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‘Coronacation,’ my experience as an international student

Tirzah Christopher is a junior journalism major. Photo via Tirzah Christopher.

The week before spring break was one of the most exciting and busiest I’ve had. The following weeks were some of the most chaotic.

I had been cast in my first ever role at Bradley as an orphan girl in a production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The girl runs away from the orphanage and decides to live in a fantasy to escape reality and ends up with a family, but no one really knows if it’s real or just a dream.

I was in play rehearsals every night for around three hours, while also preparing for an interview to become a hall director, applying to get into the neuroscience program at Bradley all while buying cute swimwear online for my school trip to Los Angeles the following week.

On March 12, I woke up to a beautiful morning, which set me up for what one might call a “tragic” afternoon. Bradley was extending spring break, the play was almost scratched out, the LA trip was canceled and I received an email from the university’s International Student and Scholar Services that “strongly urged” international students not to leave the United States as we “may not be able to finish coursework.”

I thought “It is just a month of being alone. Everyone will be back soon.”

Exactly a week later, March 19, Bradley finally decided to transition to online classes for the rest of the semester. My home country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had shut its borders to all international flights.

The optimist in me fought away tears as I explained the situation to my parents. India was canceling all incoming international flights starting March 22, so my dad booked a flight for the very next day to Mumbai, India. My grandparents live there, and it was a quick fix to get me out of the U.S. before all flights were canceled. I finally had hope that I would not be stuck in a dorm room for the rest of the year.

As a resident adviser, I still lived in the dorms, which meant that I had to completely move out and pack for home in the next 24 hours before leaving for O’Hare international airport the next morning.

The sun was shining bright outside my window as if reassuring me that it would be constant, even though everything else seemed uncertain.

My half-finished puzzle had to be thrown in a Dollar Tree carton along with the brand new swimwear I had excitedly opened the night before. Sitting on the staircase of my bunk bed, I hurriedly ate some leftovers for lunch, as water slowly gathered in the corner of the room where the refrigerator was defrosting. I told myself I didn’t have time to cry.

As I was ruffling through the papers on my study table, I came across the brochure our COM 425 professor had sent our hosts in LA with introductions and pictures of us. In the brochure, I was smiling a bit too wide and my hair was not as perfect as I would have liked it to be, but my expression was hopeful. I had hoped that this spring break class trip might have been an unforgettable experience. Now, I had hope that even though things weren’t t going as planned, I might power through and do the next thing.

Just then, I received two emails; the Peoria Charter that was supposed to take me to the airport had been canceled and the storage unit I had reserved was going to close at 5 p.m., only a few hours away, so I wouldn’t make it on time. I made a few frantic calls to some local friends who offered to store my things in their houses and another one offered to take me to the airport, unexpectedly.

The sun was still out and shining brightly.

I had moved all my stuff out by 11 p.m. and started packing only the bare essentials for my flight the next day. As I fell asleep that night, wearing three layers of clothes and using a sweatshirt for a pillow, I can’t help but laugh at how comical my own life was.

Part of me wished that all of this was a dream, but I didn’t want to be the orphan girl I was supposed to portray in the Bradley production. I had to stay grounded in reality.

It felt like I had slept for barely two minutes before my alarm rang at 6 a.m. and, after a quick shower, I brought my baggage downstairs to my hall director’s apartment to make some pancakes to go. My friend had made PB&J sandwiches for lunch, and we were set.

While we were about to leave the building, I saw a note with my name in the office from a friend who said she admired how “graceful” I am, even under pressure. Could I keep that up?
I questioned this when I thought about the $500 dining dollars that I never spent as we passed the student center. I thought about if I could be graceful even though I wouldn’t be able to go home despite my connecting flight landing in the United Arab Emirates first, before flying to India.

We reached the airport at around 11 a.m., right on time to find that my 2 p.m. flight was canceled and that it had been the last flight to Mumbai with British Airways. That’s when all hell broke loose.

One of the assistants looked at me with so much pity that I wanted to bury myself. I got a notification on my phone about the stay-at-home order in Illinois, which meant that finding a place to stay would be a challenge. The departure area was getting emptier by the minute, and I somehow lost the only mask I had.

I am going to be stranded in O’Hare until summer, great.

