‘The times are uncertain [sigh]… The virus is arrogant. It knows how to adapt. We should also learn.’
The rapid spread of COVID-19 in 2020 saw many countries close their borders, thereby causing delays in research and other academic activities which impacted many international students and researchers, including me. I am an Indian national studying for my PhD at Kyushu University, supported by a scholarship from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Starting in the 1990s, in the advent of economic globalisation, demand for IT and other technology professionals in Japan resulted in the formation of a small Indian diaspora there. In the Nishikasai region of Tokyo, Indian migrant workers and their families have created a ‘place of their own’, which created a sense of community and observes prominent Indian festivals such as Diwali. I came to Japan as a student. According to the University of Tokyo’s India Office, the number of Indian students in Japan steadily increased from 2004, then rose sharply from 2013.
I and my fellow students faced challenges in applying for courses, applying for a visa and migrating to Japan, all of which were delayed due to COVID-19. Many researchers who went on vacation to their respective home countries were unable to return, including both students and long-term residents. This resulted in financial distress among researchers and students. These delays in migration can also impact the duration of the master or doctoral programme. In many cases scholars did not receive scholarships, as they were required to physically sign documents on the university campus. Even after reaching the destination, delay in work is inevitable due to difficulties faced by researchers for data collection in field works and surveys. Collaborative work between different research groups of different universities is also difficult under these circumstances due to frequent ‘emergency situations’.
The psychological impact of the two-week quarantine period cannot be neglected, as it delays acclimatisation to the new working environment. Additionally, the challenges with being an Indian student in Japan are multiple – for example, unlike in India, English is not prevalently spoken in Japan. Indian and Japanese food habits are also very different. Other problems include accommodation, as Indian students are mostly accustomed to residing in ‘hostels’ inside the residential campuses of educational institutions, but I had to find an apartment for myself in Japan. Also, the challenge of settling down in the new country was immense during this period due to the movement restrictions during the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed university life in many ways. It has made attending online lectures the new norm. With the uncertainty about the future, the increased frequency of ‘emergency situations’ and the fear of new variants of COVID-19, research as a career option is in higher demand. Other observable effects of the pandemic regarding research activities include the conference proceedings going online, which has reduced the opportunity to meet researchers around the world, affecting opportunities such as creative discussions, collaborations, etc. Additionally, the pandemic has made communication with fellow researchers within a working environment more challenging, which affects productivity and research output.
Whatever the circumstances are, it is always exciting to experience something as new as Japanese culture. The exploration of a new culture was also affected by the current pandemic, as the welcome party, cultural and sports activities and other events usually organised by different organisations and student groups within the university did not take place, which deprived us of the opportunity to meet new people and other researchers across different disciplines.
The psychological effects of losing dear ones and the suffering due to COVID-19 in my home country also affect creative thinking, which is an important ingredient of research. But I think it is always required to be positive in life, as a friend of mine said: ‘Maybe if you learn how to be happy in others’ happiness, you will be less bitter and sad in life’. I deeply value these words, and this is how we can be positive in these testing times. Additionally, I believe that the recipient of a scholarship grant also has a moral obligation to work for the betterment of the economies of both countries.
I am a doctoral researcher at Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Engineering Science (IGSES), Kyushu University. I am a Physics (Hons.) graduate, currently pursuing research in Material Science and Engineering. People can reach me on my email id (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Twitter (@_BDhiman).