Studying Abroad in the Age of Corona
Students abroad are currently stuck in limbo between their home country and their study abroad location.
Sitting at my desk, my phone buzzes again. My room in my student dormitory is small and only has a bed, chair and desk. If I were to stay here all day, I know I would go crazy. And here comes another notification that’ll infect my brain.
Studying abroad in Japan has meant that I have not yet felt the full ramification of the corona epidemic. Whilst there have been questions over the number of tests conducted, Japan’s corona cases have not been increasing at a rapid rate compared to how the virus has taken a hold of Europe and the US (although recent increases in cases may undermine this). Moreover, although my university break has been extended and schools have been closed, Japan is still taking trains, eating out and shopping. Social distancing here is so far limited to closings of tourist attractions and cancellations of major sports events.
However, that doesn’t mean that I am immune to the barrage of articles, Instagram posts and Facebook statuses that is currently occurring in the English-language media. And rightly so. If not contained, the virus could kill millions. However, a pandemic in the age of social media is also one of hysteria. It’s for this reason that many of my study abroad classmates have been called home despite the situation in Japan being comparatively stable.
It’s this hysteria that has brought me down. It’s confined me to my phone and consumed my strength. Waiting for updates on whether I could stay in Japan or not has wrecked my sleep. In a world where nothing is certain, even the place that you currently call home is threatened.
I am fully aware of the privilege that my experience of the corona crisis has been so far. I have so far experienced the pandemic as one of that has primarily affected my mental health rather than physical. As someone who has suffered depression and anxiety, knowing that an experience that I’ve worked so hard to earn might end prematurely served to amplify my worries.
A few weeks ago, I said goodbye to many friends whilst it was confirmed that my place here is concrete, should I want it to be. The situation at that time in Japan did not yet warrant social distancing. So to celebrate one final time, we shared memories by dancing the night away to obscure early 2000s pop music under the cover of a crisis that threatened the fabric of our friendship group. It hung above us in the air as we danced in my friend’s flat. We ignored how every one of us had bloodshot eyes and sunken faces from sleepless nights and extended FaceTimes with family and friends.
Truthfully, before studying abroad I’d struggled to find a friendship group which I felt solidly a part of. Here, in Japan I’d managed to do what I thought would’ve been previously impossible. Corona’s legacy will not just be one of physical death but also the death of a relationships that could’ve been or might’ve been. All lives across the world will be stilted for the foreseeable future. Our capacity to enjoy, live, laugh and love will be taken away from us. In a sense, what makes life living will be threatened. Of course, this will be most palpable for those on the frontlines; our nurses, doctors and those that stock the shelves at our local store.
However, in Japan this is not yet the reality. Whilst the world has been on fire since the beginning of March, that time saw Japan enjoying its Hanami season by drinking and eating under cherry blossom laden trees. Although the current state of emergency covering Tokyo and major metropolitan areas may threaten this blissful calmness, total deaths are still extremely low compared to what my home country faces in a day.
It’s this relative lack of lethality that has kept Japan calm. Until the state of emergency declaration, not one of my Japanese friends advocated to stay inside to eliminate the infectivity of the disease. In fact I saw many on their Instagram stories, happily hanging out in large groups in bars and at karaoke. If I’m honest, I did the same.
However, in the parallel world of the UK, I saw the lives of my friends at home dramatically veer into lockdown. Every person I knew was advocating for everyone to stay inside and isolate as to not spread the virus. Houseparty and Zoom became a thing as I enjoyed being outside enjoying Japan’s sakura season.
In spite of the tranquility of Japan, I still could not shake off the feeling of uncertainty. Along with friends leaving and my situation here being unstable, I was also caught in limbo. Due to the fact that most of the media that I consume is English-language, a huge discrepancy between the internet and my reality formed.
Whilst life carried on as normal for Japan, everything I read, watched or listened to told me to stay inside and away from people. This was during the time when Japan was doing precisely the opposite. “Go inside” read a comment I received on one my Instagram stories. “Why aren’t you social distancing?!?” read another.
Being a people pleaser meant that I suddenly felt that I wasn’t doing the right thing. Should I be inside and isolating in an effort to not spread the virus? Or should I do as the majority of people here, and carry on with my life? Both felt like they would be detrimental to my wellbeing.
This is just one example of how study abroad students are stuck in limbo as a result of the crisis. In my case, the governments of my study abroad location and my home country were advocating entirely different things. As a result, the social mobilisations surrounding the crisis were vastly different. I felt stuck, torn between two worlds that have both been home.
For others, the feeling of being stuck has been more concrete. My Spanish and Italian friends in particular are indefinitely stuck here. The situation in Japan is a pale comparison to how corona has leached the life out of their home countries. They are truly stuck here.
This is rapidly become the situation for me too. Flights to the UK are still running. But their frequency is reducing and there is a possiblity they will grind to a halt at some point. So, I have to face up to the idea that I could be stuck here.
This crisis is teaching me to be comfortable with this. To be comfortable with the feeling of uncertainty that has seeped its way into every part of our lives. Life is not actually stable and can rapidly change. I’ve had to embrace that during my time here. Unfortunately, it’s something the world will have to learn to embrace too.
Subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch.