Leaving the United States Amid the COVID-19 Crisis
After moving there in August 2019, I often thought there might have never been a better time for me to live in the United States. American politics fascinate me. Trump’s impeachment by the House made me feel like I had a front seat before the stage of American history. Now, even though it saddened me to watch a country I admire tear itself apart, I couldn’t help but feel an uncanny sense of intrigue and excitement. While the politics of drama unfolded at the White House, the politics of stopping Trump continued throughout the democratic primaries. Little did I know, these politics would be exacerbated and almost made to become trivial by the threat dawning upon us.
As early as the beginning of this year, the politics that fascinated me triggered the chaos in which we currently live. The Trump White House responded to the pandemic threat from China; and that response was, to say the least, neither smooth nor swift. Politicians, experts, and the population couldn’t agree about the threat’s seriousness and the appropriate course of action. The coronavirus was disrupting our lives, and, as evident as it perhaps should have been, I cannot claim I saw it coming. What I can say, however, is that, on March 18, 2020, when I packed all my bags and rushed back to Canada in a rented car, there had never been and would never be a better time to leave the United States.
This article is an attempt to explain how it felt to be a Canadian in America at the time of COVID-19.
When the coronavirus hit the U.S., my Fulbright fellowship had already given me more than I had hoped. I had spent a great first semester at Lycoming College; I had traveled a fair bit across the beautiful green U.S. northeast; I’d gotten used to the fast-paced American way of life. After traveling to New York City, Atlanta, and New Orleans during the Christmas break, I came back to Williamsport, between the Pennsylvania mountains, on January 12, 2020. I felt refreshed and reinvigorated. I was ready, in other words, to crush this second semester; I was prepared to work hard, study hard, travel widely, network, and create more opportunities. To this end, I started volunteering at a local career center, where I helped adult learners with their writing skills. It was a busy time, but a fun time.
Although I was keenly aware of the situation in China and Europe, I went about my business candidly. I was busy living my American Dream, consumed by my activities. I saw nothing whatsoever coming my way. To be fair, no one really saw it coming. Perhaps it was because the virus, in a sense, had become a political running gag. Maybe we were too distracted by the politics of it and how the president was handling the situation. At that time, I wasn’t paying much attention to Canada. I was aware of how little time I had left in the U.S., and I wanted to make sure I made the best out of it. Ironically, though, I was auditing an international relations course, which focused on the globalization of world politics. From the outset, we’d established the coronavirus as a textbook example of a global phenomenon.
Long story short, I never would have imagined leaving the United States before the end of my grant. I never thought this virus would trigger a public health crisis so great and so threatening that anything comparable dates back to a century ago.
But this is precisely what happened, anyway-and it was the strangest of experiences.
It All Began Around Spring Break
My bliss lasted until Spring Break. By this time, we were all somewhat concerned about the coronavirus. There already had been one death in the United States, and cases began multiplying across the nation. Still, it wasn’t that big of a threat for now. Spring Break wasn’t canceled. Although I wanted to go somewhere for this well-deserved rest, I didn’t want to spend too much money. So, instead of going to California, I decided to visit a friend in Rhode Island. I thought about it twice before booking a bus ticket. I knew there was a case in Providence, and I knew I’d have to stop in New York City. In the end, however, I decided not to make too much of the virus. I wouldn’t stop living because of it.
I took a bus to Providence, Rhode Island, with a five-hour connection in New York City. I used the free time in NYC to have lunch with a friend in a delicious, though generic, Asian restaurant. I also went to work in a modern-looking café that had the roasted coffee smell you would expect, and then I met with another friend in another café, downtown, near the train station. It was March 10, 2020. The coronavirus didn’t even remotely seem to be a concern. Everyone went about their business. We probably all thought about it, but we were still in denial. What we failed to realize, though was that the effects of our actions that day would be felt weeks later when everything went down because of the lag. Later that evening, I arrived in Providence, then in Newport, where I was staying with my friend Adeline, another Fulbright fellow. The plan was for me to stay in Newport for a couple of days, to visit the Fulbright Fellow at Harvard, and to spend a pleasant time around Newport, Providence, and Boston.
