Chris Welcome to Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran. Like all of our episodes, our current mini-series has focused on home. In this case, we have emphasized the importance of leaving home to study abroad and the dramatic evacuation of young adults back to Singapore in the early months of this global pandemic. In mid-March, the Ministry of Education required all Singapore universities to cancel their overseas programs and bring their students home. Around the same time, other Singaporeans studying overseas, students like Jared, the subject of our last episode who is doing a four-year degree in the U.S, also chose to come back.
But not everyone returned.
Ching May and Dana are both Japanese Studies majors at the National University of Singapore. And both chose to remain in Japan, even as nearly every other young Singaporean raced back home.
They have both been in Japan since September 2019, when they took a one-year leave of absence to immerse themselves in Japanese university life. Dana moved to Tokyo, where she enrolled at Waseda University, while Ching May moved to the southern island of Kyushu, to study at Kumamoto University. Both hoped to improve their language skills, make friends, explore the country, and live on their own for the first time in their lives. Covid-19 has forced them to really live on their own. Far more than they could have ever expected.
In this episode, we hear our final stories about how the coronavirus has impacted young Singaporeans who are studying overseas. What happens when you decide to stay, and how do you cope with the isolation of sheltering in place and online learning in another country. Stay tuned.
Chris Thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m so curious to speak with you because you are really in an unusual situation. Most NUS students and most Singaporean students in general that I know who were overseas during the outbreak of the coronavirus, they ‘ve all returned. They are all home now. In fact, most of them were forced to come home but you guys are still overseas, still doing your study abroad, still living outside the country. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that experience has been like for you. I mean, how did you negotiate staying in Japan? Dana, can you begin?
Dana When we first received news from our friends that NUS is actually recalling all the students back, me and Ching May we were kind of scared because we thought the same thing will happen for us but then because our program is actually not under NUS so our respective office managed to negotiate. We actually had a discussion with the JS Department Head and they told us that we have a choice whether we could stay or we could go back. And yeah because I mean it’s once in a lifetime experience right, so I guess both of us just wanted to stay and finish the program if not it would be kind of wasteful to just go back.
Chris So you had to negotiate with the department head. I mean, the head of my department and they kind of left it up to you to make the decision. Ching May, can you say a little bit about how you decided to stay?
Ching May Yeah, just like Dana, when we first heard the news about MOE wanting to recall all Singaporean students studying overseas, we were kind of shocked. Thinking that the same might happen to us. We were kind of surprised when we realized that we actually have a choice of whether to return to Singapore or not. Regarding that, I actually discussed with my parents whether I should or they think I should return to Singapore and they leave it to me actually.
They trust my judgment as to whether returning to Singapore will be the best decision for me and back then I thought that where I am, Kumamoto, it’s quite a rural area in Japan and compared to Singapore where population density is really high, the chances of me getting Covid in Japan might actually be lower than me getting Covid in Singapore. And again, like Dana has mentioned, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I really wanted to complete the program, so that’s why I decided to stay in Japan.
Chris So Ching May, it sounds like your parents left a lot of this decision-making to you. Can I ask your age?
Ching May Oh, I am 24 this year.
Chris 24, I mean, that’s you know, you’re an adult so you are, can be expected to make adult decisions.
Ching May Yeah…
Chris Did you have to convince them at all? I mean, do you feel like you had a 100% freedom to choose or could you sense that they were pulling you in one direction or another?
Ching May I can sense that they were concerned but I guess because my parents were fortunate enough to have studied overseas when they were younger themselves so they could kind of sympathize how I might feel as an young adult overseas, having this great opportunity to study there. But then again, we’re being struck by this event as to whether to return or not. I guess they understand a lot and I really appreciate that.
Chris How about for you, Dana? Did you have to talk your parents into it or did they help you make that decision?
Dana I actually had booked a flight back to Singapore.
Dana Yeah, in February, and at that time, that was when the Covid situation in Singapore was getting worse, so I had like a super long discussion with my parents and we decided that maybe I shouldn’t go back because it’s more dangerous. And if I have to go back, I would have to go to like the airport and other places where there are a lot of people and then, chances of getting infected is really high. So we just decided that staying in Japan would be the best option and I didn’t have school as well so I could just try to stay at home as much as I can.
Chris Just keep studying from your room, I guess. What was it like when you were first hearing about Covid – like back in January and February, can you remember how you felt about this unknown virus and its growing spread around the world?
