A Romanian doing research in Kyrgyzstan: Being productive as a coping mechanism with the pandemic

Author: Ana-Maria Anghelescu*

It was a cloudy Friday, the 13th, when we heard the news: starting Monday, schools and universities were closed for an indefinite period. We were looking forward to the scheduled celebration of Central Asian New Year – Nowruz, a time of renewal, but our hope for a regular spring was faltering and we started planning essential shopping for a longer period of home staying.

I had been in Kyrgyzstan since the end of August 2019, when I started a 4 months Erasmus+ mobility for studies and PhD research at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. I am writing a dissertation on the relations between Romania and Central Asia, with a side focus on analysing the EU-Central Asia dynamics, which I studied in autumn 2019 through interviews, participant observation and reading research materials available in the Academy’s library. In November 2019, after consulting my supervisor and supported by my newly made friends, I applied for a 4 months extension, which was luckily approved. Little did I know that those additional 4 months would turn into 7 months.

The national lockdown was imposed in Kyrgyzstan on March 25th, but up to that point every foreigner was trying desperately to get out of the country, myself included. I even had a farewell get-together with my groupmates, my bags were fully packed, but the flight was cancelled at the last minute.

After some desperate attempts to find a solution, I took a step back and accepted the situation as it was: I wasn’t going to continue with the planned second round of interviews for my PhD and to have access to the Academy’s library. However, I was lucky enough to have a home where I was living with 4 other friends, we had a workable internet connection, so I would not be alone in surviving the lockdown. Despite the fact that my scholarship payment was ended in April (the supposed end date of my mobility), all the expenses were manageable within the limits of my savings. The next 2 months proved to be a real challenge, because of the term assignments and the toll that the prolonged isolation had on our mental health. We were struggling to keep up our motivation to study, research and do housework as well, while trying hard not to step on each other’s toes and keep being friends.

On the inside, I was doing the bare minimum to keep myself afloat surrounded by the deadlines and the commitments I took up in a frenzy before the lockdown. Judging by the outside however, you wouldn’t say that: I turned in 3 term papers totalling some 10.000 words, I had a public talk based on my autumn research, I mentored an undergrad student for her thesis research, while also reading and writing for my own thesis. Being productive was nothing else than a coping mechanism, finding a reason to get up and avoid household quarrels for minor reasons. I started therapy in April, which helped a little bit, because I could talk in my mother tongue and find some solutions for coping with the toxic relation with my family, who made very obvious their lack of support for my decision to extend my stay in Kyrgyzstan beyond December 2019.

Between May and July, the lockdown was lifted and life gradually came back to normal. I kept being productive out of habit, I did not know how to stop and how to fill up the empty parts of the days without thinking of my being stranded in Kyrgyzstan. Although flights were not yet operational, I was still able to go out and meet my friends, discover new places in the city and take a break from my research, which had become insufferable during the lockdown as it was the only activity I had. In mid-July, the Embassy informed me of the possibility to return to Europe with a repatriation flight from Almaty, Kazakhstan, at a rate twice the regular price. The preparations for my leaving took 4 days, during which I saw again my closest friends, I received parting gifts and lovely letters to remind me of the whirlwind the year was. I also found out that I had already been infected with Covid-19, which explained the June tonsillitis and provided me with some antibodies. This made me less insecure about the crazy travelling itinerary back home: 5 hour drive Bishkek–Almaty, with pedestrian up-hill border crossing (while I carried some 50 kg luggage), 30 hour stay in Almaty, 10 hours flight Almaty-Astana-Frankfurt, 13 hours layover in Frankfurt, 2 hours flight to Bucharest and then another 6 hour drive to my hometown, where I spent the mandatory 2 weeks of self-isolation.

Since coming back home, life has been more or less normal, with little restrictions compared to the lockdown in spring 2020. I often find myself going back to those times in quarantined Kyrgyzstan, and I realised that I was trying to put on a brave face, but I was angry for the apparent lack of real research I was doing, I was in a love-hate relationship with my dissertation, trying hard to advance it so that I can have a worth reading material, but at the same time struggling to find the motivation to keep going.

Article written by: Ana-Maria Anghelescu, PhD candidate

*Ana-Maria Anghelescu is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania. Her research focuses on the EU-Central Asia relations, Romanian foreign policy and minority rights. The views expressed in her articles are those of the author and do not reflect the position of any institution with which she may be affiliated. You can follow her on Twitter @AnaAndreeaa.

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