It’s a deceptively dramatic title. This isn’t the post about the lessons learned from a year abroad or musings from my month at home. I’ll write that one next. That deserves more time. This is a story about yesterday and the mind-twistingly intense process of getting into a country that would rather not have you.
This is also a return from an apparently noticeable hiatus. I have been amazed by the number of comments I’ve received on this blog – primarily people asking when I’m going to post again. Granted, it’s been about seven, but that’s still more than the number of people I thought cared about my writing at all. So if you are one of the (What should I call my blog followers? Evanatics? Angels? Let’s go with) Earthlings who has been craving more, I’m sorry. I’ve been busy, okay?! This tab has been open for about two months. Back then it started as a post about how the US was opening up and Taiwan was shutting down (with massive Covid outbreaks reaching upwards of *gasp* tens of cases each day!)… But like most world news lately, give it a month and you’ll find out that reports of America’s “success” have been greatly exaggerated. So now, in an Olympic-worthy double fakey McTwist of fate, the pendulum of optimism has already swung back in its original direction. Say what you will about me, but you must admit I have impeccable timing when it comes to mid-pandemic moves around the world.
So how is it that while fears of the Delta variant surge worldwide, Taiwan has recently loosened restrictions on gatherings, is sending kids back to school, and reported just 16 new cases yesterday? (As a reminder for scale, and for those of us who have bad news fatigue, the United States reported over 92,000 new cases yesterday.) The answer is by making it an impossibly huge pain in the ass for Covid to vacation here. If you’re a little coronavirus just trying to survive in the world, where are you going to go? A country where face shield hoodies have become fashionable, or a country where half the population is either stupid enough or brainwashed to believe that this evolutionarily advanced virus doesn’t necessitate a defensive strategy?
So come with me on a journey unlike any other (hopefully).
Normal process for flying back to where you live:
- Book flight.
- Get on plane.
- Get off plane.
- Go home. Yay!
Process you need to go through if you want to fly to Taiwan right now:
- Book flights.
- Three days before flying home have one moron break home quarantine and spread Covid, thus causing the government to cancel the home quarantine option nationwide.
- Eventually get over your disappointment and book a quarantine hotel.
- Get a PCR test within three days before flight.
- Forget to fill out the online quarantine declaration requested by Taiwan’s government. Fill out at airport while carrying a heavy backpack.
- Show the nice worker lady your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative PCR test results, and your hotel booking confirmation.
- Fly to San Francisco.
- Show a different set of workers your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative test results, and your hotel booking confirmation. Get a red “OK” stamp. (More on this later.)
- Get on plane using facial recognition technology! This was wild to me. They didn’t scan my boarding pass. No one looked at my passport. I just looked into a robot’s eyes and it said I could get on. The future is crazy.
- Sit on tarmac for nearly two hours while they redistribute baggage weight? Fun and not concerning at all! (Other than that, flight was good. Had a whole row to myself and slept most of the time other than watching Idiocracy, which I did not realize was a documentary.)
- Okay, here’s where the real fun starts. Get off the plane and wait in line while you fill out what appears to be the same online form that you filled out before you left. A worker checks your second ~quarantine declaration certificate~ and sends you on to wait in another line so you can show it to a different worker.
- The second worker notices you didn’t type your middle name so you get out of line and fill out the form again because if you don’t write your middle name you might have Covid. Get back in line and wait to show them your correctly filled out ~quarantine declaration certificate~ for what you can only assume will be the final time. But you will be wrong.
- Walk past giant signs with some pictures and some Chinese that I’m pretty sure say bringing foreign beef jerky into Taiwan is punishable by death.
- Go to baggage claim and walk your bag past the cutest little beagle that will literally end your life if he smells any goddamn beef jerky in there.
- Go through customs to declare that you do not have any beef jerky with you. (Around this time, your mind will start asking you “Are we sure we didn’t accidentally pack any beef jerky in there somewhere?”) At customs a robot will take your picture and your fingerprints.
- At this point, you might think, “Phew, made it through.” You will be wrong. Go to a worker and get a cup.
- Go outside to a pop-up dressing room stall and spit as much as you can in that cup, even if you barely have any saliva because you have been standing in line with no water for an hour. Give your cup to a worker. Get a jazzy sticker on your arm that says “don’t touch me,” probably.
