Homeward bound: Travel in the time of Covid-19 | Duke Kunshan University

Homeward bound: Travel in the time of Covid-19

Editor’s note: At the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Shuyi Wang was in the U.S. with her husband and two young children. She returned to China in time to host Duke Kunshan’s graduate student opening convocation on Aug. 27.


Shuyi Wang hosts the 2020 opening graduate student convocation at Duke Kunshan

By Shuyi Wang, Ph.D.
Director of graduate programs

Immediately after the commencement ceremony for the graduate Class of 2020 in early May, which we held online, I started to look for flights back to China. At that time, China’s “five ones” policy, which allowed mainland carriers to fly just one flight a week using one route to one country and allowed foreign airlines to operate just one flight a week into China, had been in effect for more than a month. As a result, flights between China and the United States were limited, making it very difficult to reserve a seat.

Many people chose to connect from Japan, Korea or Europe, but even connecting tickets were priced at up to 70,000 (US$10, 100) for a one-way trip by agents, compared with RMB 3,000 to 7,000 (US$450-1,000) for a round trip before the pandemic. I decided to wait and see. However, after reading through various forums for more than half a month, I realized that the demand would not drop. There were a large number of people who had to return to China, such as university graduates and visiting scholars whose U.S. visas were about to expire, and parents visiting their children in the U.S. So, I bought our air tickets.

As Duke Kunshan’s graduate student convocation was on Aug. 27, I had planned to return to China in July. Tickets for flights to China on major airlines sold out in July, and the only option available was to fly Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai. I bought the tickets without hesitation. With connecting flights in Japan and Malaysia, the total travel time would be 60 hours.

The airline required Chinese citizens to submit daily health reports starting 14 days before flying. To play safe, we filled in the form twice a day a month in advance to guarantee we’d have the green health code on our smartphones.

After two cancellations and scheduling changes, we arrived at Newark Airport three hours early on the morning of July 24. The airline had set up a special counter to handle multi-country connections, and just when we thought everything was going well and were waiting patiently to board, airport staff informed us that the airplane to Japan had a water leak in the cabin. About three hours later, the flight was cancelled and passengers were offered the option to fly the next day. This was impossible for us, as it meant we’d miss the weekly Kuala Lumpur flight to Shanghai.

After discussing this with the airline, we realized they could not arrange an earlier flight and we turned to DKU for help. Colleagues there contacted several ticket agents and were able to reserve seats on another connecting flight via the Netherlands on July 27.

After waiting anxiously for 72 hours, we boarded a flight from New York to the Netherlands, and later from the Netherlands to Shanghai. When the plane landed in Shanghai, I was finally able to put my mind to rest. Although the nucleic acid testing and entry procedures at the airport took a long time (almost five hours), it was nothing compared to the nervous wait before the trip.

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“My husband and I were quarantined separately with one child. When the children wanted to swap toys, we placed them on a table outside the door and a volunteer made the exchange. " - Shuyi Wang, director of graduate programs

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We took a bus from the airport to our quarantine hotel, the Vienna Hotel in Shanghai’s Jiading district. Each individual is quarantined alone, only the elderly and children can share a room with another person. The hotel didn’t allow takeout delivery but goods could be delivered. Three meals a day were placed at set times on a small table outside our door.

Medical personnel took our temperature twice a day, morning and evening, and we went through a second nucleic acid test on the fifth day of quarantine. Volunteers provided most of the services, and they were all nice and responsible. My husband and I were quarantined separately with one child. When the children wanted to swap toys, we placed them on a table outside the door and a volunteer made the exchange.

Meals cost 50 RMB (US$7) per person a day. There was a lot of choice for breakfast, and a typical lunch or dinner included three meat dishes and one vegetable dish, plus soft drinks or fruits or yoghurt. The best part was that we didn’t need to worry about anything. In the U.S., due to the pandemic, we didn’t dare dine out and had to constantly re-sterilize our hands while supermarket shopping. It was stressful. I felt much more relaxed during quarantine. All I had to do was to work or read every day, and wait.

Based on my experience, I think the best advice I can give to someone in a similar position is to give up any unrealistic expectation and return to China. In April, at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in the U.S., we thought having to go through quarantine in China was burdensome. Moreover, air tickets were difficult to buy. Believing that everything would be back to normal soon, we didn’t make early plans.

Later, we found that the supply of airline tickets did not increase much, but the demand accumulated. In addition, Covid-19 did not go away in the U.S., and China did not relax its prevention and control measures. Quarantine remained, and requirements were becoming tougher, such as nucleic acid testing before boarding flights. Airlines tickets to China are sold out until the end of October, and in some cases until 2021.

I’m just so glad we made it back in time for graduate student opening convocation.