It’s early morning and the Boeing Dreamliner is gently climbing in the inky, black sky above Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China’s busiest international gateway.
It would be over 500 miles away, in Seoul, South Korea, before dawn broke. There are nearly 300 seats but on this crisp, February day most are empty. The flight crew outnumbers the passengers scattered throughout the cabin. Less than 40 people are on board. Settling in for the 13-hour journey to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, some passengers close their eyes and drift to sleep, but Wei Wei, a postdoctoral researcher in Atlanta, sits in her aisle seat daydreaming.
In just two flights, she will return to her job, her friends, her husband, and her daughter after being separated for over one year.
For many foreign-born scientists, the complicated alphabet of temporary worker visas is the path to realizing their dream of working in the leading country for scientific research. Upwards of 30% of scientists working in the United States are foreign-born, while almost one in every four STEM degrees are earned by international students. They usually enter America legally using F-1 (Student), J-1 (Exchange Visitor), or H-1B (Specialty Worker) visas, but the path to obtaining and maintaining them can be confusing, arduous, and expensive.
Wei received her first visa in 2008, which allowed her to move from her childhood home in Gansu, the poorest province of China in its rugged northwest, to the Mississippian trade hub of Memphis, Tennessee, and pursue her Ph.D. She loved working in the U.S. and decided to extend her visa so that she could work as a postdoctoral researcher, but in late 2019, her visa was set to expire. There was a gap. The documents for a new visa were not ready, meaning she would have to return to China to wait until they were available. Not wanting to disrupt her daughter’s schooling or her husband’s job, she decided to make the trip alone. On December 7, 2019, she boarded a plane for China, expecting to return just a few months later, once her visa was renewed.
Upwards of 30% of scientists working in the United States are foreign-born, while almost one in every four STEM degrees are earned by international students. They usually enter America legally using F-1 , J-1, or H-1B visas, but the path to obtaining and maintaining them can be confusing, arduous, and expensive.
Shortly after arriving at her parents’ home in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, the nightmare began. Hushed murmurs traveled throughout China about people checking into hospitals with a mysterious illness. At the start of the new year, the virus afflicting dozens of patients was fully sequenced, but the government remained tight-lipped and punished doctors and scientists for spreading “rumors” about the new, SARS-like virus. Patient samples were destroyed in an effort to conceal the outbreak, which was rapidly spreading beyond the Chinese borders.
As cases rose, Chunyun, the 40-day travel season anchored by Lunar New Year that is also the world’s largest annual human migration event, began. Billions of people crisscrossed the country to reunite with their families and celebrate. Yet, in the wee hours of January 23, 2020, just two days before the official start of Chinese New Year, smartphones in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, buzzed in unison, jarring people awake from their visions of holiday dishes and fireworks and lanterns.
Wuhan, “the Chicago of China”, was to go under lockdown as of 10 am. No one would be allowed to leave the city after that time without permission.
Wei knew then that her return home would be delayed, but making it back to her daughter and husband became her one and only dream. Although she was over 700 miles away from Wuhan and it would take another couple of weeks and 54 positive cases in Lanzhou before the city instituted its own lockdown, panic mounted across China. Wuhan constructed two field hospitals in ten days to service the surging cases. Cities across the world advised self-imposed quarantines following travel.
Wei recalls the lockdown restrictions her cousin faced in Wuhan. “You cannot even travel outside your apartment.” She painted a pict