Chris This is Home on the Dot, I’m Chris McMorran.
When this podcast began in 2018, I wanted to use it to learn about and showcase what home means to my students at the National University of Singapore. In July of a typical year, I would be traveling around the country with my student producers, visiting places and learning about objects that relate to that complex idea of home, from a favorite Hawker Centre to a grandmother’s sewing machine.
Covid-19 has changed all that. It has kept me and my student producers at home. But it hasn’t kept us silent.
Instead of exploring Singapore, I’ve been exploring how Covid-19 has impacted my students’ lives, and their relationships with home. I’ve been interviewing them from my home office, trying to shrink the distance between us as we struggle through this pandemic together.
The result is a mini-series of episodes of Home on the Dot, all about Covid-19, with stories about study abroad abruptly canceled, evacuations to Singapore, weeks in quarantine, strained long-distance relationships, transformed religious practices, and the boredom of being at home under lockdown.
In the first of these episodes on Covid-19, I talk with Shriya Sharma. You might recognize her voice from Season 2. Her episode “Handmade Tale,” was about her grandmother’s homemade Roti and the automated Rotimatic machine.
Like the two students on our most recent episode, ‘Should I stay or Should I go?’ Shriya was studying overseas when Covid-19 hit. Like the 2000 other NUS students who go abroad each year to over 300 partner universities in 40 countries, Shriya was hoping to experience a new culture, try new foods, make lifelong friends and gain valuable skills that will look good to future employers. Plus she hoped to travel and see more of the world, to challenge herself to live alone and to test her limits beyond the protective eyes of her parents.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought these dreams to an abrupt end in mid-March. In this episode of Home on the Dot, ‘The shock of coming home too soon’. Stay tuned.
Chris Thanks for joining me today Shriya. Do you mind introducing yourself?
Shriya My name is Shriya Sharma. I am an incoming senior at National University of Singapore and I study in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, with a major in Communications.
Chris OK, Tell me about your Covid experience.
Shriya So when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit our country, I was not in Singapore. I was in France, and I was there for my Student Exchange Program, or the SEP. This is a global exchange program offered by my University to 2nd and 3rd-year students so that they can study abroad with a partner University. A semester or even a whole year can go by in just the application and execution of SEP, so you could just imagine how time-consuming it was but also what a pivotal experience of college life it becomes.
Chris So how did you feel when you first learned you were going on SEP?
Shriya I was so excited because I couldn’t believe that I was finally given the opportunity to embark on a journey that many of my seniors described as life-changing. And I knew what was in store for me in the beginning of 2020. A new country, lots of exploration, freedom, independence and also the responsibilities that come with living alone.
Chris Living alone, why was that important to you?
Shriya So like most young Singaporeans, I live at home with my parents instead of college accommodations, so I was really looking forward to getting that independence of living by myself and making my own decisions. Because for the first time I’ll be living abroad and away from the mollycoddling of my parents. To just learn how to grow and thrive as an individual, to explore and have fun, to see and test my limits, to encounter new people and experiences that would hopefully shape me to become a better person.
Chris OK, so when did you leave Singapore for SEP?
Shriya I left on 16th January. Or more specifically on the midnight of 15th January.
Chris So I suppose when you left for France in the middle of January, Covid-19 wasn’t really on your mind. I guess you just couldn’t imagine that this thing coming out of nowhere could disturb your study abroad experience. When did you start to feel like something was changing?
Shriya Yeah, it was not on my mind at all. The first 2 weeks I was in France were the best. And this was around late January. I was just settling in, getting accustomed to my new surroundings. I walked around and explored my city within a day, that’s how small it was. And I was getting enrolled in orientation activities to meet my new schoolmates. There were all sorts of activities lined up for the first week of school and I was just so preoccupied by all these new happenings, that I didn’t for once think that something like Covid could disrupt my time on exchange.
And I felt like things beginning to change in early February when Covid was getting more dangerous in Singapore. We students from Singapore would contact our families back home asking if they were okay. And I was quite worried because my grandma is here from India. And because of her old age, she’s one of the more susceptible types to these kinds of viruses and my family was concerned because of that. So I would call back home and ask her and them how they were doing, how were things developing in Singapore…
And then as soon as March came, things started going downhill for Europe, especially France, because France was so badly affected by the pandemic – at a much higher rate than anyone could have imagined.
Chris So it sounds like you were first worried about your family back home in Singapore and then within a few weeks that all changed and they started worrying about you.
Shriya Exactly, it was like a total reversal. So this was around early March, when France was one of the few countries where coronavirus cases were rising rapidly – like a thousand cases per night. And my friends and I would monitor this when we ate our breakfast and we were discussing like how ‘this is not going to work out for us’ because NUS at that time was being very proactive in recalling students from other Exchange programs – like Korea and Italy. So I still remember how, I would tell my friends that every week felt like our last here, you never know when we would just get called back so let’s just enjoy what’s left of our time here.