Dana When I first heard about Covid, I think at that time I felt like Singapore was a lot worse, a lot of news that I’m getting in the early stages of the Covid outbreak was from my family and friends back in Singapore.
And then, at that time, the Covid situation we don’t really know how serious it is in Japan so we always thought that “Oh it seems like a very faraway thing, it won’t likely affect us.” And then, I don’t know why, but I think maybe like after, the decision to postpone the Olympics, came and then that’s when Japan started becoming more open and transparent about their actual situation, the actual Covid situation in Japan. I think that’s when we truly realized that, “Oh this is actually really starting to affect us bit by bit” and then soon enough, the emergency, the partial lockdown came. And then, it just felt like, everything just went past us very fast. Yeah, feels like it just take place all within a month and, I was kind of confused at that time because I felt that if it is already so bad in Japan, maybe I should have just returned back to Singapore after all.
Chris Yeah, so there is a lot of probably second-guessing and you’re getting all kinds of news from different places. I do remember very vividly there was a few weeks there, I mean, I watched the Japanese news every day and it seemed like the Japanese government was playing down the Covid threat because they were still ramping up to the Olympics and they were getting down to a hundred days to go and they were starting to highlight different athletes. It was a big deal and then as soon as they flipped the switch and said “Actually we cannot have the Olympics this year”, then all the news was Covid all the time.
Chris It’s almost like there was a sea change, like all of Japan turned its attention from one upcoming joyous occasion to the looming disaster that was already in its midst. I mean, since the arrival of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama on Feb 3, Japan couldn’t really ignore the coronavirus, although it had tried to paint it as a purely imported problem that could be controlled. By mid-March, the virus had become a much greater problem.
Chris Ching May, can you remember what you were going through and what the experience was like?
Ching May For me, I think the realization that Covid has really struck came much later compared to what Dana experienced. Because, news of Covid reached me during I think, January, mostly from Singapore because like there weren’t much reporting about Covid in, in Japan. Even if there were, it will be about “Oh China cases increasing or like outside world very scary.”
Chris Or the cruise ship, the cruise ship that was coming in, right, yeah.
Ching May Yeah, exactly, exactly. And that was Diamond Princess.
Ching May And because Diamond Princess was in Tokyo. And I am in Kyushu so that’s still pretty far away.
Ching May I think it only really struck me when the first few cases appeared in Kumamoto and people just get into panic mode. Like Singapore, there was some panic buying. I recall that there was 1 day when like all the toilet paper disappeared from [the] store[s].
Chris Right, right…
Ching May Like all paper products, not just toilet paper. Kitchen towel[s], even sanitary pads.
Chris Yeah, oh wow.
Dana It was really funny, I was just like “Why, why are Singaporeans like panic buying and all,” and then before I knew it, two days later, Japan had a panic buying situation as well.
Like I went out to get groceries and there was this super long queue of people holding toilet paper, like toilet rolls and diapers, and then that was when I realized, oh no, it’s really happening right in front of me.
Everyone is really panicking now.
Dana Yeah. I was so shocked because I didn’t expect like you know, like Japan, you would think that everyone is really orderly, everyone would just listen to instructions but then just news that toilet paper were manufactured in China. Like the news broke out somehow and then everyone started panic buying thinking that they won’t be able to get toilet rolls, but then actually the toilet rolls are manufactured in Japan.
Ching May It was fake news.
Dana So that’s how much like, that’s how overwhelmed people were, with like the whole situation that they can’t really think properly and they just believe any rumors or anything related to the outbreak right away.
Chris Beyond buying toilet paper, of course, you are also there to learn. How has your education changed in the last few months?
Ching May Oh, everything is online now. Not just that everything is online, some classes are face-to-face, like conducted via Zoom. But, for me, most of the classes, are actually really just the teachers uploading papers or articles online and we are supposed to read it by ourselves and just write a report on it or something. It feels way more like independent learning than I thought it would be, yeah.
Chris Has that been the same experience for you, Dana?
Dana Yes, everything has been changed to online learning and I think compared to Ching May’s experience, mine because I am taking 7 classes and for Waseda, I think they want to promote more interactive learning so… I think about 6 out of 7 classes they are all Zoom meetings, so I always have to be physically present and constantly talking to my classmates and the teachers. For the first few weeks, it was really fun because I felt that, while like, we can still have that kind of level of interactivity in class but then as time passes, I start to realize all the flaws, such as like poor connections.
