An Expat’s Experience: Returning Home During the Covid-19 Pandemic

On March 19th, 2020 I received a text from my sister. She informed me that the U.S. government issued a statement asking all U.S. citizens living abroad to return home to the states immediately, or to anticipate remaining abroad indefinitely. A panic surged through me. My racing thoughts came to a halt and everything around me froze. Coincidentally, the building I was living in had also fallen silent. No footsteps overhead, no crying babies. It was eerie. I took a breath and evaluated my feelings and options. My sister was already bound and determined to return home and I quickly came to realize that I did not want to live in Vietnam alone. We booked tickets back home to Seattle the next day. This is my recollection of all that transpired along my 48 hour international journey home. 

The Struggle to Leave Vietnam

Leaving was hard. I had just started to settle into my life there. I was finally living in my own apartment. My own apartment. Feeling financially secure, I was getting accustomed to a lifestyle which was new and exciting to me. I had friends and was establishing a routine. I didn’t feel as though I had accomplished all that I had set out to, but I decided that I didn’t want to stay while my family and loved ones were so far away.

I purchased a ticket for a flight out from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on April 3rd. That flight was then canceled a few days later. After hours of calling and rescheduling, I finally managed to arrange for a flight out on April 5th. Taxi services were suspended so my sister and I had to network with connections online to find someone who would be able to transport us to the airport for our 8am flight. 

We arrived at a near empty airport. Scarce for people, I still felt my paranoia bubbling from within my chest. Every person was wearing a face mask and gloves. Social-distancing was enforced. I kept my sanitizer and disinfectant wipes at the ready at all times but, even so, I felt my bones rattling and my muscles tensing. 

When my sister and I made it to the check-in counter, we weighed our bags and were asked by the airline worker to unload some of our items from our suitcases so that our bags would fit within the weight restriction limits. Now, my sister and I have flown with other airlines in the past. When those airlines asked us to take items out, it was so they could print off a weight tag indicating the luggage was within the appropriate weight limit, and then we were permitted to place our removed items back in the suitcase at no additional charge. The whole process was just for appearances. I guess we just got very lucky with those airlines because we tried to do that same thing with our current airline and the staff member looked at us like we were lunatics as we began placing our belongings back into our suitcases. Eventually we got everything settled after having to spend an insane 100USD to ship our overweight bags, the highest of any airline I’ve ever flown – definitely won’t be flying with that airline again. 

The rest of our time at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport went over relatively smoothly. I was still on high alert. My body pulsating with nerves. I felt as though I were tiptoeing atop a bridge made from balloons, praying that none would pop. I was annoyed by the lack of procedures in place to maintain a high level of cleanliness. When we went through the security checkpoint, the bins that we were supposed to place our carry-on  items in were not being wiped down between uses. There were no cleaning personnel mopping the floors or wiping down chairs. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had hoped that, aside from wearing masks and gloves, the airport would have taken additional health and safety precautions. 

Our flight to our first layover in Tokyo was quick and smooth. Our flight wasn’t full so they were able to space everyone out to accommodate the guidelines for social-distancing. I sunk into my sanitized seat with a sigh of relief. Once we took off, my emotions settled and I managed to distract myself with movies and sporadic 30 minutes naps. 

Arriving in Japan

Once we had landed at the Narita International Airport in Japan, the flight crew announced over the intercom system that all passengers with connecting flights out of Japan were allowed to disembark the plane. However, those who would be staying in Japan were to wait on the plane until they could be evaluated by a health professional. After they were checked and cleared to go, they were to be escorted through the airport and then taken to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel. All expenses were to be paid for by the Japanese government.

I was glad to see that there was a system in place to ensure the health and safety of those returning to stay in Japan, as well as, those who were already residing there. It was also a relief to see that all the staff of the airline and in the Japanese airport were wearing gloves, masks, and were practicing social-distancing. Cleaners were disinfecting the floors, counters and lounge chairs of the airport consistently throughout the course of our 12 hour layover. I was really impressed by the care and attention that was given to addressing the health and safety concerns caused by this Covid-19 pandemic. 

