A Chinese student trying to return to her university in Australia is stuck on a South Korean resort island. Amid coronavirus anxiety, she has been met with fear and discrimination.
Jeju Island, with white sand beaches and a volcanic landscape, is a slice of paradise off the coast of South Korea, but Iris Yao has not found it particularly relaxing.
Yao, a 22-year-old student, arrived on the resort island last month for a short stay on her way back to her university in Sydney from her hometown in Zhoushan, China. Since then, she has been virtually marooned.
She is one of tens of thousands of Chinese travellers whose plans have been upset by rapidly changing regulations thrown up across the region as the coronavirus has spread.
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But instead of the warm welcome once extended to wealthy Chinese tourists, the island's locals have met her and other Chinese visitors with worry, discrimination and fear.
Some restaurants on the resort island have banned Chinese citizens. Employees at one asked her not to speak Mandarin while eating there, fearing she would scare away customers.
"The fear toward the virus is everywhere," she said. "I think it's unfair for all Chinese citizens; they are not allowed to go into restaurants or cannot speak Mandarin."
What was supposed to be a short detour on her way to begin another semester of studies in Australia turned into an anxious limbo when that country joined others in banning travellers arriving directly from mainland China.
Now, she must wait. According to the current regulations she cannot make her way to Australia until she has been out of China for at least 14 days. Alone in a foreign country and made to feel like a pariah has left Yao depressed and frustrated.
"I just want to stay in a safe place," she said.
Fears over the virus have fueled discrimination around the world. In Japan, the hashtag #ChineseDon'tComeToJapan trended recently on Twitter. In Singapore, thousands of residents signed a petition calling on the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country.
Even in China, people listen for accents distinctive to Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, and shun residents, avoiding them on public transportation and denying them entry to restaurants and other public spaces.
Yao landed on Jeju last month after spending the Lunar New Year in Zhoushan, in the coastal province of Zhejiang. The province is one of the hardest hit by the new coronavirus outbreak, with more than 1,100 confirmed cases.
One day after arriving in Jeju, the Australian government restricted entry for travellers who had recently been to mainland China — a ban it is set to extend Saturday.
The ban has caused problems for thousands of Chinese students, who make up a significant portion of the international student population at Australian universities. Now in online chat groups, students are debating the merits of staying in third countries, including Thailand or United Arab Emirates, for 14 days in an attempt to make the start of a new semester.
Yao considers herself luckier than her friends who are in trapped in Hubei province or elsewhere in mainland China. As a fix, some universities have said that they will provide online courses or allow students to defer the semester. Still, she has added her name to a petition along with thousands of others calling for a delay to the start of the semester.
On February 2, Jeju Island also indefinitely suspended its visa waiver program for Chinese nationals, leaving Yao, who arrived before the restriction went into effect, in uncertain territory. As of Wednesday, there had been 28 confirmed cases of CORVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in South Korea.
Since her arrival on Jeju Island, Yao has rarely ventured outside, choosing instead to play games online with friends and study for a driving test.
At one point, she posted on social media about the prejudice she had experienced, saying that while she supported measures like self-quarantining, the enactment of hasty travel bans had been "hurtful." She received responses from several Chinese people, some of whom called her emotional and uneducated.
On Friday, confident that she would be able to return to Australia once she has spent two weeks outside of China, she finally booked a ticket to Sydney, transiting through Malaysia.
But since then, Malaysia has banned visitors from Zhejiang province, where she visited last month. She is worried now that even a layover in Malaysia will be problematic and she could be turned around.
"This is really troubling for me," she said. "But it is my only chance."
Written by: Isabella Kwai
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES