The making of a documentary capturing the international student pandemic experience

| Contributing Writer

Senior Merry May Ma (left) coped with pandemic isolation by capturing the international student experience in documentary form. (Photo by Nina Bergman/Student Life)

When the pandemic initially hit St. Louis back in March 2020, I was a sophomore staying on campus over spring break. I was having brunch with my friend Sarah, talking about my movie-making plan. On March 11, we received an email saying that no one who travelled outside of St. Louis could return to campus. So in a few days, the Village House where I lived became very empty. 

In the first few days of quarantine, I felt like I was living inside a surrealist disaster movie. I stressed that I had not stored enough food for me to cook and pondered whether or not to wear a mask. I was scared that my immune system was weak, and every time I felt something grumbling inside, I thought I was infected. 

Hundreds and thousands of pieces of information bombarded me every time I went online, and my family members and friends back home in China worried about me — they were maybe even more panicked than I was. 

“Drink water every 15 minutes,” they said. “Wash your hands, and wipe the surfaces around you with 75% or above alcohol wipes.” 

“Do you have enough vitamin C to take?” they asked. “Enough N95 masks and rubber gloves?” 

“Don’t go out and meet people, will you?” they urged. “Just stay inside. I know you know how to be happy alone.”

For me, being happy alone depended on how much control I had over my academic and personal life. Our in-person classes terminated, and we switched to zoom classes. My screenwriting professor struggled to manage a new technology he hadn’t yet encountered. My “Making Movies” class couldn’t make our second film, so we planned to edit someone else’s footage instead. My eyes become sore easily, staring at a screen all the time. With few people around in the residential hall where I lived, in-person socializing became more difficult and risky. I would spend the whole day studying, cooking two or three simple meals, editing my films, reading, listening to music and daydreaming. A lack of human interaction made me feel isolated. The distance between my table and bed was so short that I gradually lost the motivation to get up every morning.

When I talked to my family and friends, albeit virtually, the feeling of loneliness dimmed. While seeing each other through screens, I could still feel our pumping hearts and the bright smiles that radiated our love for each other. I learned that it was especially vital to establish a daily routine while still finding joy and purpose in the things I did. I had an unprecedented amount of free time, so I could focus on doing things that matter to me. Riding my bike while listening to music or audiobooks, watching movies on my computer screen alone or hosting a virtual watch party, shooting and editing my movies and painting in nature were the top three things I did throughout 2020. 

Having more time also allowed me to attend to tiny but beautiful moments around me. One day in April 2020, I took a look outside my window in the middle of a Zoom class. What I saw was a small crabapple tree, full of burgeoning pink blossoms. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Beautiful because of the coming spring; breathtaking because of my ignorance of its bloom. Another day, I sat in one of the green armchairs in the empty lawn outside my residential hall to read. I saw a fresh and immense expanse of green reflecting glistening sunlight. I remembered thinking that I might be physically restricted but my mind was free to travel to any edge of the world. 

Throughout the pandemic, as a student filmmaker and a Chinese international student, I hoped to make a documentary that would offer relatable experiences and perspectives to people about what it actually felt like to experience social isolation, negative news, strict flight policies, the threat of xenophobia and emotional turmoil, as well as provide some pragmatic methods to address these challenges. Taking the class “Making Documentaries in the Time of Covid” in spring 2021 gave me a chance to turn “my” pandemic story into “our” pandemic stories. The idea of “Millions Like Us” began in February 2021 when my friend Sarah and I established the Mood Psychology Club on campus. We believed that making documentaries about the mental health issues of Chinese international students would be a good start. So I interviewed students and faculty members in person and on Zoom from March 2020 to May 2021, edited the film in June and revised it eight times until it was polished in mid-August.

Creating “Millions Like Us has been a pleasant and rewarding journey. Hearing about my peers’ experiences and stories during the pandemic pulled me away from the “self-quarantine” confines of my own dorm and connected me with other Chinese international students who shared the journey with me. Now “Millions Like Us” is on the school’s CampusWell website and in the Office of International Student and Scholars’ newsletter. I am inspired whenever a viewer tells me that the film “reminds [them] of how beautiful these micro-moments can be!” 

Editing “Millions Like Us” became a major reason for me to get out of my bed every morning. Most importantly, I discovered a higher pleasure and purpose by “seeing more, hearing more and feeling more” as American filmmaker Susan Sontag once said. Throughout the journey, my eyes became sharper in a good way. I trained myself to be more mindful and appreciative of my surroundings than ever before — the dancing sunshine and leaves, the fresh grass, the cotton-like clouds. I realized that it was the micro elements that made people feel grounded, hopeful, joyful and helped them to continue with their lives. 

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.