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

Our flight out of Japan and into our second layover which was at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas, USA was honestly terrifying. We flew with a U.S. based airline and none of the  staff wore face masks, neither did most of the passengers. The flight was less than half full. Though, there was no procedure in place to space out passengers, as we were all crowded in the first half of the plane. 

When we landed, there was no procedure in place to verify the health of any passengers arriving in the U.S. There were no directions encouraging passengers to quarantine once home. None of the airport staff wore face masks and only a select few were wearing gloves. There were a few markers on the ground encouraging social-distancing, but nothing was enforced as everyone crowded around each other to get through customs. I was horrified and shocked. 

After having seen how well organized the Asia-based airline and Japanese airport staff were, it was frustrating to see absolutely no procedure in place to verify the health and safety of passengers or airport personnel in Dallas. The airport was essentially an unchecked petri dish designed for Covid-19 transmission. 

Arriving in Seattle

The Seattle airport was much the same as Dallas. Again, there were no procedures in place to verify the health and safety of any passengers. None of the airline or airport personnel wore face masks, only a select few wore gloves. Social-distancing was essentially unheard of. I was frustrated to see such a severe lack of care being instituted at the U.S. airports. I was ecstatic to finally be home, but disappointed by how the airport did nothing to address or limit the potential spread of the Covid-19 virus. 

Additionally, I was appalled at the cost of a luggage cart at the Seattle airport. A family consisting of a pregnant mother, two young children, and an elderly grandmother also all flew from Vietnam to Seattle on the same flights as my sister and I. Throughout their whole traveling experience, they managed to keep positive and calm. When they arrived in Seattle, they went to grab a luggage cart to help move all of their bulky luggage out to the pick-up area. 

The mother appeared heartbroken when she realized that a single luggage cart would cost her 5USD. She was on the verge of tears while speaking to an airport personnel explaining that she didn’t have 5USD and couldn’t afford to purchase a luggage cart. The airport staff member directed the woman to search out in the pick-up area to check if there were any carts that hadn’t yet been returned to the purchasing station. This is unacceptable and I am vehemently outraged by the Seattle-Tacoma airport for charging a fee for people to access their luggage carts. None of the other three airports I traveled through charged any fees. Disgraceful. 

What’s the Point? 

What’s the point of my regaling you with my international traveling experience of returning home? It’s to showcase the drastic variation in how the U.S. is responding to this pandemic compared to other countries. Vietnam and Japan both had clear measures in place to protect those entering and exiting their borders. Was there more that they could have done? Sure. But, when compared to the US, they were light-years ahead of us in terms of working to get a firm grasp on this pandemic and limit the number of infections.

I am so grateful to have made it home. I am aware that I am incredibly privileged to be able to afford to pay for my own two week quarantine in order to keep my friends and family safe. However, this is not the case for everyone. Many people returning to the states during this time do not have the financial means to be able to follow the internationally issued guidelines to self-quarantine. Both the Vietnamese and Japanese governments have clear policies and procedures in place and are financially supporting their citizens, and even expats living abroad, by providing them with a place to quarantine and even food and water. 

We are currently living in confusing, scary, and uncertain times. The best way that we can all manage to get through this pandemic is by working together and instituting policies and procedures focused on ensuring and maintaining public health and safety. 

I am so blessed to be able to call the United States of America my home. Being back in Seattle fills me with so much joy and excitement. I didn’t realize how much I missed living here. All that said, I still expected more from my government to ensure the health and safety of the American people. The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam issued a statement that all U.S. citizens should return home. I answered the call and I was honestly embarrassed to see how little had changed to address the growing concern regarding this pandemic. It is important that people know how other countries are handling Covid-19. It is even more important that we demand our state and federal government officials to provide and enforce the basic protections that are desperately needed during these times. We can do better. We should do better. Please stay home and please stay safe. We will get through this.   

3 thoughts on “An Expat’s Experience: Returning Home During the Covid-19 Pandemic

  1. Josh, thank you for sharing! I think, here in the US, we are not taking this virus seriously. The carts should not be left ‘on the street’ for someone to find if not returned. I would honestly be scared to touch on with my stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. It was so eye opening to see such a stark contrast to how different countries were responding to what’s going on. We all need to do our part to keep everyone safe and healthy. Thank you! 😁


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