For more than 890,000 Chinese international students overseas, the past year and a half has involved struggle and confusion. In the wake of Covid-19, they’ve confronted xenophobia and racism abroad, competed for flight tickets to return to China, and took ultra-expensive online classes.
Beyond all the inconveniences, worries, and anxieties, however, it was also a time for reflection, connection, and discovery for many people, especially those who chose to come home.
Below, we meet Ashley Yang, Kevin Wu and Han Yi, three young overseas students who returned to China during the ongoing pandemic.
These returnees have embraced the new normal with resilience and have made this unexpected disruption into a time to pursue passions, advance their careers and reconnect with their homeland.
For Ashley Yang, who has spent the last 10 years attending schools in Australia and London, 2020 and 2021 has been a journey to reconnect with her local youth culture and develop her business acumen.
“One thing that I found most surprising about China is young people here are very into cyberpunk [aesthetics], especially in Shanghai. They are very expressive with what they are wearing, and people here are more willing to step out of their comfort zone,” says Yang. “I think that’s really unique and interesting, but sometimes I get quite overwhelmed just looking at them.”
Image courtesy of Ashley Yang
Before returning to China in March 2020, Yang was in the midst of her master’s of entrepreneurship at University College London. She previously did her undergrad studies in branding and design at the University of the Arts London.
If it was not for Covid-19, she hoped to continue living overseas and find a job in London or Paris after graduation. However, the worsening coronavirus situation in the UK halted her plan and caused something of a personal dilemma — stay in London or return to China?
“On one side, it was pretty dangerous flying at that time, as you might contract the virus on the flight. But also, the situation in London was getting serious, and I was living alone,” Yang tells RADII.
After talking with her parents, she ultimately decided to come back to China and hopped on a plane the next day.
While working on her dissertation and attending occasional online courses, Yang hung out with her old friends in her hometown Kunming, where she met her current business partner. Together, they’ve rebranded a designer collective store called RAD, which features works from select independent designers from China.
In applying her education to real-world business, Yang also met challenges localizing her skills.
For someone who had spent her entire adulthood and received most of her formal education in Western countries, China’s most popular social media sites — Weibo, Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), WeChat — were all pretty new to her.
“I had to learn fast, but it has been a great experience,” Yang says, “I think RAD is going in the right direction right now.”
What’s also new to her is China’s fast-paced market, which, while vibrant, can sometimes be too much.
“I have been learning about doing marketing in China, and I am also getting adjusted to the fast-paced lifestyle. For business purposes, I think it is okay. But I don’t think I would compromise that part of me — I like a slow pace,” Yang says.
After more than a year of reconnecting with her hometown, Yang thinks she might stay in China for the next couple of years to continue exploring. Besides RAD, she plans to work on more personal branding and perhaps try her hand in the F&B industry — where her true passion in business lies.
While Yang was rediscovering her connection with her home country after 10 years away, Kevin Wu, a sophomore and a junior golfer at Yale University, found himself falling in love with China’s short-video apps during his Covid-caused gap year.
“They provide a window for me to see the youth culture [in China], what is happening, and learn about China’s young population,” says Wu, referring to the most popular short-video apps Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and Kuaishou, another rising video platform.
Wu attended an international school in Shanghai while growing up and describes the experience as “living in a bubble” — something he attributes to a Western education environment that causes students to lose touch with local pop culture.
Image courtesy of Kevin Wu
Having gone through a similar journey to Yang, Wu returned to Shanghai from the US amid the pandemic and decided to take a year off school.
Wu began learning to golf at the age of 8, and he is now a star member of the Yale men’s golf team and Hong Kong’s national golf team. During his gap year, he represented Hong Kong at several prestigious national golf tournaments in China.
As a computer science major with a background in economics, Wu had the opportunity to participate in internships in various industries, helping to evolve his perspectives on personal development and his career goals.
He first interned at a golf company, which allowed him to learn more about the golf industry as a whole, followed by a dating app company. This second internship provided him with perspectives on love and relationships in modern China.
His final internship was with a financial advisory firm, something he found “very exciting.”
Wu recently returned to the US for the upcoming fall semester, and he tells RADII that he’s very grateful for what he has learned in his home country.
Han Yi is a 21-year-old freshman menswear fashion student at London College of Fashion who originally hails from Huainan, Anhui. Among his social circle, though, he is also known as an emo music producer and singer.
He returned to China at the end of March 2020 during spring break, after his parents insisted on him returning home (a recurring theme, as you’ve probably noted).
Image courtesy of Han Yi
During the mandatory quarantine period upon arrival, Han completed his first album, Virtual Wonderland, an emo-inspired work that reflects his personality, emotional states and interactions with the world.
At that time, with Covid-19 raging across the US, Han opted to continue his education remotely. Thanks to the flexibility that online classes have given him, Han has found more time to dabble in music production.
Later in 2020, Han finished his second EP, Romantic:) Stupid, and several other songs that document his feelings on romance, friendship and family relationships.
China’s relatively controlled Covid situation has allowed him to perform his music and DJ in clubs in cities such as Hangzhou and Shanghai.
He quickly discovered that the club scenes in major Chinese cities are quite different from London. “It is more vibrant and exciting out here — surprisingly open-mind, down-to-earth and inclusive. Touring around China has provided me with lots of opportunities to explore myself,” Han tells RADII.
Growing up obsessing with American hip hop music, two of Han’s favorite performers are ASAP Rocky and Lil Wayne, from whom Han gained enormous enlightenment and inspiration growing up. The spirit of being free, rebellious, and expressive, as well as the fashion trends associated with hip hop, continue inspiring him today.
“Rappers are some of the coolest people I know, with a unique sense of fashion. The influence I got from them is one of the main reasons I am in the fashion industry now,” says Han.
He is proud to be a full-time fashion student and a part-time underground cool kid. In the world of Han, fashion and music go hand in hand and are two indispensable passions.
Talking to us from his hometown in Anhui, Han says he looks forward to returning to school in London if conditions allow, although he is grateful for the experience he has gained over the past 18 months.
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When Yang, Wu, and Han rushed to board returning flights home at the height of the pandemic in early 2020, there must have been a level of anxiety at the uncertainties they faced.
Fast forward to today, and the experience has proven to be one of self-discovery and reconnection with their home country. And that, dear readers, is priceless — if you’re asking us, anyway.
Cover image courtesy Ashley Yang
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