The morning of March 21 I hastily finished packing my bags, not knowing how long I was going to be gone for. I sat there in my room, my bags ready, my mind frazzled. Uncertainty has a way of getting to me, targeting my mind even as my physical preparedness says otherwise. I was told that it would be at least 5 months before I would be back in my college apartment – but we knew that that was the best case scenario.
This moment had been weeks of foreboding, not a matter of if but when.
As a student studying in the US, my parents had been phoning me nearly every day to provide me with updates of the situation – since February. They were back in our home in Peru, watching the news closely. Their careful monitoring of the situation prepared them for the future changes that have come, long before most of us knew something was wrong. Personally, this was perhaps the hardest part to stomach.
My parents understood the severity of the situation in China, and then Taiwan – our hometown – and knew that it would be way, way worse when it spread to the rest of the world.
This pandemic brought out the dichotomy between the East and West, a palpable difference in our customs, habits, and way of being that was no longer negligible.
My parents started advising me to be cautious about my social outings, to wear face masks when necessary, to disinfect everything when I got home, and to stay at home. Just stay at home, if you can. Don’t go out. Don’t hang out with your friends, it’s not safe anymore. Just stay at home – we’ll ship masks to you. Their advise grew increasingly urgent within the span of a few weeks – heck, days – and this urgency both alerted and scared me.
I have to emphasize the cultural clash that this situation highlighted. The social distancing and face masking was unspoken of back in March, let alone February. I knew that the situation was different in China, Taiwan, and the other countries that had been hit hard already. But the cultural norm that permeated my surrounding made it hard for me to act upon this knowledge. My mom mentioned reading about an Asian person being hit for wearing a face mask in public. But it wasn’t the physical danger that made me hesitant – it was more so the stigma that came with it.
In the US, we associate people who wear face masks as those who have a cold. Still, most choose not to do so, even if they’re coughing and sneezing. Wearing face masks when you’re sick is pretty much a social norm when you’re in Taiwan or Japan. It’s not about protecting yourself – it’s about protecting everyone else, from you.
Even with the pandemic rising around me, the number of face maskers only rose to about 5-10% of people at any point in time. And, alas, 99% of them were Asian. I attended my last social outing back in early March. It was a gathering of 20+ people from my club. I felt really uncomfortable about going, but I decided to just pop in, say hello, and slide out. I brought a face mask with me, but felt too uncomfortable to wear it at the event. I felt bad about staying at home, but I felt worse about attending the event, knowing the risks. There was no win-win for me.
Through small moments like this, I realized that the sociocultural norms around me were attached to more implications than I dared question. I wear a face mask whenever I’m sick and showing external symptoms – but during this pandemic, wearing one implied a lot of things. It implied that you “believed” in this so-called virus. It implied that you were scared. It implied that you were Asian, a foreigner.
It implied that this virus had, unbeknownst to us, become a partisan debate that favored freedom over something as vital as health.
I was confused, I was tired, and I was furious. I felt alone in my struggles to understand the virus. I had my parents advising and encouraging my social distancing decisions, but with everyone else seemingly living in denial, I felt more at odds with our cultures than ever. The answer was obvious to me: when a virus that threatens to wipe out a significant portion of your population in a short amount of time, you do whatever the hell it takes to end that threat in the shortest amount of time possible. I couldn’t understand why we were waiting for it to me. I was pissed at my school, for reacting rather than taking action. I was mad at the bleeping country I was studying in, for allowing every state to make decisions that were all based on “careful monitoring the situation.” I was mad at my parents, for not understanding what I was going through. I was furious at my friends, who were so obviously oblivious of what was about to hit us that I just. I couldn’t.
I was so mad, so confused, and so alone in my anger.
And so I came to Taiwan. I should probably point out, if you don’t know, that I didn’t grow up in Taiwan. I was born here – my entire family is Chinese/Taiwanese – but I grew up and lived in Peru for most of my life. My Taiwanese roots dictate a lot of my habits and cultural norms, but I never felt particularly fond of Taiwan.
This sentiment changed when I came to Taiwan a month ago. I came here because it’s virtually the only country that has near-zero cases on a daily basis. Its careful monitoring and superior healthcare system, in addition to the lessons learned from SARS back in 2003, have allowed Taiwan to get by almost unscathed by the pandemic. As a Taiwanese citizen, I came here knowing that I would be safe, with my extended family. I felt relieved and glad to have a place to seek refuge in, especially somewhere where my concerns were not absurd. Where wearing face masks is the norm, even when we have very few cases – because you can never be too safe. Where politeness is at a level where I can understand and reciprocrate. Where the government echoes our collective concerns and efforts to maintain our wellbeing.
Because of this pandemic, I felt closer to Taiwan than ever. Feeling safe and in accordance with the country’s regulations is a huge reason, and it is also because of this that I am able to spend more time here. To explore the country more, to get to know Taiwan more.
It almost feels like I’ve been given a second chance to give this country a second chance. To, perhaps, find the home in it.
It hasn’t been long, but I already have a renewed appreciation for my birth country. Since young, I have always associated Taiwan with my extended family and the home they live in – but this was the first time that I found myself living alone and exploring a new part of the city by myself. This sense of newness daunted me, but it offered me a new perspective ot the country. And I actually… really did find a new perspective. I still find the same superficial faults as I did before – the (ugly) buildings, narrow roads, and oh, the Traditional Chinese. But it felt different, this time.
I’m currently residing alone, due to the fact that I had to self-quarantine for 2 weeks when I traveled back from the US. No hotel or Airbnb accepted a US student possibly carrying COVID-19 with them, so I ended up signing a 2-month lease at an apartment. I will be joining my extended family next month.
I have mixed feelings about my extended family, to say the least. I grew up seeing them on a few summer breaks throughout my entire life. I have grown up in other countries and other cultures, all foreign to them. I don’t really know them, and they don’t know me. This difference has only gotten wider as I’ve grown older. I’m not particular fond of their personalities and attitudes, but I’m not an easy person to live with myself. At the end of the day, though, they’re family, and they’re something I will always have.
I think this is a chance for me to truly try to understand them. I have always visited Taiwan with my mom, having her guide my way around our family and Taiwan. But this time I’m on my own, and it’s my duty to make things work. With this unsettling situation, with a family that I have yet to understand, in this confusing world.