Being an international student and being stuck in a foreign country in the midst of a once-in-a century pandemic was the last thing I had in mind when imagining how my freshman year of college would pan out.
Eventually, after seven months of quarantining at a friend’s house in a SoCal suburb, two long connecting flights and a bag-full of disposable face masks, I landed back right where I said farewell to my family a year ago.
Having freshman year of college cut short was, to say the least, a bummer for a girl so eager to personally experience what she has been vicariously living through in all her favorite coming-of-age films.
If my 2020 could be made into a movie – categorized as something along the lines of a melodramatic action thriller – coronavirus was the plot twist that even the director was not aware of.
Flying back to Vietnam was not a trip I could plan months in advance as I ended up having only three days to pack a year’s worth of things after receiving a notification for one of the few flights confirmed to be eligible to fly during these challenging times.
Oct. 11 was anything but a normal Sunday as I made my way back to Vietnam after months of waiting for its borders to open up. LAX had never been so empty from my observation, while strolling through the airport to find my gate, dressed head-to-toe in personal protective gear that was given by the airline to ensure everyone’s safety.
Steaming in my blue jumpsuit for 21 hours on board, I couldn’t help but to feel both anxious and excited watching the “time to destination” on the plane’s monitor get closer to zero. Thinking about multiple times being disheartened as my flights were consistently being rescheduled and cancelled. Finally touching down in Vietnam was a cathartic moment for me to say the least.
Before I could say that I was actually home, I went through 14 days of mandatory quarantine at a designated hotel for flight passengers entering the country and needless to say, it was an experience I will remember and tell for years to come.
As quarantine rules stated that we cannot leave our room at any point without approval, getting used to the four enclosed walls for two weeks was something even a homebody like myself struggled with.
However, I was glad to at least go through the experience with a friend, another international student, as we shared a fairly spacious room with comfortable individual beds and standard hotel amenities. She also celebrated her birthday in quarantine which is definitely an interesting way to enter one’s 20s.
Our daily mandated routine consisted of three meals delivered outside our door at designated times, two temperature checks and a trash drop-off at the end of the day. Every few days, a nasal swab test was also performed on us by the assigned local medical team.
After swapping out bread and pasta for rice and rice noodles for my meals, it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t in America anymore. A more obvious indicator was adjusting to the time zone difference as I quickly acknowledged how my whole routine in Vietnam would have to be flipped around – working at graveyard hours and sleeping during the day.
I think both college students and professors can agree that remote learning is not the ideal method but on top of that, attending classes at extreme hours like 2 a.m. definitely took a toll on me and my education.
Though our routine was quite mundane and uneventful for the most part, the thought of experiencing a normal pre-COVID life was enough to motivate us to get through every day.
After two weeks of mandatory quarantine, I came out of the experience with once-in-a-lifetime memories and a stolen waste bag imprinted with the World Health Organization logo.
Two weeks after landing in Vietnam, I could finally say that I was truly back home.
Hien Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.