- Go back inside and stand in line to wait for a taxi. Show them your ~quarantine declaration certificate~. I told you we weren’t done with that! (Pro tip: The day before your flight, get your ~quarantine declaration certificate~ printed onto a t-shirt. Just make sure you fill it out correctly.)
- After you pay for your taxi, prepare yourself for a Summerfest mister level of disinfectant spray. (Holy shit, did this just give anyone else a great idea?!) Do not wear suede. They will spray you until you are almost saturated, including the bottoms of your shoes. If you are a plucky little coronavirus stowaway thinking the groove on a bottom of a shoe was a great place to hide, you have just been proven wrong and you are dead now. I even saw him lift up a woman’s backpack and spray in between the back and the pack. Even compound words are no match for this Seaworld splash zone amount of disinfectant!
- Be careful as you walk away. The floor is very slippery.
- Finally, get in your taxi.
- Arrive at your quarantine hotel which has plastic tunnels everywhere reminding you of the scene at the end of E.T.
- After about 26 total hours of travel, you have arrived in your room, where you will spend the next 15 days trying not to go crazy.
So how do you become one of the safest countries in the world? A powerful, yet caring and effective government, an abundance of surveillance, and an obedient population. Why have over 600,000 people died in the US? An ineffective, divided, and unevolved government, a psychotic and narcissistic cult leader, a culture of mistrust and misinformation, and a population that thinks being forced to wear a mask in the name of safety infringes on their “rights.” There are tradeoffs.
It’s been interesting to spend basically half of a generational pandemic on one side of the response spectrum and half on the other. I’ve spent most of my time in the States being dumbfounded and saddened by the general stupidity of humankind. Just wear a goddamn mask. It’s not that hard. On the other hand, I’ve spent the majority of my time in Taiwan being very grateful to be here and be able to go out and do things. But at times it’s been admittedly difficult to trust the process. I know it’s in the name of the greater good, but it’s hard not to be frustrated when you have to teach online and spend your own money to sit in a hotel room for 15 days when there are fewer than 20 cases in the country, they know everyone’s name, and they track your movements wherever you go. At some point it feels like overkill. The process of getting from Burlington to Taichung this week felt like the Soup Nazi was appointed Minister of Health. (Just rewatched that clip. It holds up.)
Beyond the obvious effects of this pandemic (illness, death, unemployment, deterioration of mental health, postponement of plans, etc.) I fear that the trauma it has caused to individuals will go unrecognized by most and then, as trauma does, rear its ugly head in often surprising and unrelated ways. So far, one of the biggest impacts this whole thing has had on me personally is that I now don’t believe anything until it happens. Remember when we thought it was unfathomable that stores could ever shut down for two weeks? Remember when we thought that getting vaccinated meant we beat covid for good? I approach all plans now with a “yeah, sure, we’ll see,” rather than a “sounds perfect, can’t wait!” Perhaps it’s healthy to temper expectations. But it’s also sad to not be able to get excited about anything anymore.
The moment I got excited about coming back to Taiwan was not when I resigned my contract. It wasn’t when I got my class list for next year, or checked in for my flight. It was when I got this stupid red “OK” stamp on my boarding pass. During all of my packing, planning, and preparation leading up to my flight I was girding my emotions for something to go wrong. I was about 20% sure that I was not going to get my test results back in time, or that I was going to test positive, or that a typo on my ~quarantine declaration certificate~ would result in a lifetime excommunication. I was even stressed up until the moment before he checked mine when it seemed for a second like the lady before me wasn’t going to be let on the plane because she got her PCR test five days before the flight instead of three. Luckily, the rule is that your test has to be within three business days, so the man eventually relented. Thank god Covid agreed to not work on weekends.
It wasn’t until he checked my papers, took my boarding pass, and gave it back with this super official, high tech, government approved RED STAMP, that I actually believed I was coming back. In that moment, I let out a little giggle. My heart started racing and I clenched all of my muscles to prevent myself from doing something noticeably outlandish in public. The most momentous “OK” of the year.
As Darwin (my friend, not the scientist) likes to say, in conclusion, I made it. I’m back for another year and I’m excited. It’s going to be a year of opportunities and growth. A year of continuing to seek peace and happiness and hopefully continuing to find both. A year of reminding myself and those around me, it’s okay to be “OK.”