An Autoethnographic Look Into Being Stranded Due To COVID-19

An Autoethnographic Look Into Being Stranded Due To COVID-19

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of individuals were subject to social restrictions. The virus was declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC), and to curb its spread governments worldwide implemented lockdowns, keeping people at home. Although different countries responded to the pandemic in different ways, most countries implemented a travel ban, restricting inbound travel except those providing essential services. 

While such protocols kept people physically safe from the virus, it impacted the mental health of students, and adversely affected international students, whose higher education rests upon moving between countries and cultures. Some students were stuck in their host countries, unable to go home, and some were stuck at home without complete access to their university life. 

From the quality of their education to their social and mental well-being, many international students find themselves in a state of uncertainty. Some wonder when they will be able to reunite with their families, while others worry about the continuity of their studies. 

Although the pandemic halted traditional forms of travel and communication, it also gave rise to new forms of mobility in the virtual world. Meetings, work, and learning were shifted online through apps and programs like Zoom, facilitating the change. However, those new changes also impacted people’s social and emotional well-being.

While there is much research about the impact of COVID-19, numbers or surveys cannot fully capture the nuances of its social and emotional effects on individuals. As such, using methods like autoethnography can give us a more in-depth understanding of the author’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings within the broader cultural and social environment in which they occur. 

Using Autoethnography in Research

As a qualitative research method, autoethnography analyzes and understands cultural issues by drawing on the author’s experiences and perspectives. It is a mix of self-narrative and self-reflection with methods from ethnographic research. 

Autoethnography offers a comprehensive, in-depth account of one’s experiences; it challenges conventional cultural presumptions and encourages self-expression and self-reflection. It can bridge gaps between communities and cultures by fostering empathy, understanding, and possibly social change. (Phan, 2021)

An Autoethnography Look into Being Stranded Due to COVID-19

A study by Anh Ngoc Quynh Phan serves as a detailed autoethnographic look at the emotional landscape of international students stranded during COVID-19. In “The Emotional Geographies of Being Stranded Due to COVID-19: A Poetic Autoethnography of an International Doctoral Student”, Anh Ngoc Quynh Phan shares his emotional journey and investigates his flailing sense of belonging and sense of space and how he sought to reconnect and reinforce them. He also talks about the new forms of mobility that emerged from immobility and how rethinking space can facilitate identity reconstruction.

“The pandemic has shut the doors

built the invisible wall and stopped me there

“The pandemic has cut my journey short

left me hovering over, unable to land

The pandemic has put me in a bubble

One that has been blown far away

Across the oceans.”

Anh Ngoc Quynh Phan is a doctoral student from Vietnam pursuing a doctoral degree in New Zealand. He returned to his home country and could not return to New Zealand due to the country’s travel ban. Stranded at home and with his studies put on hold, he expresses his sense of helplessness and uncertainty through his poems. 

As a result of being stranded at home, the author could not interact with his peers and lecturers as before, losing the intercultural and academic exchange that came with international education. Instead, he could only turn inwards in retrospection and reflection. In that sense, it was as though he was in a bubble, far away from all that he was used to.

The author also investigated self-identity through the lens of space and place. Doreen Massey explains that space is “dynamic, relational and agentive,” shaping humans’ ideas, beliefs, and identity. Space is never empty; it holds meanings bestowed on it by humans who live and use that realm. Similarly, a place possesses human values, relationships, and interactions. And a person’s identity and sense of belonging can be rooted in their attachment to a specific place or location. (Massey, 2005)

For the author, his attachment to the physical place of his university, where all the academic and social activities were carried out, contributed significantly to his identity as an international student. Things that he took for granted within that space were now displaced. There was a sense of being here and there – a liminal space. 

“Will the me be swept away, Like dust in the wind?”

He questions his weakening sense of identity as he starts to lose visibility of his sense of place in New Zealand. His identity was rooted in his “academic and personal footprint, his doctoral office, and the whole academic space within the university,” which seems to be fading away. During this time, the author was deprived of opportunities and resources, such as offline courses and workshops, which would have contributed to his academic development. Even when he could communicate with his supervisors and peers virtually, the complexity of the relationship was reduced. 

“I worry there will be no end

For my half-full venture

For my unfinished pursuit

For my not-yet-explored places”

In his poem “The Fear of No Ending,” the author expresses his sense of uncertainty and fear that he will not be able to continue pursuing his doctoral program. This was important to him because his academic pursuit and engagement sustained his sense of belonging. However, new forms of mobility emerged from this immobility. Besides the virtual connection with his supervisors and peers in New Zealand, the author developed local networks and engaged within Vietnam’s academic space. With workshops, lectures, and seminars conducted online, the author developed new ways of working and interacting with others and started to “cultivate a new sense of place online and a sense of belonging to a wider academic community.” As a result, his new identity as an independent academic emerged.

Understanding Shared Experiences

In the context of being stranded due to COVID-19, autoethnography gives us insights into the psychological impact of the experience and how it altered their relationships and sense of self. Many people stranded felt lonely, anxious, and despair since they were cut off from their loved ones and their usual surroundings. Since many individuals were unsure of when they would be able to return home or to their studies, the uncertainty surrounding the situation also contributed to stress and anxiety.

Understanding the author’s experience through autoethnography provided essential insights into the psychological and emotional impacts of the pandemic. It also allows us to reflect on the author’s experience, bringing home the value of resilience, adaptability, and community. In this sense, autoethnography enables us to analyze shared experiences that help us better understand who we are and where we fit in the world.


Phan, A. T. (2021). The Emotional Geographies of Being Stranded Due to COVID-19: A Poetic Autoethnography of an International Doctoral Student. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, 22(1), 66–75.

For Space. (2005). Sage Publications Ltd.

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COVID-19’s Impact on the Tourism and Hospitality Industry

COVID-19’s Impact On Students’ Mental Health

Conducting Research in a Global Pandemic

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