“The world has collapsed inside me”: An International Student’s Reflection on Immobility

By Phil Kitchel posted 10-28-2022 11:04 AM


By Anh Ngoc Quynh Phan

The author’s article in the current issue of The Educational Forum, “In-betweenness, Mother Guilt, and Juggling Roles: The Emotional Experiences of a Vietnamese International Doctoral Student Mother,” is currently available free.

Anh Ngoc Quynh Phan is completing her PhD study at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Anh is familiar with qualitative methodologies such as narrative inquiry, critical (collaborative) autoethnography, and poetic inquiry. Anh is interested in migration, diaspora, international student mobility, space, place, and identity.

COVID-19 came like a tornado, causing a worldwide blackout. The earth kept spinning, but certain forms of connection were suspended for a long time, including airline transportation. The world we used to know turned into a big question mark, something we did not, and would not, know. We were unsettled, worrying, not sure how these uncertainties would resolve.  

Hoa was one of the many billions of humans deeply affected by COVID-19. She was a third-year international PhD student in New Zealand who sojourned there without her family. Her husband and two children (seven and one years old) stayed in Vietnam. When everything was normal, Hoa could have taken her mother and children to New Zealand on a three-month trip. She could have returned to Vietnam for a conference. Her whole family could have stayed in New Zealand for a month to celebrate her thesis submission. But that was in the world we used to know.

As a countermeasure to the terrifying rate of infection of the coronavirus, national borders were closed. New Zealand closed its border on March 2020, followed by many other countries, including Vietnam. The news of border closure made Hoa exclaim, “The world has collapsed inside me.” Hoa was stuck in New Zealand, and that period of separation was marked by feelings of vulnerability, homesickness, a shifting sense of belonging, and juggling roles of a mother and a PhD student. Hoa felt “homeless,”  but she showed her resilience and strength in creating and restoring a sense of home in New Zealand when she feared for her connection to home in Vietnam. Hoa questioned her own identity, fearing that she “failed as a mother.” But her identity as a mother was now tied up with the international immobility of life during the pandemic. Her identity as a mother gave her strength to wait for the reunion with her children and family. When she managed to return to Vietnam on a repatriation flight, Hoa’s feelings of mother guilt and in-betweenness did not vanish but took different forms.

Recording Hoa’s experience was a privilege for me as a researcher.  I believe her experiences and emotions resonated with many other international students, mothers, and wives. The article has exposed hidden vulnerabilities that were previously unseen by international students themselves and hidden from the host countries, including the precarity of interrupted immobility, displacement, and feelings of “homelessness.” The research calls for a focus on how international students cope with major social, emotional, educational, and mobility challenges.