Thankfully, we were able to do so — but only for so long.
When It All Went Down
The day I went to see Kunto at Harvard, the university had already gone online, and students were asked to leave their dorm. Although students around campus looked worried, you couldn’t have told the seriousness of the situation. The library was still busy, the coffee shops still full. It was business as usual, or so it seemed. I spent the afternoon in Cambridge, which didn’t seem disrupted at all. Perhaps what I saw had nothing to do with its normal, but I’d never been there before — so I couldn’t tell you. In retrospect, I’m grateful I got to visit Harvard at that moment because it wouldn’t take much time before everything went down. I returned to Newport on a quiet train, in the early evening, and the next few days were uneventful-though pleasant. I walked around Newport, checked out the old, luxurious castles, went to a luncheon in a small, cozy apartment.
Everything was perfect on the surface.
But while I was having a good time, the situation was worsening. The only things hinting at it were the emails I kept receiving. First, Lycoming College decided to extend Spring Break. I thought this wasn’t the worse thing that could happen. I didn’t believe the situation would become as hopeless as it would. I thought I might stay longer in Newport. Then, I received another email: the students who didn’t want to come back to Lycoming would be able to finish their semester remotely. Alright, I thought. From that moment on, the news never stopped pouring in. The U.S. president announced there would be no more flights from Europe. Then, he declared a national state of emergency. There came another email from Lycoming saying there would be no more in-person classes. Then there were emails from Fulbright, saying they supported us to make the best decision for ourselves. We could leave the country without jeopardizing our status as Fulbright alumni and our grant. At this point, I began to worry-and I began to wonder if I should stay in the United States.
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want this American dream to be over just yet.
It wasn’t until I listened to a CBC podcast that I realized why I should leave as soon as possible. The biggest threat to Canadian public health, according to experts, would be people coming from the United States. Upon hearing this, I immediately began considering leaving the U.S. before the situation worsened. It was also increasingly evident that the border between Canada and the U.S. would close, that traveling could become a lot more difficult without warning. Entire states were about to shut down; the worst had yet to happen. It took about half a day for me to make the decision-specifically, one conversation with my dad, and a few hours of thinking. However, when I decided to leave, it had been both the easiest and the most challenging decision I had ever made. There wasn’t much to stay for, and the risks were higher than the benefits. I didn’t know what would happen if I got sick. I had no idea if I could still travel tomorrow. So, on March 17, 2020, in the early morning, I rented a car in Middletown, RI, and I drove all day to get back to Williamsport-only stopping in Connecticut for coffee and in New Jersey for lunch. When I got back to campus, I reunited with my Austrian housemate, who was also leaving the country. We packed our bags while drinking red wine. The next day, I rented another car-a bigger one-and I put all my belongings and began my drive back to the homeland.
I said goodbye to the few colleagues and students I was able to see.
The Drive Back to the Homeland
It took me almost all day to get through upstate New York. The drive to the Canadian border, which would be long and tedious, was seven hours or so. The signs on the side of highways all showed “stay home” messages. The roads, nonetheless, were probably as busy as usual. I would only remember the seriousness of the situation at small villages’ gas stations, where I’d exchange a few words with the staff. The gas stations in small towns, like any other local shops, always reminded me of the sharp contrast between two Americas. The run-down infrastructure, on the one hand, the glass skyscrapers of New York City on the other. “Crazy what’s going on, isn’t it,” either of us would say. “Yeah, I can’t believe it,” the other would respond. After the transaction-buying gas, some snacks, or a coffee refill-we’d tell each other to stay cautious.
