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For Chinese students in France, loneliness deepens as the pandemic drags on

Alice Ma: "When I lay down on my bed I overthink and worry about my future." (Photo by Margot Lambilliotte)


Global Business Journalism reporter

Part 3 of a 3-story special report

PARIS – After having studied French for five years, Alice Ma, a 27-year-old from Beijing, finally got accepted in a French university to pursue her education. The Chinese citizen arrived in Paris in December 2019, but her studies in France quickly took a different turn with the COVID-19 outbreak a month later. With the ensuing lockdowns and the strict social distancing measures designed to stop the virus' spread, loneliness and anxiety have become a daily concern.

‘‘I have been mostly staying in my 8-square-meter student room," said Ma. "I do not know anyone here. The only moment I can interact with someone is when I talk online with someone. Sometimes I spend days without even speaking. It almost feels like I do not exist anymore."

While the first priority of citizens around the world is to protect their physical health against the virus, it is also essential to pay attention to mental health. As the world is facing of its most severe pandemic in a century, many people have reported feeling overwhelmed, lonely, anxious and stressed.

According to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, the number of people feeling depressed increased by 21% since the beginning of the outbreak. Two-thirds of those surveyed admitted suffering from sleep disorders. In France, calls to the SOS Suicide helpline have gone up by 42% since the pandemic began.

‘‘Human beings are considered social animals and are one of the most vulnerable species at birth who need to rely on others for survival,’’ said Valérie Binet, a psychologist working at the Hospital Saint-Joseph in Paris. Our brains have adapted to having others as our baseline. So, when the lack of proximity to trusted others is absent then it puts us in a heightened state of alert."

Students are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than ever before. This was even the case before the pandemic started. Experts say that access to social media and ongoing information and news from the media has led students to become more and more prone to feel stressed and anxious.

For international students who left their home country to study abroad, every day is just like every other one. They spend their time alone, sitting in their student room. Most of these isolated international students have decided to stay in their host country instead of going back home. They had expected to learn face-to-face in classrooms, but this did not happen.

‘‘It is really hard to sleep at night, not only because when I lay down on my bed I overthink and worry about my future, but also because I am not physically tired since I just spend my days sitting all the time in front of my computer," said Ma. "The only moment I go outside of my room is when I go to the bathroom."

Psychologists frequently describe university years as some of the best of people's lives. Campus life gives students an opportunity to meet new people, create networks and enjoy the benefits of vibrant university life. The busy mix of academic and social life has given way to solitary study via computer and socializing via smart phone.

Continuing lockdowns have caused stress for students around the world. (Stock photo from Wix)

In some parts of the world lockdowns have stretched on for months – in many countries for more than a year. In countries where restrictions are being lifted, people generally are still keeping their distance and are not socializing the way they used to. The consensus is having an effect on people and their mental health. And for these who live far away from their home country, these effects are often even more dramatic.

‘‘It is really difficult to keep busy mindset since we cannot go out or meet people,’’ said Yewen Li of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China. "I feel isolated because I do not even have a job at the moment, there is no way for me to escape loneliness."

Li has lived in France for the last three years and graduated from the Superior School of Journalism of Paris last June.

‘‘My biggest concern with this pandemic is that I do not know when I will be able to see my family again," she added. "I have not gone back home in the last two years, and now it is too complicated to travel."

Experts suggest differing ways to manage negative thoughts and feelings. Among them: finding ways to complete little projects to achieve something, letting sunlight into their homes, using space in a meaningful way, and engaging in relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation. ‘‘It is important, especially for the people who are far away from their country, to try to be innovative when they communicate with their friends and family,’’ said Binet. "They can stay in touch through online video calls, send voice messages or use social media platforms. People have to be supportive and check on each other, like family members, but also friends, neighbors, co-workers and classmates."

For some international university students with career aspirations, the pandemic has created a feeling like their entire world is crumbling around them. For them, psychologists say, it is important to realize that their plans have changed and they should proactively try to be a part of the future they want.

‘‘What we try to do with students is helping them acknowledging that their feelings are real," Binet said. "What we are talking about is a real loss for them. I think that instead of overthinking about what they lost and wait for everything to be back to normal, they should try to build their own new opportunities under these circumstances."

Another tough issue for foreign students is the lack of social interaction. The pandemic and the various lockdowns that hit France have made it difficult to socialize. This has resulted in many students heading toward online meeting apps to interact with others.

According to a survey conducted by Franceinfo, Western dating apps such as Tinder and OkCupid have reported an increase in downloads and subscribers since France underwent its first lockdown in mid-March 2020. Most of the time, users have admitted that they were not necessarily

love, but instead looking for social interaction while using the app.

"People are seeking friendship in ways they would have only done offline before the pandemic," Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd told Reuters.

And interaction is what they got. OkCupid, for example, saw a 700% increase in dates globally from March to May 2020, Forbes reported.

For overseas Chinese students, traditional Chinese social media such as WeChat and Weibo are still their favorite tools to communicate. It is a way for them to relive loneliness and feel closer to the people from their community who are facing the same dramatic issues while being abroad during the pandemic.

‘‘You need to go extra mile to meet people. It is hard to try to open up,’’ said Ma.

‘‘First of all, there are all the random difficulties an international student can meet when arriving in a new country, such as the cultural gap and the language barrier,’’ she said. "But now there are also all the issues related to the virus. This situation we have been facing for over a year totally changed the way we interact. People are scared to just speak to each other." To counteract loneliness and anxiety among their students, some universities have decided to create new activities. At the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Alice Ma’s friends found the association Chinalco Sans Barrière, which organizes monthly meetings with online dinners and group activities to offer more cultural and linguistic exchanges for international students.

Because pandemic disruptions are expected to continue in France, people are developing ways to cope with loneliness, anxiety and the reality that the coronavirus will never go away but eventually will become like seasonal flu.

‘‘Now I really believe this virus will not leave anytime soon,’’ said Li. "I am afraid of how it will impact us in the long term. At some point I knew I was not where I wanted to be. I was determined to go back home. But then my family in China reminded me why I first decided to come to France. I came to learn, live a different life, and find a job I will love. I should never forget this."

Despite the suffering caused by COVID-19, research shows some positive effects too. There is a sense of solidarity that may come from people working together for the public good. And there may be some comfort in knowing that others are experiencing similar challenges. The focus on mental health issues could reduce the stigma around emotional well-being and create greater willingness to talk about something that is a natural part of all of our lives.

‘‘When I go through hardship like this, I try to focus on the positiveness of the situation,’’ said Ma. "It makes me feel stronger. Now I feel like I can adapt anywhere. Once the pandemic will be over, I hope that people all over the world will come up happier and realize that it is important to demonstrate love, solidarity and kindness to each other."

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