7 a.m. PST. Eriko goes to bed.
8 a.m. PST. Xuan turns in for the night.
12 p.m. PST. Eriko gets up for class.
3 p.m. PST. Xuan gets out of bed. Eriko goes back to bed.
8 p.m. PST. Xuan and Eriko have lunch.
3 a.m. PST. Xuan and Eriko do homework.
7 a.m. PST. Eriko goes to bed.
It is, by now, old news that the pandemic has turned the world upside down. For some people, however, night and day, too, have literally been inverted.
While many students at UC Berkeley still take online classes from across the nation, international students in different time zones scattered across the globe have been met with another set of challenges. We were curious to know how UC Berkeley students in Asia are handling the pandemic and their course loads from home but, particularly, how they keep connected to the UC Berkeley community while being so far away.
It is, first and foremost, crucial to recognize that Asia is an entire continent and home to a dizzyingly diverse population of more than 4.6 billion people. Each country has its own culture and public health situation, and campus students studying from home in each of these countries have faced unique situations and found unique opportunities. In an effort to begin to understand the UC Berkeley student communities currently in Asia, we explored the experiences of students in six different places. We were particularly curious about how these students have managed to find community halfway across the world?
In Japan, the only Cal network sophomore and co-writer of this piece, Eriko Yamakuma, has consists in friends she has made back on Berkeley’s campus.
There is one interesting project that makes the online college experience better: Eriko lives in Shimokita College, a “dorm” in Tokyo for students from different colleges around the world. Another Berkeley student lives there, as do many students who are taking classes from other colleges in California. Together, they share odd time schedules and find ways to adjust to the time difference. She now has friends with whom she can complain about the amount of homework or lament about never-ending midterms.
Lee Xuan — campus freshman and co-writer of this piece — considers herself lucky. She is a member of the Singapore Students’ Association (SSA), a vibrant network of students from Singapore studying at UC Berkeley. She was invited to join after committing to UC Berkeley in fall 2020.
Aside from commiserating over midterm season and endless class readings with her SSA friends, Xuan has found community in meeting with her SSA “family” – a small group of five to eight people, which is within the bounds of social gathering laws – for special occasions. They celebrated Halloween last year with a treasure hunt after dark in Mount Faber Park in Singapore. They also commemorated Thanksgiving by cooking and eating dinner together (mercifully, the table conversation was free of political disagreement).
For Xuan, SSA is not just a group of people always ready to provide a listening ear or good advice but a way to stay involved in Berkeley’s community. Being in a time zone 15 or 16 hours ahead of PST and watching recorded lectures all the time, it is easy to feel isolated from other students. SSA has, in some ways, brought campus to Singapore and helped dispel her loneliness.
China has about 3000 students enrolled in UC Berkeley, and they account for 40% of the entire international student body. For those who study virtually from China, the Berkeley Chinese Students and Scholars Association is offering some online platforms where they can get the “UC Berkeley” feeling and form a community even from the other side of the world. One example is an online study room where students can tune in and study, and no talking is required — much like an actual library — as well. Describing it as an “online library,” the program aims at offering virtual space that nears the in-person experience of a college library.
The association also aims to improve the experience of freshmen, many of whom have started their college experiences virtually.
“Our board members know that this online semester is very hard for the new international students,” said Jovian Kan, president of Berkeley Chinese Students and Scholars Association, in an email. “They have no experience with college life and have to do anything, like talking with their advisors, reviewing for the exams, and participating in club activities, in Zoom.”
One of the attempts is a mentorship program, in which new students are paired with mentors for four months to learn about the UC Berkeley community. They get tips on everything from how to better use academic resources to which restaurants around campus they should go to. In that way, students can be introduced to the campus culture virtually before arriving there in person.
Compared to other nations in the world, including the United States, Taiwan is probably one of the rare countries that has combated the pandemic with relative success. The Taiwanese Student Association, or TSA, at UC Berkeley is offering both online and in-person events for UC Berkeley students in Taiwan. In addition to events such as the online Lantern Festival, where different games are set up in breakouts rooms, TSA also offers a family system that puts students into small groups consisting of five people each. Though the format of events or gatherings differ depending on the group, biweekly hangouts of groups where students can socialize, study and watch movies together seem to remind students of memories or even introduce them to college life at UC Berkeley.
After three semesters online, the club is finally aiming to revive one of its traditional events in person in Taiwan — the karaoke contest, or KCON. Though considered the most cherished event of the association, the pandemic forced it to be canceled for consecutive semesters. Hiro Fu, TSA president, however, is finding it harder to conduct it in Taiwan despite it being his home country.
“Now that we are in Taiwan, it’s actually really hard,” Fu said. “We are looking for a venue because now we don’t have a campus that provides space for us, and we are also concerned about costs.”
Since areas around Taipei have very little connection to campus, finding space as well as planning the events within the budget are no easy tasks. For example, sponsorship from local restaurants, which supported funding of the events, is no longer available.
Despite unexpected hardships, though, the local UC Berkeley community in Taiwan is essential to maintaining the “UC Berkeley” identities of students.
“We’re looking for a family on campus, and now, it’s more difficult given that we are at home,” Fu said. “Now, we are playing the role of Berkeley, actually.”
Nicholas Ng, campus sophomore and Hong Kong Student Association, or HKSA, member, has since returned to campus but spent the fall semester last year at home in Hong Kong.
Ng joined HKSA in the fall and was faced with the challenge of integrating into the group over Zoom. “Zoom took a toll on how events are being held. It’s really different working through Zoom and getting to know the person,” Ng said. He found it easier to bond with other members of the association when they were able to meet in person.
