On the 3rd anniversary of the first lockdowns, we’re privileged to have our intern Mudi (Moodie) Xu give us a personal account of learning to survive and thrive through the pandemic, a long, long way from home.
It was a late night in January 2023; I was on a call with one of my clients, trying to explain why it’s not a good idea to just copy and paste marketing content to ‘save some time’ on creating PR material. As I breathed a sigh of relief, a notification lit up my phone’s screen. It was an Instagram ‘memory’ alert from January 11, 2020. As I opened it, I saw a story about my roommate and I overwhelmed with our finals during our first year studying abroad. I remember feeling constantly stressed about my studies because it’s so hard for us to study a Humanities and Arts course in a different language.
It was not until this very moment that I started to realise how much I have changed by throwing myself out there and embarking on a journey of new experiences – even if it sounds impossible for a shy person who covertly avoids initial real-life social interaction because of the fear of rejection and bad experiences. (which by the way, is why my social media archive remembers everything about me. )
Humans are social creatures
"When the pandemic hit us, I doubted I could live in a world with security measures and social distancing. But the truth is, I’ve already survived in it for nearly three years. "
The first time I visited the UK was on a school trip when I was 11 years old. I remember passing by the moors and crags when we were travelling by bus, just like I imagined from the portrayal of nature in Wuthering Heights. And I can’t believe I am saying this, but I really enjoyed the weather here at the time. It was always rainy and moody, so I could snuggle in my bedroom all day and do my own things.
When I eventually came back to finish my undergraduate degree, my expectations were simple: enjoy the learning opportunity overseas, go home when the semester ends, meet my old friends, stay in my comfort zone and follow the life track that my parents chose for me.
However, with Covid, the whole picture changed; it became distorted and unfamiliar. Have you seen the film Inside Out? It’s just like that. With the sudden change in the external environment, emotions that were well-balanced in your mind lost control.
Friendship dissolution and being alone in a foreign country
"I let the ‘Sadness’ take control of my head, and forced ‘Joy’ out."
In 2019, as a communications student, I was supposed to have better conversational English skills, but I didn’t. Simply because I had adapted my overseas life well enough to live with my friends I’d known for a long time, who were also international students. I was still safely in that zone with people who shared similar experiences, and who understood the same pop culture references. Most importantly, they could tolerate my temper and my self-centeredness, and they still cared for me.
Then, the pandemic begins. While all my friends travelled back to China, I decided to stay in the UK to avoid the necessary quarantine process and finish my degree in a frictionless way (as I said, constant stress). And that’s how our friendship dissolution began. Without participating in each other’s everyday life, we couldn’t keep up with each other’s life events and stories. My desire to share disappeared when I needed to explain the entire story background beforehand. That used to be so easy when we were living next door to each other.
If ‘Joy’ was not completely lost before, now she vanished completely
I read a lot of papers on how to make friends when living aboard, which piqued my curiosity and positivity in initiating a new friendship! Very soon I became friends with other exchange students from Italy and Germany. Jonas, Enya, Martina and I followed the news that ‘Dinosaurs’ footprints have been found on Penarth seafront’, and had an archaeology trip together.
But what those articles didn’t tell me is, sustaining the friendship is more difficult than I thought. Just when I thought everything was fine, they went back right after one semester, and I lost my late-night movie buddies again. The moment we started to feel comfortable around each other, surprise! They LEFT! Not only them, but almost all the international students I knew also went back to their country when I still had one semester to finish.
Not being socially connected created a huge emotional package and made me feel like an isolated island in the middle of the English Channel. With the persistent threat of the pandemic looming over us all, and those noises in the news, my emotions have grown more volatile.
"Then, ‘Joy’ pulls out the song 'fix u' and plays it over and over again in my head."
As I found myself grappling with these adolescents’ quirky emotions, I came to realise that I should be braver. Life is about perspective, and choosing to look at the bright side just makes life so much happier. Then Joy pulled out the song fix u and it plays over and over again in my head.
Of course, it doesn’t magically happen. I resolved to make the effort, to reach out to student center, to talk to my friends, and do regular exercise. And I decided to throw myself out in the city, be more proactive and engage in different workshops and events. Eventually, I started to volunteer to be an apprentice in an antique store. It seems like a reasonable start, an antique store, with different cultures and knowledge collected from all over the world. And that’s when my real life begins!
I heard people’s stories about passion
Before I met the owner of the antiques store and my friend Wei, I could never understand why people could be obsessed with materialistic things. Wei told me how much he loves archaeology, but his father changed his application for an economics major at a different university when he was on his summer vacation (yes, it’s awful). He then studied economics at Chester University while travelling from Chester to the antique store in Liverpool every weekend, just to have a chat with the owner of the shop. We squeezed into an extremely small car for 5 hours and we had to keep the window of the car open because of Covid, just to participate in an antique exhibition where he could study with an authentic Qing-dynasty Chinese Vase in his hand (it was in December). But, it reminds me of why I choose to study abroad because I can see the world outside of Literature.
And the story about doing things you love can still help others
When I helped out at an art gallery, I met a lovely Italian lady. She was a very talented art student and became a connoisseur of modern art after graduating in the 1950s. The gallery used to be a charity gallery to help female artists and other disadvantaged artists to promote their artwork. I read all the news and stories about her gallery in front of the fireplace at the corner of the gallery and learned how she practises her dream in the world from a female perspective. We keep sharing our life stories, and that’s when I realise, there are so many ways to help people by doing something you love. We keep talking and talking while watching the fire of passion thrive in that century-old fireplace.
"The inevitability of change might be a universal constant."
From all these attempts to adapt to a constantly changing world, if I have to say what has changed me in the past three years of living abroad during the pandemic, I outlived my spoiled, narrowed and delicate cage and realised that positivity and negativity live in parallel in the world. Extraordinary friendships that make you happy can also make you feel vulnerable when they are out of reach. But at the same time, in a world full of wonderful people and their adventure stories, you can always step out of your comfort zone and make the connection with happiness again. Three years after this extrinsic life change, everyone has their own version of the “pandemic story”. As an international student who arrived in the UK as an 18-year-old, I am only realising now how stepping into adulthood abroad during the pandemic was a life changer.
What do you think?