Before Lockdown: opportunities, experiences and new beginnings
It was a place brimming with opportunity. It was a place for character building, a place for
reinvention, to transform into an entirely different and new person. It was also a place that filled
him with immense anxiety.
It was university, and he was about to enter the belly of the beast for the first time ever, 5000
miles away from home.
Alongside his parents, he steps out of the cab, lugging his two enormous suitcases. Wrapped in
layers upon layers of clothing, with a scarf around his neck, he braces against the chilly
autumnal air as he leads his parents to the college reception to get his room key. It almost
doesn't feel real, as he inserts the keycard into the reader and a yellow light beckons him to
enter his home away from home.
Arms envelop him in the tightest embrace he's ever experienced, as his parents say their
goodbyes and leave him alone in his dorm room. The initial feeling of surreal excitement of
studying abroad makes way for a sudden, unwelcome feeling of intense homesickness, as he
begins to sob into his bedding-less bed. He was on his own now, far far away from home
comforts and familiar faces. As he sobs, he worries about making friends, about feeling
alienated due to the colour of his skin and his distinctly foreign accent. He worries about coping
academically, about living independently, about practically every aspect imaginable.
As the months went by however, he ended up having the time of his life, his worries evaporating
as soon as they had come. As he worked part-time as a tutor for children back home, he
jumped at the chance for the opportunity to continue working with children, volunteering in
creative workshops, in the Jorvik Viking Festival's family-oriented activities, and even to offer
personalized face-painting for children at a university event. It gave him a sense of fulfilment, to
see the children's faces beam with joy, to see their eyes light up with excitement.
Being in the UK also meant that he finally had the opportunity to watch live theatre. On his own,
he took the train to London for a short trip, and experienced an indescribable feeling of wonder
and euphoria, as his favourite Shakespeare play came to life right before his eyes. It was one
thing to watch pre-recorded performances on the screen of his laptop, and another to see the
actors in the flesh reciting monologues of beautiful verse. Studying abroad also gave him the
golden opportunity to attend his first comic convention, allowing him to meet his favourite actor
in the flesh, telling him how much his performances and work had meant to him.
Studying abroad gave him not only the chance to study literature in York, a city full of history,
culture and heritage, but it also offered him a palpable sense of independence, independence
that he had never felt whilst under the roof of his overprotective (but well-meaning) parents. He
solo travelled, forged friendships and felt like he had become a new and better person. He felt
like he had finally become the independent individual he had tried to be in front of his loving but
It was a place brimming with opportunity. It was a place for character building, a place for
reinvention, to transform into an entirely different and new person. Initially it was a place that
also filled him with anxiety when he first arrived, but now upon reflection it was a place that
offered him unforgettable experiences that he would cherish.
Little did he know, life was about to take a turn for the unexpected and the surreal, as the
dreaded headline "UK's first coronavirus cases confirmed" stared back at him from his phone.
During Lockdown: worries, paranoia and longings
(Content Warning: brief mentions of racism)
The phone alarm beeps, its chime loud and incessant, reverberating against his eardrums like a
call to action. Slowly he pulls himself out of bed, out of the warm comfort of his blanket. With his
bleary, still-sleepy eyes he scans his room, his eyes falling on the mountains of haphazardly
placed books scattered across his desk, sheets of loose paper strewn everywhere, almost
burying his laptop. He looks outside his window, at the morning joggers walking their dogs,
masks covering their faces.
For the past month, he wakes up in the morning hoping this whole situation was nothing but a
surreal nightmare, only to be reminded of the grim, anxiety-inducing reality by the headlines he
sees when he logs onto social media. Headlines like "10 new coronavirus cases confirmed in
North Yorkshire" and "Surge in the number of deaths recorded" greet him daily, gradually
diminishing the light at the end of the tunnel, reducing it from a beacon of hope to a feeble
flicker, making it seem like the pandemic will be here to stay. Every day he is reminded of the
horrible things happening, of the fact that he cannot see his friends, of the overwhelming feeling
of homesickness that intensifies and washes over him like an unstoppable and ever-growing
Life before lockdown seems distant to him. The volunteering, the society meetups, the theatre
trips, the spontaneous walks through the York city centre......everything that was part of his
daily life feels like a distant memory now. He had gone to his final lecture, seminar, workshop
and even library trip without even realizing it. He misses the hugs from his friends, their laughter
and their familiar faces. Grainy camera footage of their faces on Zoom, choppy video call audio,
games of Scribbl.io and Netflix parties only end up reminding him of the physical distance, of his
inability to see any of them in person. The phrase "the new normal" is plastered everywhere,
mentioned in the new coronavirus-themed ads he now gets on social media. The seemingly
innocuous phrase begins to annoy him, anger him even, as he tries (and fails) to come to terms
with the unavoidable reality unfolding around him.
When 2020 began, he had made a new year's resolution to do better both academically and
mental health-wise. The pandemic had risen like an unwanted invader into his life, crushing any
ounce of hope and optimism and transforming them into palpable pessimism. He listens to his
online lectures, contributes posts to the discussion boards on the VLE and completes his
24-hour online exam, whilst negative emotions continue to bombard him and cause his mental
health to deteriorate more and more. University was meant to be exciting, but now during
lockdown it was draining.
He wears a mask when he goes grocery shopping, coating every part of his hands in layers
upon layers of hand sanitizer. When he walks out to the shops, he is aware of the stares of
others, aware of their eyes on him. News reports of racism targeting Asians had been plastered
on every news site and every social media outlet, news of people getting attacked and spat on
and insulted because they were seen as carriers of the virus, despite the fact that a virus
spreads indiscriminately and does not pick and choose based on race. The virus had become
an easy way of justifying racial prejudice against those of his race. His parents from the other
end of the globe call him and warn him of the rampant rise in racism, reminding him to stay safe.
The fact that such warnings are needed in the first place makes him feel a sense of dread and
worry that sinks to the deepest pit of his stomach.
Fortunately during his fortnightly grocery shop runs he has only had a couple of racist
encounters, encounters that were merely long-held disdainful glares from two different
passersby. These glares pierced daggers into him and activated his fight or flight response, but
ultimately (and fortunately) never evolved into physical attacks or verbal insults. He sees himself
as one of the lucky ones, as he cannot say the same for others of his race, who end up bloody
and beaten, battered and bruised, who end up as sensational headlines begging for clicks. The
pandemic has made him painfully aware of his skin colour, of his difference, making him feel
indescribably alienated in a city that was meant to be his home away from home.
University had made him feel safe in first year, but now the pandemic had transformed it into a
place that made him anxious like never before. He misses the smiles of the people in the city
centre. He misses his friends from university and his friends back in his home country. He
misses worrying about essays and readings and keeping up with extracurricular commitments.
He misses the things that made studying abroad worthwhile.
At the same time however, he cannot help but feel like his worries are insignificant. He
understands that he is in a much more privileged position than others, still being able to afford
food and have a place to stay in spite of the disruption to normal life. He feels selfish for feeling
the way he does. He misses family, friends and a semblance of normalcy, yet there are people
out there who have family members on the frontlines, or who are struggling to make ends meet
and fill their stomachs.
As he lays in bed staring at the ceiling, he feels woefully alone despite the support systems
offered by his department and university, and the offers of his friends to lend an ear. He is
reluctant to trouble anyone with his worries, so he simmers in them, allowing them to fester and
bubble and boil within him like a toxic potion brewing in a cauldron. 2020 feels like a strange
dream to him, as he desperately hopes for a restart on the year or for time to fast forward to the
end of the pandemic.