Global City

Shared living and working spaces provide international students with stability amid uncertainty

Chinese students are helping each other cope with the new reality of studying remotely around the world.

While William Hu was asleep on a stormy night in Yunnan, China, mice secretly gnawed at the internet cable at his Airbnb apartment.

When the USC sophomore woke up at 2 a.m. to a new day of classes and a broken WiFi server, he switched on his personal hotspot to join the live Zoom sessions, despite tuning in from across the Pacific Ocean.

This wasn’t the only internet glitch Hu dealt with while in the co-living space shared by 10 other international students. Located in Dali, Yunnan, a landlocked province in southwest China, the three-floor Airbnb accommodation often experienced “shaky” internet, Hu said. Though the co-living space had its kinks, Hu said it was the best option for students learning remotely.

As China continues to grapple with COVID-19, with the majority of its provinces having zero or fewer than 10 confirmed cases according to Chinese CDC data as of Nov. 9, the loosening of social distancing measures allows students to immerse themselves in cities outside their home provinces and engage in activities within close-knit social circles.

Hu was among the many students who created shared living and working spaces for international students coping with remote learning. Chinese students at USC, who were forced to fly home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have established offline communities across China that foster community in the face of stressful experiences related to time zones and isolation.

Hu co-founded the Dali Living Laboratory for International Students that ran from August to September, after carefully researching online reviews, contacting local landlords and negotiating prices. Hu said it offered a space for students who needed a space away from their family homes to take classes across time zones and at odd hours of the night. The computer science major would have otherwise lived with his parents, but on a wildly different schedule due to the 15-hour difference between Los Angeles and China.

“[Life at home] is plain and boring,” Hu said. “[There’s only] a line between your dinner table, your bed and the bathroom. Your family probably won’t understand what you are doing most of the time due to time zone difference … and academics.”

Hu said Dali’s natural scenery made it an ideal place for international students to hunker down for the semester. The shared apartment is a 5-minute walk from Erhai, an alpine fault lake, and a 10-minute drive from Dali Ancient City, Hu called this one-month immersion a “one-time life experience.”

“Even though we have different classes, having that physical intimacy feels even closer than people within the same class or major,” he said, contrasting it to living in residential halls at USC, where he said the community was too large to get to know everyone who lived on the same floor. “We eat together, live together, take turns to wash clothes and cook for everyone. That kind of bonding was very special. You are all neighbors, you all speak Chinese and you are all coping with this weird situation together.”

After Mengfei Zhang flew back to Shanghai during spring break and finished the rest of her freshman year via Zoom, she found herself “really disconnected with the whole USC community.” In a Zoom call with three of her USC friends, Zhang, a sophomore double majoring in computer science and business administration and applied and computational mathematics, co-founded InTe Hub, a shared workspace for international students.

“We want[ed] to meet new people and get out there, not just stay at home and study,” Zhang said. “As long as we think of how we study together, like in Leavey, that just makes us very excited. That’s the biggest motivation.”

Zhang said “InTe” abbreviates the space’s mission: “international, intelligence and interaction.” The four co-founders started planning in July and launched the hub in August as a startup that serves as a bridge to connect students with shared workspace companies.

Located in Xuhui District, an urban core in west Shanghai, InTe Hub is a rented private room in an office building. Zhang said the hub operates 24/7 and currently hosts nine students, each paying a monthly fee of around $300. Students can work in the hub while enjoying other resources the building offers, including snacks, group gym classes and networking opportunities with the building’s other employees and companies.

Before the hub’s official launch, Zhang streamed a live tour of the workspace, answering any questions as she walked around inside the building. After the virtual event, Zhang said over 25 students and parents contacted her for the program.

“Some of them just wanted to pay that night,” she added. “I am pretty flattered, because compared with traditional WeChat articles [newsletters], this new way of publicity actually got something.”

After researching and filtering out a list of potential shared workspaces to use, Zhang said she spent a few days visiting each building and emailing the company managers for further discussion.

“We are all Viterbi students and don’t have any experience with business, so we [faced] a lot of [challenges] with [the] business plan,” Zhang said.

However, Zhang said that she reached out to her USC China Career Service mentor, studied business knowledge online by herself, researched pricing strategies and set the price to “as low as we can offer.” InTe Hub has been running for three months now and continues to serve four USC students.

