£9k flights home, wrist monitors and clubs reopening: Life in Hong Kong right now
Okay but to be fair, flights home to HK cost up to 9 grand!!!
In late March, Universities sent out emails encouraging all students including those studying abroad and on placements to make plans to go home. Trains were booked, carpools were arranged but for a lot of international students the circumstances proved to be nothing short of a nightmare.
I had booked my Easter flights back to Hong Kong months in advance of the pandemic. By the time my uni announced its campus closure, I had two weeks left. My British housemates worried about lockdown rumours, packed a light suitcase for the upcoming weeks and quickly fled home thinking that we would probably be reunited in our shared house some time after Easter. I, on the other hand, refreshed government travel advice websites, checked the status of my flights multiple times a day and was scared I wouldn’t be able to get home to my family.
I also worried what I was going to do if I made it out of the UK but couldn’t come back after Easter. I packed up all my belongings into suitcases and organised cardboard boxes and bags filled with traces of my life from the last two years at University, which I had to leave behind in our student house.
Friends of mine that had not booked flights in advance and were hoping to take the next flight out to Hong Kong were suddenly faced with airline charges of over £9000 (nine grand!) for an economy class ticket from London Heathrow to HKG, a return flight that normally costs less than £900.
But despite the pure stress of living abroad during a global pandemic, now we’re the ones that are considered lucky. The moment I arrived home in Hong Kong I was tested for the virus at the airport and was given an electronic wristband that acts as a GPS tracking device. These monitors furthermore connect to an app, which samples communication signals in your house such as Bluetooth, Wi-fi and cellular networks. It’s basically track and trace, but it was set up a good few months before the UK got hold of it.
The wristband had to be worn at all times during a strict 14-day mandatory home quarantine period and would alert the government and authorities in the case it was taken off before the 14-day period was over or the communication signals at your location had changed. Any violation against these guidelines result in up to six months in prison and a fine of £2550 ($25000 HKD). Steep.
The wristband, which looks more like an ankle monitor, was neither subtle nor comfortable and made me feel like a convict on parole. My bedroom quickly turned into my own personal prison cell and all I wanted to do is go for a run and never stop (I can’t even run two kilometres without taking a break… so that really defines a monumental moment of desperation).
After two long weeks and and a lot of unnecessary money spent on Sims 4 expansion packs justified by “I would easily spend 20 quid at the pub” I was finally allowed out. The first thing I did was go for my long awaited run and actually ran my fastest first kilometre ever, but then quickly stopped when I realised that I in fact, am not a runner and never will be.
Other than the initial mandatory quarantine period for inbound travellers, things seem to be getting back to “normal”. It’s been a fairly disruptive couple of months with the pandemic, as well as protests going on across the city, but the virus has very much calmed down. There are currently only minimal daily cases, although it is significant to note that the Hong Kong government along with many other Asian countries took a very different approach when compared to Europe. Schools were shut in February, before the first cases of the virus were reported, and have only just resumed with face-to-face teaching at the end of May.
On one of my first days free from the shackles of quarantine and more importantly the wrist monitor, I walked to the shops to buy some ingredients for dinner. Halfway there, I realised that I had left my mask at home but then thought “oh well, I’m just popping in to buy a few things… and I’ve walked all the way here”. As soon as I had walked in, I saw the disapproving looks of bystanders. Upon quickly scanning the room I realised that I was the only one not wearing a mask and had made a big mistake thinking that it was alright to ignore it.
I felt singled out, exposed and had convinced myself that everyone was watching me. The feeling reminded me of the fear I had as a child to walk into school thinking it was a non-uniform day, only to walk past everyone in their identical outfits and realise that I had gotten the days mixed up (that thankfully never happened to me, but it was a very real fear I thought I had left behind years ago). A passerby shook her head at me and pointed at her mask with a sense of irritation. Shamefully and embarrassed, I finished my shop and promised myself I wouldn’t put myself in that position again.
Although the wearing of masks in Hong Kong is neither compulsory nor a legal requirement, it has become a social requisite to signalise the consideration of others and to slow the spread of the virus. This ideology stems from the city’s experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003, during which the widespread use of masks became indispensable. Hong Kong’s experience with SARS had a big influence on the way in which civilians responded to the coronavirus outbreak, leading to a significant shortage of masks. The government tackled this issue by introducing a scheme, providing Hong Kong citizens with free reusable six-layer masks.
Because wearing masks is so commonplace in Hong Kong, it shocks me that compulsory face-covering on public transport has only just been introduced in England. Also because most masks sold online on fashion websites e.g. ASOS and PLT are non-medical grade and have no medical benefits whatsoever.
After a two-month long shutdown, clubs and bars have also reopened in Hong Kong, marking the recommencement of every uni student’s dreams. Venues have massively slashed their cocktail and drink prices to boost their business, with the city’s clubbing district ‘Lan Kwai Fong’ pushing the mantra to “stay safe, play safe”. My friends and I have since indulged in many of happy hours and free-flow deals, which definitely beat the Zoom quizzes that left me tipsy and alone in my childhood bedroom.
It’s definitely eery to draw these comparisons of my life in Hong Kong to the lives of my British uni mates. I have not experienced any social distanced park meet ups like I see on many Instagram stories. Instead, I have even gone clubbing, although I was very sceptical at first and felt that it was premature due to being aware that the current situation in Hong Kong is a very special circumstance. The night out experience has been surprisingly normal, although I long for Newcastle’s trebs and can’t wait to be surrounded by my uni mates in the Toon.
Having tasted freedom, I worry about what it’s going to be like to return to uni in September. With lectures planned to be delivered online during the first semester at least, I plan on returning to Newcastle to reduce issues such as time difference. Hong Kong’s time zone is seven hours ahead of the UK, which has proved to be very difficult and has impacted everything I do in regards to uni substantially since coming home in late March. Living through this unique experience however, also gives me a sense of hope as I feel I have seen the other side of the tunnel. Uni is set to commence in little over three months now and who knows… maybe by then the pandemic will feel like a distant dream and it will be like we never left (I highly doubt that scenario, but a girl can hope).