For Foreign Exchange Students, the Circuit Breaker Poses a No-Win Situation

Imagine taking a big leap of faith to travel to a foreign country all by yourself, having to start over and make new friends while adjusting to a brand new environment. Suddenly, you find yourself isolated from even the few friends that you’ve made and with no way of making the journey back home to the comfort of your family.

Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality for the many foreign students stuck in Singapore. According to official statistics, Singapore hosted around 65,000 foreign students in June 2018. While many have chosen to return to their home countries to be close to their loved ones, some have made the difficult decision to stay behind in Singapore and weather out the circuit breaker measures.

This is truly a scary and uncertain time for them. Being isolated alone in a foreign country while watching the world go through a global pandemic and worrying about the safety of their families and friends who are so far away from them is not easy.

It is not easy at all.

But perhaps the greatest struggle of all is one that forces them to choose between their family back at home and a life in Singapore amidst the current circuit breaker measures.

As we experience one of the hardest moments that we have had to endure as Singaporeans in recent times, let us not forget the struggles that our foreign students are facing alongside us.

Szymon Jakub Chojczak, 20, Poland

For Szymon, a university exchange student who has been in Singapore for the last 10 months, life here has definitely had its challenges. Initially when the circuit breaker first kicked into motion, Szymon “didn’t have time to feel lonely,” because he was so preoccupied with his academic workload to feel the full effects of the imposed measures.

However, as time went on and the semester came to an end, things started to become apparent. “The circuit breaker measures are emotionally hard (to handle),” Szymon says pensively. He found it difficult and challenging to be isolated from the few friends that he had in Singapore, most of whom are exchange students like himself. The brief encounters he had with them while preparing meals in his hostel pantry and the online interactions he has with them are simply not the same.

When asked about his decision to stay in Singapore, Szymon shared that plane tickets back home to Poland are very expensive at the moment, and that it was “cheaper to stay in Singapore and wait for the prices (of plane tickets) to drop before going back”. With the option of returning home to Poland cut off, anxiety started to set in for Szymon, who felt more isolated than ever.

He also expressed concern over the current situation back in his home country, where there are often “shortages of critical medical equipment and supplies and not enough doctors and nurses” to care for the sick. His lack of confidence in the Polish healthcare system as compared to that of Singapore, which he has given a robust vote of confidence to, has in part motivated his decision to stay behind in a bid to protect his own physical health.

There was also another issue. As a result of prolonging his stay in Singapore, his student visa had expired, coinciding with the end of his exchange program. This had worried him tremendously as his immediate future seemed fraught with uncertainty. Fortunately, the National University of Singapore (NUS)—the local university he was with—proved to be very helpful in obtaining a short-term visa extension for Szymon, who was granted an additional 90 days stay in Singapore.

In order to cope with the circuit breaker measures, which have since been extended to June 1, 2020, Szymon has turned to exercising to keep his mind off the feelings of isolation and loneliness. He keeps himself busy by regularly attending karate lessons which are held online on zoom, where his sensei would critique his moves through the conference call. He has also found comfort in utilizing his free time to “gain technical skills like coding,” which he could not have previously done due to the many distractions that he had, ones that are now greatly reduced.

He recalls how some of his friends on exchange in Singapore were experiencing financial difficulties, stating that for them, it was “hard to even budget for rent,” and that it was very heart wrenching to watch. Szymon considers himself as one of the lucky ones but acknowledged that perhaps more support could be offered to foreign students like himself in Singapore, who may be struggling to support themselves without a clear plan to return to their home countries due to financial constraints. He pointed out that such provisional aid, be it in the form of food packages or living accommodation, should only go to those who truly require the assistance to prevent exploitation.

Guo Ai, 20, China

Guo Ai, a Chinese scholar at NUS, overcame her desire to return to China for the summer holidays and chose to stay in Singapore instead.

Unlike other foreign students stuck in Singapore, finances are not a major concern for Guo Ai. Her fully sponsored scholarship comes with a monthly allowance that covers her basic living expenses. Things should be okay for now. She shares how tough it was to see some of her foreign student friends having to juggle several part-time jobs in order to make ends meet and to cover their university tuition fees. These are jobs that in this economic climate, Singaporeans themselves are struggling to hold onto. They may also seize to be options as the economic consequences of the pandemic completely unravel.

“Some of them have no choice. Their families (are not well off) and they have to do a lot to support themselves.” Going home is not an option.

