Alumni Spotlight #5 - Erik Senger
Erik Senger is a GEARE student who went abroad to Waseda University during the COVID-19 pandemic and was able to stay in Japan until late April, which was a significantly longer period than most other students abroad. The following article features his perspective and reflections during a tumultuous time.
My name is Erik Senger and I am currently a 5th year Senior studying Computer Engineering at Purdue. During my 4th year, I studied abroad and participated in an internship in Japan after working toward that goal during my first three years of university. For all three years leading up to my time abroad I studied Japanese; and I continued to study the language while attending Waseda University in Tokyo. The GEARE Program also helped me prepare by introducing me to the technicalities of working and living in a foreign country before I even departed.
My reasons for choosing Japan are numerous, but primarily it was because my older brother studied abroad there. After going to visit him on a family trip, the country impressed me with its unbelievable orderliness, efficiency, and utterly foreign culture. Ever since that first trip I wanted to go back for an extended period, and so my dream of studying abroad there myself was set. In addition to this, I was constantly being exposed to Japanese pop culture in the form of anime and video games from a young age. The appeal of the country therefore continuously grew until I knew I had to go there and find out all about it.
I originally decided to stay in Japan because life seemed normal here. Somehow, Japan seemed to avoid the brunt of the pandemic for a good while. This was a very interesting situation, as it felt surreal that the world around me was changing dramatically while life here was the same as it had always been. However, once businesses and the universities closed, I ultimately decided that there was nothing here for me anymore. I may as well return home, where at least I do not have to pay rent.
The odd aspect about Japan is how long life proceeded normally while other countries were already shutting down. I remember it felt perplexing that I could still go to restaurants and bars, while my friends and I were hearing so much about how the West is closing up and socially distancing. Many of my friends took it upon themselves to socially distance, but I could tell that they were ultimately conflicted. I was conflicted about my original decision not to distance. I could feel the moral pressure emanating from the West, but with the Japanese government not saying much at all, and with Japanese natives not adhering to these measures, it was difficult to go one way or the other.
The muffled Japanese response probably had a lot to do with hosting the Olympics. As long as they were still slated to happen, the government probably wanted to prevent any sort of panic and economic slowdown as much as possible. With the postponement of the games, the government has felt more free to implement measures in accordance with the rest of the world.
This has also led to an interesting phenomenon to witness, though, where the Japanese appear very cohesive as a society. Before the government began issuing warnings and closing things down, people went about their daily lives with seemingly little regard for the global situation. However, once the government began to change its stance, the people reacted swiftly. Businesses began to close all around the same time, and the landscape became much more in line with reports I have been hearing from the US, for example. It seemed to happen all at once, which I think displays how efficiently Japanese society can move as a large unit; the US response, in contrast, has been much more varied and temporally disjointed.
Overall, this experience has not had much impact in dissuading me from traveling in the future. On the contrary, I want to travel more. I find the global view of this pandemic fascinating, even if it is also quite disturbing. I certainly do not regret having been here while it goes on, even if my study abroad was cut short. I already had a wonderful seven months in Japan, and not many people can say they had an experience quite like this one.