My Journey Home

By: Laura Rong 

NANJING, China – It feels weird to write in this location as a SAIS Bologna student, but after returning home for almost a month, I can finally tell my story. My journey to Europe ended on an ordinary Thursday in March. Seeing a growing number of cases in Italy every day, I decided to book a ticket for my hometown Nanjing, a city that at the time, had been free of COVID-19 since March 8. 

Just as I was planning for my trip home, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced a nation-wide lockdown. No one was allowed to go out without a specific reason. However, I was more worried about not being able to travel freely than getting infected. When my parents came to see me in late January, the virus broke out in China right after they left for Europe. As more and more cases were being reported in Wuhan, most Western airlines cancelled flights to and from China when we were travelling together. It did not come as a surprise when I woke up hearing that my parents couldn’t go home.  Fortunately, after purchasing three tickets, they were finally able to go home on a Russian flight. Looking back, I did not imagine the same thing would happen to me, let alone my way more dramatic escape trip from Italy.  

Based on their experience, I purchased my first ticket on Aeroflot, a non-Western company. However, two days after Conte’s announcement, I received a refund from Aeroflot, which cancelled all flights to and from Northern Italy because of the pandemic. I was panicking, yet I knew the right thing to do was to seek another option before all chances were gone. As a result, I booked my second ticket to go home on Saturday, March 16.

Following  a chaotic Wednesday night of rebooking my tickets, I woke up on a sunny, lazy Thursday morning with no classes. After having a job interview, I decided to make a thorough plan to pack my luggage and finish my leftovers in the fridge, when my Chinese friend called. On the phone, she told me she heard some rumors that Bologna was going to close the airport on Friday – a day before my original travel date, she persuaded me to come to the airport and go home with her on a flight that was going to depart in two hours. According to the second ticket I purchased, I was supposed to take Air Dolomiti, an Italian flight to Munich, where I would make a transfer and board on Air China to Beijing. Though I had confidence in Air China to bring Chinese citizens home, I did not know if Air Dolomiti would let people fly from Italy to Germany. I was always a risk-averse person, and I normally hated rumors, but at that time I decided to make a life gamble. It was now or never.

After hanging up the phone, I called my father to book a ticket for me, since I had no time to make a reservation. Then I called a taxi, took out my passport, and grabbed some masks on the table. My flight from Bologna to Frankfurt was smooth, but when I reached the gate in the Frankfurt airport for my connecting flight, I saw crowds of Chinese people.

It was strange to see my people in the airport at this time of the year. If not for the virus, I was supposed to be drinking beer in the Scottish Highlands with my friends from college. I almost forgot that I was in the middle of Spring Break. But after hearing a flight attendant in Mandarin, I almost cried.

“We are here to bring you home,” said the flight attendant in Mandarin. (”国航接您回家“)

Over the years I became fluent in several languages, but only Mandarin  gave me chills at that moment. It has been 5 years since I left home. From North Carolina to London, to Hong Kong and then Bologna, I was always hanging around, searching for my identity somewhere in the world. It was the first time in a while that I desperately wanted to go home and see my parents. At that moment I realized that wherever I go, part of me will always remain Chinese. I belong to the parasol leaves of Nanjing.

After flight attendants checked my temperature for 5 times at the gate, I finally boarded the flight to Beijing. When I landed in China, I heard that Air Dolomiti cancelled my second ticket. After a long process with the CDC, I boarded the train to Nanjing. There, I was sent to a hotel and quarantined for 14 days. At the end of March, I finally went home and ended my trip.

As I settled down and gradually adapted to life in China, I started to reflect on my journey. I came to SAIS because I want to become a global citizen and help with the integration of our world. Yet the virus is ending an era of globalization. The world I grew up with is no longer the same to me. COVID-19 has exposed many problems in our society. Travel restrictions and bans on export of medical supplies are eroding trust between governments, which, in response, are imposing policy to further protect domestic economy and security. In the short term, these measures are taken to combat the virus, but in the long run, we are distancing ourselves from the world. When I joined Zoom classrooms, it was hard to imagine that people I strolled down Bolognese streets  two months ago are talking in countries that I can no longer enter. Their voices are so close, yet they are so far from me. I feel helpless sometimes, but I also know that it is becoming my responsibility to defend globalization as a SAISer. The COVID-19 situation is yet to be resolved, but other disasters might already be on their way if humans are drifting away from each other. 

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