Visiting home still off the cards for most expats as COVID-19 drags on

Andy Boreham
As foreigners living in Shanghai, there're lots we can do if we get a bit homesick.
Andy Boreham

With the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week holiday winding up, many Chinese are back at work after having spent time catching up with family and loved ones over obligatory reunion dinners. For most foreigners living in China, on the other hand, such a luxury is still a long way off.

As a tradition in China for the Mid-Autumn Festival, many Chinese catch up with family after months apart. That may be the case more than ever this year since the Spring Festival, arguably China’s most important family time, saw millions and millions of Chinese unable to embrace loved one because of COVID-19 fears — not to mention millions under lockdown — way back at the start of the year.

That’s given holidays like the ones we just enjoyed an air of extra importance this year, especially since relatively safe and free domestic travel has really only come back into vogue in the last few months.

But for foreigners living in China, the story is completely different. International travel, even just to neighboring countries in the region, requires at least four weeks in quarantine in most instances, an amount of time that exceeds most people’s annual leave, and that’s not even counting the actual time back home with family. 

It also doesn’t take the exorbitantly high price of air tickets under the current climate, as well as the cost of user-pays quarantine. For quarantine in New Zealand, a single adult faces a NZ$3,100 price tag (US$1,860), plus the two-week quarantine when arriving back in Shanghai (around US$820).

If I were to have visited family in New Zealand for the Golden Week holiday, for example, I’d clock up more than five weeks away from work, and have to pay many times more than usual for the honor. For most people, that means seeing family this year is not even an option. 

Many foreigners were holding out for Christmas — arguably many Westerners’ most important family time — hoping that COVID-19 would be done and dusted by then. That’s looking extremely unlikely, meaning many foreigners will easily spend more than a year away from family while working in China. 

For me, that’s not such a big deal, especially since calling is free on WeChat and I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand, albeit extremely briefly, just before China locked foreigners out in March. For others, it’s tough.

One friend, who has lived in China for more than three years, was meant to return to England and see his daughter in April. That was all canceled because of obvious reasons, but now as time drags on he’s not sure when he will see her again. The next planned visit home, this Christmas, is also looking to be a no-go. 

Another friend, having lived here for seven years, wasn’t worried a few months ago but now wonders if we have to get used to this “new normal.” He feels that even if a successful vaccine comes out soon, many in the West may refuse to take it. On top of that, he worries that international travel may involve reduced options, higher prices and stricter quarantines for years to come. 

“That’s okay for people who live in their country of birth,” he told me. “But for expats who live away from home and need to travel just to see family, this is a huge issue.” 

I feel your pain. Thankfully, as foreigners living in Shanghai, there’re lots we can do if we get a bit homesick. Get your family and friends back home to download WeChat, where you can make audio and video calls for free, on top of being able to share messages, photos and videos freely. Visit places in Shanghai that remind you of home. Find ingredients to make your favorite hometown foods, or head down to a restaurant serving up treats you remember as a kid. 

Like all bad situations, things will get better. Sure, we need to get used to a new normal for now, but it’s all temporary.

阿拉一道摒牢!(Let’s get through this together!)

Special Reports