This week’s blog post comes from TU English Ph.D. student and 2017-18 OCH fellow, Seungho Lee. As an international student living in Tulsa, Seungho reflects on how his sense of home has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
During a time of crisis, our sense of home changes dramatically. Disasters like the current coronavirus pandemic often reveal who belongs in a society and who does not; who has resources and who does not; who is protected and who is not; and, who is more at home and who is less at home. What I’ve been going through over the past month is insignificant compared to those who have to worry about simply sustaining their lives on a daily basis. Still, I want to share my story, hoping that it can help us think together about what it’s like to be away from home at a time like this. Living abroad as a non-citizen in the context of a global pandemic feels less secure, less anchored. It has forced me to ponder where I could stay if forced to leave my current home, where I would feel most comfortable and confident to deal with the situation, and where I can find, or make, a home for myself and my family despite all of the difficulties.
On March 19th, at 12:56 pm, I received an email from University of Tulsa stating that they were going to restrict access to the campus, including the apartments, due to the Covid-19 crisis. My family and I have been living on campus for almost four years, and we had never thought about having to leave before we completed our graduate degrees, or being asked to leave by the university, even for valid reasons. Luckily, TU promised exemptions for those whose permanent addresses were abroad or couldn’t travel back home at the moment. The email stated that if a request for exemption was declined, however, students should plan to move out by 5 pm the following day, March 20th. Even with the promise of exemptions, this email was powerful enough to disconcert me. I made a request very promptly. But I couldn’t help fearing the worst possible scenario: what if my request was turned down and I wouldn’t be able to go back home? If that happened, where would we go? I knew it was very unlikely that we’d be declined, but not impossible. My wife began looking for tickets for flights departing as early as possible. It seemed that there were a lot of people like us—people yearning for homecoming during this difficult time. Flight costs had skyrocketed. Our laptop screen showed us the search result: $15,000 for three people. That’s over three times more than what it would normally cost to fly back to South Korea. That’s more than my yearly stipend. Still, the laptop appeared indifferent, even uninterested, while all of us were visibly shaken.
I received a result on March 20th, 8:12 pm that my request for exemption was accepted. Our status was up in the air for only about 31 hours, but the idea of having nowhere to go was troubling enough to wear me out completely. I became distressed and discouraged. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t put down my phone. I constantly refreshed my email inbox, only to discover more spam. I got impatient, which made my wife and child impatient. I felt like the roof over my head was going to fall down. Or the floor was going to split apart. Thankfully, none of that happened. But in my fantasy, it all felt like it was happening. During those 31 hours, I feared that, despite all my efforts for the last 4 years to make Tulsa our home away from home, it was not my real home. By real home, I mean a place you can claim as your own no matter what. A place you can keep your roots firmly planted, whatever storm comes.
But I’ve glimpsed a silver lining. I’ve found what may matter more. It has been a pleasant surprise that my family has received so many emails and messages showing concern about us. The messages came from our close friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and professors. They all expressed their worries and their willingness to help us if something happens. One of them was even going to introduce to us her colleague who had some space for us to stay. We found these messages very encouraging. They helped us have the guts to face the situation. The pandemic might push us out of our place, yet people out there can keep us feeling at home. It’s not the place we’ve been living in, but the human connections that we’ve been building up that would house us, shelter us. We may not find our real home in Tulsa. But we can make an effort to make a home with our Tulsa friends.
In fact, even with the request being approved, there is still a possibility that we might have to move out if things get worse and the university further restricts access to the housing. But now, our belief in the people around us, the ties that anchor us, help us keep going as if everything’s going to be alright. We’re managing to do what we were doing. We’re having a semblance of peace as we did in the pre-coronavirus days. We’re feeling taken care of, accommodated, and protected, thanks to those reaching out and checking in.
Through all of this, I’ve found that we are merely standing on what appears to be solid ground. The house we’ve been living in is not as secure as we thought it would be, and it may not be able to protect us when we need its protection most. But I’ve also realized that we are linked. Warm-hearted people around us hold us tight to make sure we will be able to go through this time. Solid ground may be an illusion, but solidarity is not. Life can be rough and fluctuating, but we can be a shelter to each other. When a physical shelter—whether it’s simply a place to live or the planet itself—no longer works, people can make it work, by being home to each other.