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COVID In Appalachia: When Borders Closed, This Student Couldn’t Go Home

Photo courtesy of Anh Pham
Anh Pham shared this picture from a December 2020 hike at Black Rock Mountain trail taken by her boyfriend.

Life in Appalachia has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.  For some people, the pandemic meant that they couldn’t go home. This week for BPR and Foxfire Museum's COVID-19 oral history project, we hear from Anh Pham. She’s an international boarding school student at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. She was interviewed by Foxfire Museum fellow and Rabun County high schooler Mario Trujillo in July 2020.

Learn how you can share your experiences during the pandemic with BPR & Foxfire’s oral history guide.

The following is an edited excerpt of Pham’s oral history, recorded in July 2020. Click above to listen to BPR’s audio version. 

Mario Trujillo: Tell us a little about yourself?

Anh Pham: My name is Anh Pham and I'm a rising junior in Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. I’ve been in America for over two years now as an international student. I’m from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Mario Trujillo: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Anh Pham: So during the pandemic here, I would wake up early in the morning and wash up and then since I'm in quarantine, I just stay in the room and try to read some books and play some music. Right now, I’m also working on a project with some of my friends.

Credit Photo courtesy of Anh Pham
Anh Pham is playing the piano in the orchestra room at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School for a Mid-Autumn Festival video.

Mario Trujillo: What are some precautions you’re having to take right now?

Anh Pham: So basically, I'm in semi-quarantine. I have to wear a mask whenever I go out. I'm allowed to go on walks sometimes, but I should remain in my room, I cannot meet other students.

Mario Trujillo: How has the pandemic affected your personal life?

Anh Pham: I cannot go home during the breaks and summer break, and I really miss home, I miss my parents. Home is safer than here, but the border is pretty much closed, and I'm very upset about that.

Mario Trujillo: What are you doing personally?

Anh Pham: I really try to create some work to do. For example, I read books and I work out. I really stopped going out for grocery shopping and stuff like that. Currently, I try to find some random contests online and some jobs for students to do like, volunteering, and translating articles. Things like that, just to keep myself busy. And I call my parents and friends constantly, just for some social interaction.

Mario Trujillo: How did you handle the online classes?

Anh Pham: The online classes last spring were really tough; I would do much better in person. But at least I maintained a decent record at the end. I feel like I missed a lot of things that I could have learned. I spent more hours doing these classes and the homework. I couldn’t focus on my work.

Mario Trujillo: Would you say that the biggest challenge of the online classes was? Your focus or were there different challenges?

Anh Pham: The focus, and the amount of work we got was not efficient.

Mario Trujillo:  How do you think the Vietnamese government handled the virus?

Anh Pham:  The Vietnamese government took action pretty early, like in early January and late December, that's why they got back on track pretty quickly, but it also affected their educational systems, some students didn't get enough work done, like recently I heard that they had their final, and not all of them did well because they didn't have enough time in class. They should have adjusted their educational plan more, but overall, in handling the pandemic, I think they did a pretty good job.

Mario Trujillo: What were your initial thoughts when you moved to this area, and what are your thoughts now?

Anh Pham: Well my initial thoughts, I was expecting freedom. That's like the first thing I ever thought of when I came to America. Freedom, I want to play the piano all the time. But aside from that I learned that America has its problems like anywhere else, and I don’t regret my choice at all because I got to learn a lot from this place. I learned that nowhere is perfect. I learned to love my country more. And I learned to value what it was like back home -  and here.

Mario Trujillo: Could you go more in depth about how you feel about not being able to return home?

Anh Pham: My family has always been my source of motivation, and it was really important to me to return back home after a long time away from them. Studying in a boarding school is pretty sad. Usually I would come home to them. I would have time with them, I would watch my brother grow up. I would go shopping with my mom, have coffee with my family, but it’s just not there anymore, I’ve got to wait more. I don’t have a lot of time left with my family, I’m in the U.S. now and returning home for college is not an option. So basically I moved away from home since I was 15 and it’s going to be like that forever, so I really want some time to go back home. But this pandemic happened, I basically have less time with them. I get my duty: to protect their safety and my safety, and other people as well. That’s why I’m OK with staying. 

Mario Trujillo: When do you think you’ll be able to return to Vietnam again?

Anh Pham: So my plan is to return during winter or Christmas break, if the pandemic is not escalating, but from what I’m seeing right now it's going to be pretty tough, so I don’t know what's going to happen.

BPR checked in with Pham. She has not been able to return to Vietnam yet. She hasn't been home since 2019. She spent Christmas with her aunt who lives outside of Atlanta.

Mario Trujillo: What do you think is going to happen in the future?

Anh Pham: So far there have been a series of events that are happening right now, and I think that after this pandemic, people will learn a lot to protect their safety and others safety, as well as the environment, more. Climate change could be somewhat of a reason for the virus to have mutated in the first place. People also got to see and experience how the government responds to this pandemic. People will start to have a voice, they will speak up more for their own good. For the future, for the change of the world, it’s going to be big steps, this is something that provokes the changes.

Music for this piece was "It Looks Like The Future But Feels Like The Past" by Doctor Turtle

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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