Chris So how did you first learn that you had to leave France for Singapore?
Shriya I first heard the news of my official return from the Singapore government. The Ministry of Education issued an official press release on the 15th of March, suspending all study abroad programmes and stating that students had to return home as soon as possible.
Initially, my family was afraid that if I came back, my studies would be incomplete and they felt that the situation in Singapore might be worse than in France. But that wasn’t the case.
Because things were rapidly worsening in France too. My host university was shutting down and planning to transition completely to online learning. The country was going on a complete lockdown on the 18th of March. And I remember this date so clearly because it was the day I was trying to leave Reims for Paris.
So when the circular from the Ministry was finally released, we got an official email from NUS calling us back home. And at that point, the news of being recalled came as a relief, despite ending the Exchange program two and a half months earlier than expected.
Chris Could u talk a little bit more about the lockdown that started on the 18th of March and how that impacted your trip back home?
Shriya So when the email from NUS came, the rush to leave for home grew urgent. Because Singapore was telling us to come back home as soon as possible. And what really pushed me over the edge was that France was entering into a lockdown – so the idea of being stuck in France without speaking French fluently or knowing who to turn to, was mildly terrifying.
And trying to leave the country after it goes into lockdown was gonna be difficult. So I rushed to pack my bags, email my landlord. I didn’t even have the time to close my bank account or get my rent deposit back. And I couldn’t even say any proper goodbyes to my new friends from Mexico, Italy, Indonesia, and elsewhere. So everyone was rushing to get out of France and go home.
And for me to get to Paris, I had to catch a train from Reims. But the lockdown drastically reduced all transport options. So my friend and I, who were travelling back home together, at first could not find any Uber. So, we had to lug our massive suitcases to the train station for 45 minutes.
And by the time we reached the train station, we realised that we were a lot later than we had planned, probably maybe because of the cobblestone paths. And our one and only train to Paris had left. And it was 8 p.m. We were stuck at the station, alone. There is no one around us and I remember feeling so defeated.
But by some miracle, we found a car going to Paris, and leaving in just 10 minutes from the station. And the driver, he was the nicest, he was so kind. He noticed how tired both of us were, he offered to drop us at the hotel instead of the destination that we had initially agreed on in the app. So I was just so grateful at the end.
So the journey just getting to Paris was turbulent, scary but also exhilarating. And it became one of the most memorable experiences of my exchange.
Chris Oh my gosh, you were just trying to get home. Yeah. Wow, I mean, really, what an ordeal! So after you returned to Singapore, did you have to stay a few weeks in quarantine?
Shriya Yes, so when I returned to Singapore, I had to serve a mandatory 14 days – Stay at Home Notice period. And as soon as those 14 days ended, around the beginning of April, the Circuit Breaker, which is a lockdown of all non-essential businesses, officially began. And in total, I was cooped up in my house for about three months until the end of June.
Chris Oh my gosh… So as soon as you finished your 14 days and you could have gone outside, suddenly no one could go outside because the country shut down. So, but when you got back from France, you had that 14-day quarantine. I mean, what was that like, how did you deal with that?
Shriya So when I first came back to Singapore, I wasn’t sure of what the Stay at Home Notice period required me to do but my parents were well aware. And it was kind of comical the way they behaved when I came back. They were so strict on maintaining a safe distance from me. And I thought that since they were family they would be a bit more lenient, protective, sympathetic of me. But they went all out in wearing gloves, wearing masks, carrying a disinfectant spray and spraying me with it when they first greeted me at the airport.
[Laughs] I was so shook. And when I entered my house, I was just rushed into one room. I couldn’t lounge anywhere, in any other part of my house. My grandma and my younger brother were like standing at the opposite ends of the living room to stay as far away from me as possible. So it was hard to not feel like I was the virus at home.
Chris Sure, sure…
Shriya And during these 14 days, I stayed in my parents’ bedroom. The room had a bathroom so I didn’t need to leave at all. And when giving me food, my parents would open the door slightly and slide the plate on the floor or dramatically cover their nose and leave the plate on the edge of the bed. It was downright hysterical. [Laughter] And to communicate, I would need to use my phone to call my parents and my grandma since they couldn’t and wouldn’t enter my room.
Chris Yeah… What an ordeal. Well, it’s really interesting because it sounds, the way you’re describing this, like your home is a prison in a way. I mean the way you’re describing them sliding the food on the floor, the isolation, no physical contact. I mean, even they’re wearing these masks which you can’t see them smile. It feels like it turns the home into a prison, but I suppose you probably understood why they were acting that way because you felt some kind of responsibility that you could potentially be a carrier of Covid.
Shriya Yeah, definitely. I understood why self-isolation was necessary. And it just boils down to ensuring the safety of everyone.