There was actually a time where the teacher lost connection and then our whole class just ended. The teachers were obviously not prepared for it so at that time, yeah it was very disruptive and I feel like as time passes on, my ability to focus and be like present in meetings just starts to decline because I’m just always in the same environment.
When you’re doing it from home, it’s really different compared to when you have to commute and you can physically be in class with like your peers around but in your own room, sometimes we don’t even have to turn on our cameras and then I’ll just tend to, you know, my attention span just starts to [laughs] get shorter and shorter. Yeah, it just drifts and then I’ll just….
It’s like, I’ll be there but I wouldn’t really know like what was the Prof talking about [laughs].
Ching May Exactly, like you are physically present but.. mentally absent.
Chris Mentally absent, hmmm.
Dana Yeah, I’m just mentally absent. Because I don’t feel that I’m, I’m actually in a classroom.
Chris When you travel thousands of kilometers from home to study in another country, you expect to step foot on another campus and sit in a classroom with a teacher. These basic expectations are currently causing so much anxiety among universities in the United States. Schools worry that students paying high tuition will accept no less than the “normal” campus experience. They worry that the online classes Dana and Ching May experienced, which may come with awkward silences and technical glitches, will disappoint students and make them question the value of their education. Moreover, all students want to experience the local area — the restaurants and bars, the parks and trails, the museums and movie theatres. They want to socialize and experience life beyond the classroom. Dana and Ching May chose to stay in Japan, but they have essentially been cocooned in their rooms since March, only venturing out to shop.
Ching May So…had there been no Covid I would probably have spent more time travelling, which is what I had been doing before the outbreak of Covid. Besides travelling within the Kumamoto prefecture, I went to Kanazawa, Kyoto, Kagoshima, Okayama, Kagawa. I even managed to go to Tokyo to visit Dana, which was a very nice thing to do. I spent so much on travelling that in any particular month that I do travel, I would have to cook budget dishes like nikujaga, which is meat and potato stew or pan-fried butter spinach that would last me for days nearing the end of the month.
Also, I might have joined a school club if not for Covid because I have always been quite curious about school clubs in Japan. School clubs are where we get to see a lot of senior-junior dynamics in action and where students take a break from studying and mingle with one another, and I really wanted to find out about it first hand. So… back in September when I first arrived in Japan, my university was in semester 2 so very few school clubs were recruiting. As such, I was looking forward to joining a school club in semester 1, which starts in April. Unfortunately, that was when Covid spreaded across Japan and all school clubs were made to suspend their activities. So… no school club for me.
Chris One element of going overseas is the chance to meet people from the home country or meet people from everywhere else in the world, to make friends and potentially even to have romantic relationships. Of course, Covid has completely disrupted any kind of social contact, with anyone in some cases.
So, have you been able to make friends and socialize, or has that been really limited because of this pandemic?
Ching May For me I kind of clearly recall an instance where one of the chat group I’m in with the international students, somebody proposed having a picnic. I think, during the March – April period. Like just right outside the dormitory, at the green patch that we have. And… it’s an open area but again because that was the time when Covid was really serious.
So a lot of people or maybe just some raised concerns that it’s not really a good idea for people to gather and have fun during this period and the other party respond by saying “Hey, it’s like an open area. What’s there to fear and all.” It did created some conflict, I think. And also on a personal level. I’m more wary of hanging out and a lot of my international friends actually like to hang out in like bars or pubs at the town center there but after Covid struck some of them still go, but personally I don’t go there anymore because I know that it’s an enclosed space and it’s crowded and all.
So yeah, in that regard, Covid did reduce my opportunities to interact with other people but I think at the same time because like we are quite isolated I think I developed like, stronger bonds with some of the closer friends I have. We will ask each other out, like a one-on-one kind of shopping trip together and I think that’s a really nice thing.
Dana I feel like for me, the pandemic has made me more socially isolated than ever because in the current place that I’m staying, we have 5 storey[s]. I live on the 5th floor, but most of them already left, like they moved out during the pandemic because they want to quickly return home. So I was actually alone. I’m actually still alone now, living alone on the fifth floor.
Chris Oh so in the entire 5th storey, you’re the only person?
Dana Yeah, I’m the only person. Everyone moved out.
Chris: In this big sharehouse. Wow, I mean, I should say, during this interview I saw a few people walking behind you, in the kitchen there, but I guess that…
Dana They are not from my floor [laughs].
Chris They are not from your floor. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.