Similarly, USC sophomore Marceline Yu created a shared workspace for international students “trapped” in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang province in eastern China. Yu, who is majoring in international relations, currently writes a WeChat newsletter for HaZelnut, the shared workspace she co-founded with three other students.

“Zekai and I never tried to run a media site,” Yu said. “When we started writing the first article, it almost took two hours just for an outline, and we spent two days to finish it.”

Zekai Zhang, a freshman at the University of Michigan who co-founded HaZelnut, said “HaZelnut” is a creative English variant of the city’s Pinyin, “Hang” and “Zhou.” Zekai Zhang and Yu have been writing newsletters for the shared workspace, which currently hosts 16 people at a monthly fee of around $220 per person.

“We connect students in the same city during this difficult time, so we want to incorporate the city name into the name of our community,” Zekai Zhang said. “Just imagine you have a lesson and stay here until 12 a.m., and there’s someone else staying here. You say ‘hi’ and share a bottle of milk tea.”

Chenkai Mao, another co-founder and a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, who stays up to take classes from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m, said he would go to HaZelnut in the early afternoon on weekdays, work on assignments and meet other international students. Mao said he stays until 8 or 9 p.m., returns home on a late subway, after which he attends lectures live.

“[It’s] pretty much like studying in an urban university without a physical campus,” Zekai Zhang said.  “Our location is near the West Lake and we have this giant balcony, so we can always just go out.”

About 110 miles away, at the Shanghai Living Laboratory, five international students are bonding over cooking and shared meals. The living space was co-founded by three USC Chinese students, including Jessica Yuan, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.

From Korean hotpot to curry soup, Yuan said the students in her co-living space love to try out different recipes together.

“We are trashed by the huge loads of homework, but then we’re trying to have fun,” Yuan said.

A typical day for Yuan and her roommate, who both take classes asynchronously, starts at 6 a.m. Yuan said a “couch surfing” program determines their fifth housemate, who lives on a bed in the living room, and they set the price to be $10 each day for the couch surfer. Some couch surfers live in the space for a few days, while others stay for as long as a month, Yuan said, adding that couch surfers will undergo an application and interviewing process.

“It’s not for selection purposes,” Yuan said. “We just want to get to know who they are. The couch surfer program in our house is surprisingly popular. Ever since we have moved in, we always have a couch surfer with us.”

Yuan said their couch has welcomed international students from a wide range of majors, and for an engineering student interested in liberal arts and other subjects, this is the best part of the program.

“It is really exciting to meet different people, and they are fantastic human beings that have different backgrounds, from industrial engineering at Parsons to journalism at Northwestern,” she said.

To set up a smooth internet environment for taking classes online, Yuan said as they anticipated internet issues, one of her housemates mailed five WiFi routers to the house before she arrived so that each bedroom and the living room could have a router to ensure bandwidth and speed. Figuring out WiFi plans with China Telecom, having technicians setting the facility up, along with learning to understand electricity, water and gas numbers, Yuan said, “teaches us adulting.”

“Who would have downloaded the renting software, talked to the renting agents and then tried to figure out how to pay for your electricity and WiFi,” she added. “If we are living in Parkside and McCarthy, we never need to worry about that.”

The Shanghai Living Laboratory will run until late December. Yuan said her household did not have a clear post-semester long-term plan amid all of the uncertainties with COVID-19, international student visa and travel restrictions.

“We at first were not sure if we [could] get back to campus in spring,” Yuan said. “So we decided not to make our co-living space a year-long program.” If students had advanced knowledge about spring semester’s programming and decided to stay for the whole year, she added, “it would be much easier to find a house and more people who are willing to live with us.”

Yuan said since one of her roommates has rented an apartment near USC and is paying for “a house that she’s not even living in,” they are awaiting USC’s further guidance on whether students can return to campus.

USC said on Oct. 14 that in-person decisions for Spring 2021 are still pending. In a Nov. 5 email to international students, the USC Office of International Services said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not released guidance for the spring semester. As of Nov. 9, the travel ban on China that requires mandatory quarantine in a third-country prior to entering the U.S. has not been lifted.

“At this time, we are not very sure about our future plan,” Yuan said. “There might be more Go Local programs next semester, but we are still waiting for different possibilities.”