Nevertheless, Ng believes that HKSA has helped him feel less isolated during the pandemic. By connecting with fellow UC Berkeley students in his city, he has been able to feel less alone as he navigates college life, particularly when he struggles in classes he takes with fellow HKSA members.
His membership in HKSA also served to strengthen his connection to his home city. In particular, it has enabled him to make friends with students from international schools in Hong Kong whom he did not interact with much before college as a student in a local high school. “I met some people that I did not expect that I would meet,” Ng said.
Although it might have been easier to form cliques with other students who had, like him, studied in local schools, Ng has chosen to try and get to know international students, too. “I felt a little weird in the beginning, but now I feel like Hong Kong SA is a great place,” he said.
“It is definitely an eye-opening experience and gave me one more perspective of how I see Hong Kong as a place.”
What, then, prompted Ng to travel to Berkeley this semester? He lists surrounding himself with fellow campus students as one key reason. “In Hong Kong, I don’t really feel like I’m studying for college in Berkeley, and I really want that experience, even during COVID,” Ng said.
He also believes that being on campus allows him to step further out of his comfort zone. “I really wanted to get out of Hong Kong because Hong Kong is such a small place. … I know the culture a lot already, and I want to learn about other cultures, even though it’s foreign to me,” he said. Ng is currently living in a fraternity house, which has been a new experience for him. “That’s an experience that I want to put myself through,” Ng added.
Campus junior Tanya Boonrawd, president of the Thai Student Association, ThaiSA, at UC Berkeley, shared that while some students have struggled with time differences, others seem to have enjoyed being at home during the pandemic.
“You have more flexibility with things. There’s so much more things to do in Asia,” Boonrawd said. “There’s food, you can go some places and whatnot, very different from the States. Or, at least in Colorado — I don’t have half of what they have within reaching distance.”
Stronger government responses to the pandemic have also enabled campus students residing in Thailand greater freedom. “It was like there was no COVID at all because they had it under control,” Boonrawd said.
ThaiSA has, therefore, been able to conduct large-scale activities to keep its members involved. Boonrawd recounted two large-scale events she conducted in Bangkok last year, the first being a freshman welcome and alumni reunion session and the second being the Thai American Champions League. The second event, in particular, drew in students from schools on the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest.
“We had to ask for permission from the educational board first and the public health ministry, because I wasn’t about to put on this event and have it be a COVID-spreader,” Boonrawd said. “We had to screen people big-time. They had to show evidence that they were in the country at least three weeks prior, and they had to show that they quarantined. … Everyone’s temperatures we had taken, we had medics there, we had an ambulance and all the nurses spread out.”
However, Boonrawd noted that ThaiSA’s events have not kept campus students in Thailand connected to campus specifically; instead of identifying as UC Berkeley students in Thailand, they have found community as students enrolled in American universities but studying from home. This has, in turn, given campus students in Thailand a larger community than they would have had on campus. “You meet more people, and you’re more willing to interact initially versus when you’re on campus, you see the same people all the time,” Boonrawd explained. “A lot of them who have made new friends at different universities as a result of events that we’ve had, and they’ve kept in contact.”
According to Boonrawd, ultimately, ThaiSA is unable to serve as a replacement for the community students would find on campus. “We as a community serve one purpose, right, and it’s hard to try to fulfill another,” Boonrawd said. “It’s hard to make a Thai Student Association more American, because we’re Thai for a reason.”
“In the dorms, or in class, in labs, in discussion and whatnot — that’s where you can branch out, and you can learn more about yourself and also about the people around you, the community around you.”
The UC Berkeley Indian Students Association (ISA) was not available for an interview at press time, but said in Instagram messages they conducted socials, events, and parts of the recruitment process at time slots that would accommodate time zones outside of the United States.
However, it is also notable that not all international students have chosen to take part in international student organizations. Dipit Gupta is a campus freshman from India who recently moved to campus. He has chosen not to join the ISA, instead opting to seek community by participating actively in extracurriculars and in class. In particular, he joined a consulting organization, formed study groups and took part actively in office hours.
“The only thing that kept me sane was interacting with people in study groups and my club, which happened at nighttime,” Gupta said.
However, this meant turning his schedule on its head. “I used to sleep around 3 p.m. I used to wake up around 8 p.m. So, it was weird,” Gupta added. While he did not suffer any severe physical repercussions from his altered sleep schedule, it did lead to a decrease in productivity and, in some ways, further fed into his feelings of isolation.
“The fact that you’re asleep during the day means that you can’t interact with any other people in your time zone, and when you are awake, everyone is asleep, in your time zone at least, means that interaction is closed. Especially as a freshman, when you have a very big classes, it becomes very difficult to interact with people in a lecture of 500 people,” he said.
As a result, Gupta moved to campus this semester. “If I’m being completely blunt, if I had to do one more semester online, I would go crazy,” he said.
But he urged his fellow international students to keep going. “Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, there’s not much we can do, and we have to just adapt and learn.”
For some international students, COVID-19 has meant radically changing their lifestyle to suit the circumstances; for some, it means connecting over online platforms instead of in person; for others, it means reconnecting with their own hometown. Despite their varied experiences, these students have one thing in common: They are doing everything they can to remain connected to campus in whatever way they can. Back in the Bay Area however, different challenges — such as, among other things, an increase in anti-Asian violence — await these students. In this situation, their strong ties within UC Berkeley communities they nurtured over the pandemic will likely be the key for campus life in the United States after COVID-19.