The craziest thing about driving through upstate New York, however, was listening to the radio. It was, by all means, a paradox. I heard some fantastic calls to solidarity from radio hosts I wouldn’t have expected to do so. Still, I kept hearing how much the branches of government-and America in general-were divided by the crisis. I kept hearing about Trump, the House, and the Senate; the political division and bitterness stemming from the crisis were frightening. I knew how polarized American politics were, but this was worse than anything I’d ever heard. It was a horrible feeling because the thought of leaving the country was relieving, but I didn’t want to go, and I didn’t want to feel relieved. I wanted things to be fine. I wanted things to be only as bad as the virus made them. I didn’t want politics to make things more difficult.
When I finally arrived at the Thousand Islands Border Crossing, it didn’t take five minutes to remember what I love about Canada. The customs agent, a warm and welcoming middle-aged man, took my passport and asked if I’d been “playing hockey down there”. I replied with the negative, so he asked what I had been doing in the United States. I told him, simply, that I’d been working as a teaching assistant at a small Pennsylvania college. Then he asked how long I’d be in Canada. I looked at him, puzzled. “I’m coming back,” I said. “Oh, you’re back for good,” he answered. He then asked, “You don’t have any firearms, explosives, or anything stupid in the car, right?” I shook my head. “Alright,” he said, handing my passport and a COVID-19 handout. “Good luck for the next two weeks, okay?”
“Thank you,” I said. And I drove into Canada.
I drove through Ontario for at least two hours before getting to Montreal. At this point, I was able to do tune in to Quebec’s radio; I was eager to hear how everything was going in my home province. As I mentioned before, I had paid no attention whatsoever to the situation in my home country. Everything I knew came from my parents and friends, and they hadn’t said anything about politics. Surprisingly, when I tuned in, I realized that Quebec’s Premier, François Legault, was, by all accounts, doing a fantastic job. Legault is a controversial leader; his party’s policies are causing division in the province and across the country. Yet, as I found out, politicians from all parties agreed he and the province’s public health director were doing an outstanding job. You could hear people from opposition parties saying we were lucky to have them.
Well, I thought — things couldn’t be more different from the U.S.
It took me another day to get to my parents’ place in Saguenay. I’d lived in Montreal for the past several years, but I had no place to stay there — and it was simply a better option to go to the country, where the population is less dense. So I stopped at a motel on Montreal’s south shore, the kind of dingy, side-of-highway motel you see in the movies. A couple of my friends had offered to host me for the night, but it didn’t feel right to see anyone while I was supposed to isolate myself. I dropped my bags in the dark motel room, drove the car back to the rental car company-I couldn’t take a vehicle from Williamsport to Saguenay-and then took a Uber back to the motel. The next day, I rented yet another car-the last one, thankfully-and after packing everything, I hit the road in the direction of Saguenay, where my parents were waiting for me. I got a cup of coffee from Starbucks on my way back as I knew I’d be a while without walking into one of these stores.
Now I am back in my hometown-happy to be here-and I completed my teaching duties remotely. I can’t say the motivation has been grandiose, but everyone did their best. I am grateful for the opportunity to finish the semester remotely. Now, despite everything that happened, despite my rushed return and the uncertainty, what I think about the most is the international relations course I was auditing. We’d thought this was an exciting time to be studying globalization. Little did we know, the coronavirus would disrupt the semester, moving all classes to online instruction, and I’d be auditing this course from my laptop in another country. If that’s not globalization, I don’t know what it is. In her first video lecture, our professor talked of the coronavirus crisis as a generation-defining event, the likes of which can only be compared with 9/11.
Unfortunately, she has a point.
But the fascinating thing, now, is that globalization-the very phenomenon that brought American politics to where they are-is meant to take a dramatic shift. August 2019 was not only the best time to live in the United States, but it was the last time I could do so before America was bound to change radically.
I woke up too fast from my American dream, but every second of it was worth it.
Originally published at https://frff.blog on May 23, 2020.