Shriya But I wouldn’t call it a prison though because I was treated so well for those 14 days. I had the best room with the best bed. And I used to jokingly threaten my family to make them meet all sorts of my random needs – like getting me bubble tea, which was so unnecessary but like I really enjoy the taste of bubble tea. And if they wouldn’t comply, I would make a fuss about leaving the room and spreading my contagion [Laughs]. That room and this service, this special service became like heaven. [Laughter] Everyone met my requests. My younger brother, who is 14 and can be a huge pain in the ass, was so nice to me. He obeyed all my instructions and was more considerate than I’d ever seen him before. It was lovely.
Chris Wow, so has any of those changes… I mean he just sounds like he’s a completely different guy. Have any of those changes remained since you left that 2-week quarantine? I mean, does your family treat you any differently now? You are more mature, you’ve been back from France.
Shriya No, no not really [Laughter]. After those 14 days, everything went back to normal, pre-Covid time. The relationship dynamics didn’t drastically change because of Covid, but everyone definitely became more cautious of basic hygiene and not leaving the house. Yah
Chris I see…
Shriya And I think one of the biggest difficulties for me was learning how to live with my family especially when everyone started working from home. Because all my family members were together under one roof for this long for the first time. So it took a lot of adjusting and getting used to. Having this family around me 24/7, it became a bit invasive to my privacy, so yah the period of transition really taught me a lot about coping with being at home.
And I learned how to transform this home environment into a more conducive and nurturing space because the cabin fever, which is really common during these kinds of times, I didn’t want it to get to me and affect me negatively. And in these times, where there is just so much focus on self-isolation and quarantining yourself at home, I feel so appreciative to even have a roof over my head. And I feel so grateful to have a home and a family, a loving family to retreat to, and just knowing that there are many out there who do not have this privilege in these hard times, make me really appreciate what I have.
Chris I’m sure, I’m sure… I mean I feel very privileged as well. Yeah, it’s interesting how governments everywhere during this Covid pandemic have needed to rely on the private infrastructure of the house, of the home, to protect us from Covid-19. Right, the state can’t do it all and the safest place the state can get us to retreat to is our homes and we are very privileged to have those homes to go home to.
I’m so sad that you had to have your time overseas cut short though. I mean you were only there for 2 months, and it was supposed to be 5 or 6 months. So in some ways, it’s a really huge loss. I mean, you have been planning for years, waiting for this moment, saving money, and this time where you can leave that protective environment of home, meet new friends, explore new places, learn a lot about yourself.
It might sound like a cruel question, but do you have any plan to go back, to visit those places that were kind of taken from you because of Covid?
Shriya Well one consolation that I keep telling myself is that the countries aren’t going anywhere. They will always be there and you and I can always go back. France, for the time being, is thankfully not moving anywhere [Laughs].
However, it will not be the same as how exchange would have been. The undergraduate, naive and self-discovery moments can never be retained in a similar fashion. And if I were to go back in the future, it would be with a different outlook on life, and with different people and different purposes. But having the option of going back and seeing the sights I missed out on this time, is for sure encouraging.
Chris Well, if it’s any consolation, one thing you didn’t miss out on is the hardship of study abroad. I mean, student exchange almost has to include that kind of hardship, but we can’t plan it. Do you know what I mean? If you had been able to backpack around Europe after your exchange as you had planned to do, you might have missed a train or had a friend’s wallet stolen. You would have experienced some kind of hardship that would test your limits, strengthen your bonds, and give you stories to last a lifetime. Your hardship just happened to come from a global health emergency, a national lockdown, and a quarantine in your own home. But truth be told, you got that genuine aspect of study abroad. You got your hardships.
Shriya Yeah, but not the kind of hardship I would like to face.
Chris I know, I know. No one wants to face any hardship but, especially not a global pandemic.
OK, I really thank you for sharing this experience with me. I have incredible respect for your maturity through this entire ordeal. I mean, it seems to me like you’ve really grown through the experience, which is part of the desire of going, or the reason for going on exchange. Certainly, you will always remember where you were in 2020 when the Covid pandemic suddenly brought you home.
Chris Study abroad is one of the signature opportunities of university. It’s a safe, structured way to learn about another place, reflect on where you come from, and discover something about yourself along the way. For those fortunate enough to go, study abroad can be the defining experience of university: an act of leaving home that leads to learning about home. Like so many students around the world in 2020, Shriya had that experience ripped from her, as Covid-19 overwhelmed France and forced her evacuation.
In upcoming episodes of Home on the Dot, we hear several more stories of study abroad dreams shattered by Covid-19. Please subscribe on your favorite podcast player to catch these episodes and more, which all highlight how young Singaporeans have been impacted by this pandemic, and how that has impacted their relationship with home. Other episodes include how to navigate a long-distance relationship in a pandemic and how Covid impacted this year’s Ramadan and the tradition of home visits during Hari Raya Puasa, held last May.
This episode was produced by Shriya Sharma and me, with sound engineering by Johann Tan and David Chew. To learn more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, where you can find transcripts and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot. And if you would like to suggest another Covid story, please let us know. You can leave a message on our Facebook page.
As always, thank you for listening.