was.
“Please take care of yourself and be careful,” I said to her when I left without asking for her name. Maybe deep down inside, I was hoping that I could always ask for her name next year, when everything will have gone back to normal, that this was not the last goodbye.
I do not do well with goodbyes since I get emotionally attached easily. That’s probably why I cried when I could not bring my stuffed animals with me to college. Or when the boy I was talking to for a month suddenly cut me off. So imagine the distress when I took off the posters, unplugged the lights in my room and reluctantly removed all of my belongings out of the room in the house I had been living in for almost a year. The house where just yesterday, I was having dinner with my friends while planning all the things to keep us entertained on campus together. I should be familiar with moving out by now since I have been doing this at the end of every academic year for two years, but this time it hit differently.
The hardest thing was to say goodbye to the people on campus. It’s situations like this that make me appreciate every relationship I have. A goodbye wave turned into a long embrace and the “see you later” now became “we will see each other again.” We say these things with hopes of them being true but of course, during this time, nothing is promised.
One day left. I started to have second thoughts. A (huge) part of me did not want to leave because first, I don’t like sudden changes, and second, I didn’t want to be a financial burden to my country. Every Vietnamese citizen coming back from abroad would have to complete a 14-day mandatory quarantine camp where you would get three meals a day and daily health check-ups, with all expenses paid by the government. At that time, quarantine camps nationwide had started to be overladen so I felt extremely selfish to be back. Vietnam is still a poor country so the thought that the government had to waste money and resources on an individual (me) who could have stayed in one place did not sit well with me. But then I thought about my parents and how anxious they sounded over the last few days and that was enough reason for me to believe that going back was the right thing to do. Then I started feeling guilty because I had the financial ability to buy a flight ticket to the other side of the world whereas some students I talked to could not afford to go to another state. Some couldn’t go back to a high stake area and some had troubles with family. Luckily, I did not have either of those issues so going back home felt like a privilege to me.
The day finally came.. I went to the airport at 7am so the goodbyes were rushed, just like everything else. I had my masks, gloves, wipes, and hand sanitizers. I left Beloit physically prepared to travel, but mentally, something was missing. It was not until I went to my assigned gate, waiting to board that I received a text from my senior friend who I had forgotten to tell I was leaving.