Kevin Xu ‘22
My very first memory of St. Albans School is of Mr. Robinson’s inaugural speech. As a freshman, sitting in the grand Cathedral for the first time was a very momentous occasion having come so far from my home in China. However, instead of being excited and nervous like those around me, I struggled to keep myself awake throughout the long service. I was still suffering from jet lag, so my head hurt tremendously. Yet, one line of the speech somehow slipped into my dreamy mind and has since then stuck with me over the past three years at St. Albans: life is an odyssey where one leaves home and returns to it. As an international student that had not yet become acquainted with this new strange and foreign land, this line most resonated with me. I still yearned for my family, friends, and home that vanished into the background. Even three years later, this line still proves to be true. The familiar Cathedral is now on the opposite side of the world, but my experiences in and journey to and from it are still present in my mind. The pandemic was like a knife, cutting our lives into pieces and scattering it to different places, making them impossible to recollect. However, one inalienable theme always lies in the deepest part of our hearts: we all went home during the first week of March when the virus, like a mountain fire, spread throughout the United States. That is were my journey began. The school closed three days earlier and the Florance family, who I can never thank enough, kindly took me into their home. However, I was increasingly nervous about the travel ban in Hong Kong, as the news on the internet kept worrying my parents and myself. I heard about international students who were forced to land in Ethiopia and about the endless alteration of flights among my friends. I stared in the distance and wondered what the future would hold. Could I ever get home?
At 11:00 a.m. on March 21st, the tenth day of my long spring break, I received a call from Mr. Robinson, who advised me to return as soon as possible. I was startled and lost. Flights to China were increasingly expensive, with thousands of people trying to get back. Plus, these flights had an incredibly high chance of cancellation. This was only the first step of heading home, not to mention the danger of contracting the virus on the plane, the examination after the flight, and the 14 days of quarantine. I lingered around helplessly, calling my parents constantly, but I could find no solutions. Mr. and Mrs. Florance were also very worried, looking up travel ban policies and flight information. Without their help, I could never have made it safely back home.
1:24 p.m. EST – That afternoon, Mr. Florance suddenly found a flight to China leaving from Los Angeles at 11:00 p.m. that night. I was filled with rapture, but to get to Los Angeles, I would first need to get to Dulles airport, which was not at all nearby, and catch the plane leaving at 5:40 p.m. for Los Angeles. Ideally I would land approximately five hours later if there was no delay and then I would have only two hours to grab my luggage, walk a half-mile to another terminal, and check in the luggage again. I still hadn’t packed any of my luggage or bought the ticket. If something went wrong in the trip, such as a traffic jam, delay or cancellation, overbooked flight, or luggage misplaced, I would not be able to reach Los Angeles on time. I would be stuck in Hollywood all alone with no family or friends. I stared at the flight information on the screen. The pandemic was getting worse. This was my only chance.
1:47 p.m. EST – I put my luggage in the car and handed my three succulents to Mrs. Florance. Smiling, I told her, “Please take care of them for me.” She nodded and turned around, covering her face. I was incredibly lucky on the drive to Dulles, as the roads were completely clear of traffic. The trees on the side flew by like rivers, but I had no time for appreciation. Mr. Florance and I were nervously calling and booking my tickets. After only two and a half hours, we arrived at the airport as my watch clicked 4:23 p.m. I had only an hour and seventeen minutes. I still had time. We dashed out of the car to the check-in counter with mask and gloves, which the agent stared at with disdain. After we completed the procedure, I turned around to shake Mr. Florance’s hand. The contact rubber gloves made an unpleasant sound and we couldn’t see each other's faces. “Good luck and start your adventure!” he said with smiling eyes. I laughed. “Take care,” we both said behind our masks.
5:27 p.m. EST – I arrived at the boarding gate and quickly ate a bar under the complaining look of the ticket collector. This was the last meal I would have before arriving in China nearly 24 hours later. As I watched Washington D.C. get smaller and smaller, I started to miss the school and my friends. When would I see this city again? What would it be like? How many people would die in this land? The pandemic crushed everybody underneath. People were furious, indifferent, grievous, or awaiting as this history of sorrow relentlessly rolled forward. COVID-19 would forever leave an imprint on every human’s body and be sealed in the books.
8:12 p.m. PST – When the plane successfully touched down in Los Angeles, I immediately received several calls, first from Mr. Florance, then from my parents, and then from my friends. I felt I was a center, collecting the cares of many people. I could almost feel their gazes thousands of miles away and their strong heartbeats as if I were Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the moon 50 years ago. During the pandemic, nobody is a hero. But, at the same time, everybody is a hero. Los Angeles in March was quite warm, and I started sweating soon after leaving the terminal. Along the way, I saw many well-protected travelers like myself. There were Asians, African-Americans, and many other people from all over the world. Everybody was nervous and tried to dodge each other. In the airport lounge, even though everyone was dressed up like silk-worm cocoons and had tired faces, they all greeted each other like old friends. Everybody seemed excited to go home.
11:26 p.m. PST – Thankfully, I was able to board on time. Nobody talked much on the plane and nobody really drank or ate anything either. Over the course of the flight, the attendants would check everybody’s temperature several times. The passenger next to me was very friendly. He told me that after the quarantine started in China, he went to the U.S. to visit his brother. However, after he finished his 14 days of quarantine in the United States, he only got to spend one day with his brother before he had to return to China to quarantine for another 14 days. He complained, with a smile, “I am a real full-court player. But I guess I was used to quarantine life and started to enjoy it. Going home is always best.” After eight hours of flight, I finally saw the coastline of Asia. Below were endless forests, grasslands, and even some familiar buildings and roads. I hadn’t eaten anything or had anything to drink for nearly 20 hours. The airplane slowly passed different provinces of China until it finally reached its destination at 5:00 a.m. Beijing time. It was all dark outside. We sat on the plane silently and waited on this crowded airplane for over an hour. There were no cell-phone signals or lights, so all we did was wait. Some passengers soon got impatient and little children started crying. It was hot and humid on the plane; a sense of nervousness started to spread. A few people started to complain and move around, making the situation more chaotic. Then, suddenly, the traveler beside me pointed at the window. “It’s morning,” he said. For a while, everybody around stared silently at the small ellipsoid window. The sky was a grayish-pink, like a bad water color painting. The clouds and the light mixed together created an extremely chaotic picture, even a little bit ugly, but we stared at it without a sound for a long time. After many hours of transportation, examinations, and further waiting, I finally reached the hotel for quarantine. At night, listening to the noise of the construction site by the hotel, the traffic on the road, and the excited shouting of the people returning after a long day of work, I slowly typed three words into the text box: “I am home.”