Courtesy of Ken Tanaka

Ken Tanaka ’21, the only Yale College student studying at Yale-NUS College in Singapore this semester, has said a lot of goodbyes on his term abroad.

The coronavirus has forced him to bid farewell to new friends, some of whom were required to leave by their home institutions and others who opted to do so. Six of his classmates left Singapore in mid-March, flying back to China, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States. Although Yale recommended he leave and return home to California, Tanaka decided to stay, hoping to make it to the end of the semester in a country whose case count remains comparatively low and whose strict (but relatively effective) contact tracing strategy has earned praise from the public health community.

Since COVID-19 first gained the world’s attention in January, friends had checked in with him, reaching out about the virus.

“Now it’s kind of the opposite, where the U.S. and Europe are really bad,” Tanaka said from his Yale-NUS suite on the last night of March. “My perception has been equal parts bewilderment and worry for my friends and my family and not really surprise, but disbelief almost. I’ll wake up every day now, and it’s 20,000 or 30,000 new cases in the US. A part of me cannot wrap my head around that.”

But until late last week, his life at school pushed on, though much altered by the pandemic. Large classes over 50 — and then 25 — had moved online, but he was still living on campus, seeing friends from at least a meter away and making it out for bike rides around the city. Then, just after the case count in the city-state crossed 1,000, Tanaka’s situation in Singapore assumed a new degree of uncertainty.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced tighter restrictions in an address on Friday, encouraging citizens to stay home and “go out only to do essential things.”

“Things are in a state of flux right now,” Anmei Zeng YNUS ’21, Tanaka’s friend and classmate, said on Friday. “This week, three out of my four classes were still in person. Next week, all classes are required to go online. Basically all student activities are canceled, we can’t use the facilities and social distancing of one meter apart is enforced in all public spaces.”

The prime minister announced on Friday that schools in the country would fully shift to home-based learning on April 8, and by Saturday, messages from Yale-NUS flooded Tanaka’s email inbox. Right after noon on Saturday, Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong wrote to the community to confirm that campus would be closing, and Dean of Students Dave Stanfield wrote 20 minutes later with more detailed instructions on the move-out process.

In between two Zoom calls with the News, Tanaka’s plan had completely changed, a reminder of the speed with which COVID-19 has disrupted lives and routines globally. On Tuesday, he explained his rationale for remaining in Singapore. On Saturday, he possessed a Singapore Airlines ticket for a flight home this Friday.

“Up until Saturday, it wasn’t really that stressful because I felt like I could stay here until at least the semester ended,” Tanaka said Sunday at 3:30 a.m. in Singapore — 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time in New Haven — after a long day of planning and drastic change. “After [the order to vacate campus] it was pretty stressful. Do I try to appeal and stay here, do I go back, what do I do? … At this point, it’s just easier for me to go back, even though I think the U.S. is still quite unsafe.”

Like Yale, Yale-NUS offered students the option to apply to stay on campus for a limited set of reasons: if the border to one’s home country had been closed, commercial flights home were unavailable, students had a summer internship lined up in Singapore or students were returning to an unsafe environment at home.

Tanaka’s chaotic Saturday represented the beginning of the end of his COVID-19 experience in Singapore. He received his first email about coronavirus in late January, just a couple weeks into his term abroad.

The note did not disrupt the daily routine Tanaka was developing, and as awareness of the virus grew in the country, he focused on making the most of his exchange. The Global Affairs major paired his coursework — on Chinese politics, international law, neoconfucianism and war in southeast Asia — with ultimate frisbee, swimming, and cycling, meeting classmates and friends along the way.

“It wasn’t something I was thinking about every day,” Tanaka said. “But the signs of the government and the school trying to deal with the virus were obviously there from really early on … You never really think about it until it’s on your doorstep I guess.”

At first, displays of the Singaporean response in his daily life were small, focused around community education and hand-washing. Gradually, the situation escalated. Plastic wrappings draped alternating seats in the dining hall, creating a zigzag pattern that enforced social distance, while the university offered an optional Zoom stream for smaller classes still meeting in person. Zeng said photographs were taken each class for contract tracing purposes, and students began uploading their temperatures to a school website twice a day. Ultimate frisbee and swimming disappeared from Tanaka’s routine.

Although the cycling club canceled its meetings as well, biking offered an important escape — and socially-distant activity — as life on campus grew increasingly regulated. An informal “bike gang” with whom Tanaka cycled usually featured around eight people and made it out for a few rides each week.

“There was one week where Ken and the bike gang cycled for 164 kilometers in total over three days,” Izzah Haziqah Binte Harisfadillah YNUS ’20 said. “It’s very liberating to cycle around the coast towns, [Central Business District], Singapore… It’s pretty fun, and there’s social distancing measures as well.”

As long as his plane on Friday flies as scheduled, Tanaka might not have a chance to hit the streets in Singapore for a while. A 16-hour journey will bring him to Los Angeles before a connection carts him home to the Bay Area.

He had “no intention of going back anytime soon” on Tuesday, but COVID-19 has shown that lives, plans and life experiences can change in a moment.

“Do I wish I could have been here for five months or four months?” he asked before signing off Zoom early Sunday morning and collapsing into bed. “Yeah, but I feel like this is a reality we all have to address. It was a good run.”

William McCormack |

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.

William McCormack currently serves as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News. He previously covered men’s basketball and the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.