By Anh Nguyen
It was only my fourth night in quarantine. Around 7 p.m., while reading a news article on her phone, the woman in the bed next to me exclaimed in distress, “Somebody in this quarantine area just tested positive!”
We sat in a room enclosed by the borders of Vietnam National University — a mother, her 5-year-old toddler, a newly pregnant woman in her late 20s and me, a student returning from Boston University obsessively counting down the days until I would reunite with my family. A positive case meant there was potential for an extension of our quarantine period.
The other woman rushed to call a family member: “Some foreigner here has it,” she said, “and she probably gave it to everyone in her room… It’s so unfortunate.” She went on ranting about the ignorance of American people: “I saw pictures, they walk around not wearing masks or anything.”
The Vietnamese government declared a war on this pandemic — a narrative both powerful and flawed. This common goal evoked a sense of unity within the country, but for there to be a war, there needed to be an enemy. Uncertainty and distrust manifested as the need for a scapegoat prevailed.
As suspicions crept in, I felt situated among those to blame — a possible carrier, an enemy, a foreigner in her own homeland.
I arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport on the evening of March 20. Every bit of the trip up to that point was met with uncertainty: flights were canceled, several countries rejected foreign arrivals and the Vietnamese borders were rumored to soon close.
I luckily made it back in time before any border closures, but I was still oblivious to what quarantine entailed. After hours at the airport, 10 tightly-packed buses, including mine, were transported to a facility 40 minutes away. Upon arrival, we showed documents stating our entrances from “infected” areas, and got sprayed down with disinfectant.
It wasn’t surprising that a quarantine area meant to accommodate over 4,000 people wasn’t comparable to a five-star resort. However, several international students spoke out about their living conditions on social media and received major backlash. Their dissatisfaction visibly disrupted this perceived national unity and people began treating them as ungrateful foreigners.
If we can’t stay in a country that would never let us call it home, where we fear the repercussions of racist sentiments everyday, nor can we return to our home country and feel like we are still part of it, where do we go?
On the walls of my bathroom in quarantine was a poster that read, in Vietnamese, “This isn’t just a space where students live, it is also a space where students learn and grow.” I imagined myself in the place of the students who live there year-round and realized it was quite shameful that we international students, having lived and adjusted to many places, had a hard time adapting to home. Many students opted to use their privilege to spend their quarantine in resort locations, an option that costs over 400 U.S. dollars.
The idea of quarantine inevitably generates tension between the values of protecting public health and upholding individual freedom. The fear and solidarity that arose from this pandemic manifested drastic differences between the two cultures I embody.
There I sat, on a balance, frustrated that neither side understood the other, yet also estranged to the mindsets that accommodated both extremes. I couldn’t equate the existence of international students to the reason we’re not winning as a country, nor could I allow American people to see our quarantine situation as a violation of our rights.
The pandemic we’re experiencing is something beyond the individual and the nation. A global crisis requires us to be global citizens, and that starts with an open mind.
During my 14 days, I woke up every morning at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of people, old and young, playing soccer or kicking shuttlecocks in a small area outside our building barricaded by thin red tape. I see them laughing and enjoying themselves while still wearing masks and being cautious of others.
Compassion over our shared humanity during these confusing times should feel as easy as that.