Panic started building up and the optimist in me was shriveled and barely alive. Three long hours later, my dad and my uncle ended up (double) booking the last flight to Abu Dhabi, UAE with a connecting flight to Mumbai, which was scheduled for 11 p.m.

I had more than five hours to kill and all of a sudden, my stomach was reminding me that I hadn’t eaten. I ate my last PB&J sandwich while reading “Catch 22,” and decided that I wouldn’t move, in the fear of something else going wrong.

A few minutes later, an Austrian student (I glanced at his boarding pass, don’t judge me) sat next to me. I immediately turned my face as it was pretty swollen with all the crying. He definitely did not get the hint and started a conversation about the book I was reading. This goofy, sometimes comical dialogue lasted for an hour before he had to leave to check in his baggage.

Just when I thought I had seen the last of him and was debating that he was probably an angel sent to make me smile, he came rushing back. Without saying a word, he opened his suitcase, took all of his books out and dropped them on my lap.

“I cannot pay $200 for this extra weight, so you can have them,” he said before he left for the second time.

I was a little freaked out, I will admit, and dropped his books on the seat next to me. The one on the very top was a little, new, cardboard covered, brown dot grid notebook. I took it as a reminder of this strange but comforting memory.
Before I knew it, I was boarding the plane, which was half empty and filled with students, who were nervously making sure to leave at least one seat in between each other. The cabin crew wore masks the entire time.

Fifteen hours later, the sound of the plane’s wheels hitting the ground woke me up. We had finally landed in Abu Dhabi and in excitement, I started clapping loudly and received some blank stares. It was an hour and a half of a drive away from home, but I had to go the next check-in to travel to India. So close, yet so far.

Three hours later, I walked into Chatrapati Shivaji airport in Mumbai, India with a bandana tied around my face. I was hustled down a long line of passengers to get my temperature checked before immigration. Once I was in the clear, my hand was stamped with “Proud to Protect Mumbaikars, Home Quarantined, 04/05/2020,” an identification mark for the police. If I decided to leave the house before the 14 days of quarantine were over, I would be arrested and taken to one of the hospitals to be kept in isolation.

After getting stamped, I was led into a huge area, which was divided into different sections with an official in each one, briefing groups of people sitting six feet apart about the pandemic.

I joined one of the less crowded groups and got informed that the national lockdown would officially be starting on March 25. If we were to have symptoms of COVID-19, we must report it to the nearest government hospital where we could get tested for free (private hospitals charge around $60).

At 5:45 a.m., and about 36 hours after leaving Bradley, I cleared immigration, got my baggage and almost ran out the doors of the airport to see my uncle waving at me.

All of a sudden, everything was worth it. As I got closer to my uncle, I realized that the glimmer of hope I had held on to had brought me here, despite the waiting, anxiety, panic and uncertainty of the past two days.

With tears running down my face and soaking my bandana, I sanitized my hands before greeting my uncle.

7 Comments

  1. Chee Hyeon Choi Chee Hyeon Choi May 1, 2020

    Oh my poor Tirzah.. I was almost in tears as I read your article. Thanks to your dad and uncle.. so sorry about all the panicking long journey to your home. I will treat you with lunch when you have a chance to come back to campus! Stay safe and healthy until that!

  2. Prasad Prasad May 2, 2020

    Nicely narrated

  3. Celia Chalam Celia Chalam May 2, 2020

    Very well expressed. It must have been very difficult. I am very happy Christopher reached Mumbai safely.

  4. Rufy Rufy May 2, 2020

    Great post, everone has their own individual story for COVID-19, but is it worth enough to make the reader to sit at the edge of their seat throughout the story. This Author achieved that… Hope she is enjoying her qurantine with her uncle’s family.
    Stay home stay safe

  5. Patrick David Patrick David May 3, 2020

    I am speechless. All I can say is you are gliding on the grace of God as an eagle! What a powerful testimony! Bless you !

  6. Raj Raj May 4, 2020

    It really very nicely narrated story. Very well expressed. Stay home stay safe.

  7. Samrichwal stephen Samrichwal stephen May 17, 2020

    Seriously i knew thie story before . But then too i just wanted to know it detailed and damn god u narrated it so beautifully and decorated with some amazing words

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