It’s a morbid word problem: If thousands of people contract a contagious virus in a Chinese city of millions, how long will it take for the virus to reach the University of Tennessee?
Students at the nearby Tennessee Technological University faced their own version of this question two weeks ago when a student who had recently returned from China was quarantined, raising alarms of the coronavirus. But thankfully, the question is likely a moot one at UT, according to Chinese students on campus.
Xi Ai is working on her dissertation for a PhD in accounting and serves as the president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, the largest Chinese student organization on campus.
She says that while some students are concerned for their family and friends back home, many are not. How anxious or fearful students are is largely dependent on which part of China they are from, since the virus has been mostly localized in the quarantined city of Wuhan in the central Hubei province.
“It depends on the region, but for the most part, I haven’t seen anyone who is super concerned,” Ai said. “Everyone talks about it because that’s what our parents are talking about.”
Ai, whose family lives in the region of Dalian in the north of China, says that, though her parents are off of work for safety concerns and are wearing face masks, they continue to go about their daily lives unaffected. Her father still visits her grandmother almost daily and even took the extended break from work as a chance to bathe the cat.
Like at TTU, the biggest concern for the UT community is the possibility that students who have traveled to China in the last few weeks will return to campus carrying the virus.
This is less of an issue for undergraduate students, who were required to return at the beginning of January. But many graduate students can work remotely, and some returned from celebrating the Chinese New Year in their home country as recently as one week ago. These students have opted to stay home and off of campus for a period to ensure their own safety and that of those around them.
Xubo Luo, a PhD student in chemical engineering, believes that these returning graduate students ought to take all of the same precautions that people in China are taking.
“Even in China, if you have traveled to Wuhan recently and you came back to your home, all the neighbors will be nervous and report that to the community that this person should stay at home for 14 days,” Luo said. “UT has connections with China with universities in China, they have exchange students, they have visiting scholars. ... I think if they stay at home for, like, two weeks and they don’t have any symptoms, that’s enough.”
Both Ai and Luo explained how precautions such as wearing face masks are part of the Asian cultural response to airborne sicknesses. Unlike in the U.S., wearing a face mask in China or Japan is not a sign that someone is sick, but is rather a first line of defense and a mark of concern for others.
Ai says that the normal signs of caution in Asian cultures are often misconstrued by Americans and can lead to damaging misconceptions. Thus, staying home is, for certain graduate students who have recently traveled to China, the American-approved version of wearing a face mask.
“In their mind ... they are actually doing a benefit to all the people,” Ai said. “But this behavior could be perceived by Americans who think otherwise, who may think, ‘Oh, you are sick.’”
Though there have been no documented cases of the virus anywhere near Tennessee, students like Luo are proactively looking for updates and are able to rattle off stats about the number of confirmed cases and deaths due to the coronavirus in their home city.
In the face of depleting stores, Luo has also looked into purchasing respirators online to send to his parents who live in Tianjin, about 630 miles from the epicenter in Wuhan. That many online retailers and physical stores in China are sold out of surgical face masks should be a sign that many share Luo’s growing concern about the virus’ spread.
Ai’s comparatively calm demeanor — she is able to make lighthearted jokes about how her parents are spending their time off — could betray the fact that, in the last week alone, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global health emergency and the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 warning against travel to China.
But for herself and some other Chinese students, she says the coronavirus is spoken of more as a distant problem in the news than a pressing concern.
“We are still talking about it. It’s like people talking about the Kobe Bryant thing. It’s like, this is what we talk about, but has it really affected my life?” Ai said. “I don’t think it did that much.”
But whether Chinese students feel directly or indirectly concerned about the coronavirus and to what extent, there is one common theme running through all of their reactions: uncertainty. The spread of the virus is unpredictable and few students know whether they should be worried for their family and friends back home or not.
According to Ai, only time will be able to dictate the appropriate response.
“At this point, nothing is sure,” Ai said. “It’s not necessarily fear, it’s just they don’t know how it started, they don’t know how it’s going to end. I think everyone is still trying to figure out how it’s going to continue in the future.”