To Guo Ai, moving out of her previous living accommodation into her current one for her vacation stay, both on the NUS campus, in the middle of the circuit breaker was very stressful and anxiety-inducing. As her intended living quarters for her vacation stay has since been converted into a government designated quarantined zone, she was forced to move to another hall that is located a distance away with minimal help, given the social distancing measures that have been put into place.

It was particularly difficult for her to adapt not only to a new living environment but to also be separated from her family and friends for such an extended period of time.

As a daughter who is very close with her family back in China, Guo Ai expressed that she dearly missed her family back home and longed to be reunited with them. Connecting with them online just did not feel the same.

“I cannot hold them, feel them, see and hear them up close, and feel their emotions.”

In many ways, she felt even more isolated behind a screen, 5,414KM away from her loved ones in Harbin, China.

Like Szymon, she also lamented about how expensive it was to purchase plane tickets back to her hometown during this period. This combined with the frequent flight cancellations that were occurring deterred her from embarking on the uncertain journey back to see her family in China. The act of going back would also subject her to mandatory COVID-19 tests and quarantine. This is undesirable considering that she would have to pay a hefty sum for both, unlike the fully sponsored Stay-Home Notice (SHN) regime in Singapore. She griped that she did not have the intent nor the financial resources to do so.

But most importantly, going back to China for Guo Ai means being confronted with the possibility of not being able to return back to Singapore in time for the start of the next semester, in the event that the travel ban in Singapore continues and her application for approval to return to Singapore to continue her studies is not granted.

“Being separated from my family is very hard. I miss them so much. But for now, I cannot go back to China.”

Aldrich Williams, 18, Indonesia

For Aldrich, the circuit breaker period in Singapore proved to be bittersweet.

Although revision for his final exams served as a distraction from his lack of social interaction with friends at the start of the circuit breaker, the post-exam freedom that he experienced afterwards was “the worst”.

He “felt very empty” inside as a result of not being able to meet his fellow Indonesian friends within the NUS community on a daily basis as he was used to, especially on the weekends.

“As an international student, it is quite different. I’m stuck in my own room in a foreign country and I don’t have anyone else to talk to.”

As an outgoing boy at heart, Aldrich felt incredibly alone and suffocated. He missed his friends, but nothing could compare to the longing he had for his family back in Indonesia.

When asked about how he felt being so far away from home, he answered that he grew more worried for his family with the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia, but was comforted by the necessary precautions that his family took back home to protect themselves from the virus.

According to Aldrich, many of his foreign student friends were experiencing financial difficulties and had reached out to the university for some form of financial assistance, given their inability to return to their home countries due to the difficulties in traveling at this point in time. Aldrich pointed out that the school has been “very responsive in helping them financially,” and have since given them financial subsidies for their on-campus accommodation during vacation stay.

At one point, Aldrich shares how a friend of his had returned to Singapore from an exchange program in the Silicon Valley, only to have contracted COVID-19 even though he had not displayed any physical symptoms at all. He felt very concerned for his friend, who like him, was an Indonesian studying in Singapore, and had no family around for emotional support. He thought about how difficult a situation that was to be put into.

Sick, and all alone.

Eventually, Aldrich and his family made the collective decision to fly Aldrich back to Indonesia. They felt that it was best to have the family together during this very challenging time.

Although Aldrich appreciated the fact that he got to return home, he too was very worried about whether he would be able to make it back to Singapore in time for the start of the new semester. No one knows how the COVID-19 situation will play out in the months to come, but this uncertainty did not stop him from making the journey back home.

 “It is much better to go home to be with my family. Even though we use WhatsApp call to talk to one another, it is not the same.”

While he was informed a day before he was scheduled to take off that his flight had been delayed due to low demand, he nevertheless was able to hop onto a flight—that was filled with fellow Indonesians that were required to follow strict safe distancing measures of sitting one seat apart—that brought him back to Indonesia.

Smiling through zoom in his home country, Aldrich commented that he counts himself very lucky to be able to have the support of his family during this trying period and that he feels like he is in a much better space.

Playing A Losing Game

No matter what choices these foreign students in Singapore make, they risk playing a losing game. They could leave to go back into the arms of their loved ones but face the daunting prospect of not being able to return to Singapore in time to continue their studies. Or, they could stay in Singapore but yearn and long for their families back home while living in isolation.

Whichever way they choose, they lose.

But in their struggles, we see the fight that they have in them. Resilience even.

The strength that they have to continue living out each day to the best of their abilities, despite their challenging circumstances, is one that is admirable in many ways.

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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