Dana Yeah, and we are not allowed to hang out with the tenants from the other floors as well. Like no mixing I guess. So I’m just isolated by myself. I feel like this is really irrelevant to the interview, but there’s actually a period of time where I started getting really bad anxiety.
Where I think it’s just the fear of staying alone, especially when it gets really quiet at night and then there’s this period where I just cannot really sleep well and I’ll have nightmares that like somebody tries to suffocate me with a blanket [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s just the effect of being isolated like I didn’t mind it at first but I guess I wasn’t listening to my body, I wasn’t listening to my mind as well, all this just start manifesting at night right before I sleep.
Chris I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s incredibly relevant to this conversation, I think. Because I mean, you’re laughing about it now and I hope that means you’re, you’re coping with it and working through it.
Dana Yeah, now we have classes. I have more social interactions so it’s not that bad but before the semester in Japan started, I was really quite alone and there are like times where I feel like, okay I can just push on until the semester ends and there are sometimes where I just like, call my parents and then, I’ll tell them about my nightmares and say “Oh I really want to go home, I want to go home so badly.” Yeah, it worked out for the better I guess because now the semester has started.
But it is kind of lonely when you hear noises from the bottom floors, like the lower floors and to know that you’re missing out on all these social activities and just being alone. I mean, I consider myself as someone who don’t mind being alone, but I think when you get isolated for such a long period of time, you do crave that kind of social interaction after awhile.
Chris Of course. Thank you for sharing that, I mean, that’s very revealing and I’m very sorry you had to go through that. Of course, it can be a lonely experience for anyone studying overseas, but especially given this pandemic to be alone on an entire floor and to have all the people who used to be your neighbors suddenly move out and then to have a rule that you can’t communicate with people on the other floors.
I mean, all of these are just so just kind of building up more and more ways to isolate someone. So I’m sorry you had to struggle through that.
Ching May Yeah. I do feel the same as well, like not as bad as Dana but in terms of the feeling of loneliness. Which is why I think that in Japan without the strict stay-home laws and restriction, it actually allowed me to better regulate my emotion, should I say in a sense, because I’m able to go out and just maybe walk along the river like whenever I feel like I’m being confined to this small room and I need some air.
Like at least I can have a walk, I can look at something other than my walls. It really allowed me to release a bit of the stress and maybe just by petting stray cats or things like that, even non-human interaction, it does help with the feeling of loneliness so…
I feel really sorry for people who had to serve quarantine, which will soon be me, myself [laughs].
Chris Yeah, 2 weeks. [Laughter] 2 weeks of total isolation, yeah?
Ching May I’ll be cool with that.
Dana I feel like this period has trained me that 14 days is nothing now [laughs].
Ching May I don’t know, like I have tried to really confine myself to the room but I really can’t make it to Day 3. Like, by Day 3 I have to go out and just do something, I feel like, yeah.
Chris Yeah, sometimes that helps, right. Just to get outside of your, your dormitory room and just to see some people passing on the street, even with a mask on, just to nod at someone.
Ching May Yeah.
Chris Sometimes better than just being alone. Well, I really enjoyed this conversation. I’m so glad you guys got to go to Japan and I’m glad you got to stay despite the circumstances. I’m sorry to hear that it’s been lonely and it’s been difficult and that the learning isn’t always up to the standards that you hoped it would be especially with the pandemic. But I’m glad you’re safe and healthy and it’s great to hear you laughing and to see your smiling faces.
Dana Thank you, thank you for inviting us for this interview.
Ching May Thank you.
Chris When I encouraged Dana and Ching May to pursue their dreams and study in Japan, I never imagined they would face so much isolation and depression. Instead of attending classes, meeting new friends, and exploring a new country and its culture, these outgoing, adventurous young people have been trapped in their dorm rooms, stuck in online classes, and constantly second-guessing their decision to stay. I know leaving home to study overseas is a privilege, but Covid-19 has turned that privilege into a potential crisis.
As universities around the world decide how to safely begin the new school year, Dana and Ching May remind us that schools have to worry about more than the impact of an outbreak on physical health. They also have to prepare for the emotional costs.
This episode of Home on the Dot was co-produced by me, Leong Ching May, and Dana Lee, with sound engineering by Johann Tan and David Chew and transcription by Shaun Tan. For more information on the Home on the Dot project, check out our blog at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. There, you will find all our past episodes and links to relevant resources. You can also find us on Facebook or Instagram by searching for “Home on the Dot”. If you liked this episode, please rate us on Apple Podcasts, and as always, thank you for listening.