No, not that nation. I can’t even talk about that one. It’s too sad, too embarrassing, and impossible to make sense of right now. While I’m of course excited to be going home this summer to see family and friends and drink decent beer again, it’s hard to say I’m proud to be an American these days. Which is why, today, we’re talking about Taiwan.
You remember Taiwan, right? The beautiful little island paradise that was safe from Covid all those months while the rest of the world experienced unprecedented levels of death and disruption? Well, it’s not been as fun lately. But let’s start at the beginning.
When I left America to come to Taiwan in the middle of 2020, not only was I traveling to the opposite side of the world, I was traveling to opposite sides of the pandemic spectrum. In America, actual grown adults were carrying guns to capitols to protest about masks, saying they couldn’t breathe and the government was taking away their freedom. In Taiwan, 100% of people in every corner of the country were undramatically following government orders to wear masks and keep social distance. In America, if you got Covid, or rather when, you hoped the pop-up ICU in your town had an extra bed and ventilator for you. In Taiwan, the only way you got Covid was if you had sex with a pilot who just flew in from abroad, in which case you and all of your close contacts were traced and immediately swept away to quarantine hotels where you would sit for 14 days while the country watched the number of transmissions “spike” to like, 90, and then promptly go back down to zero.
In America, a kid holding a bag of Skittles gets shot in self-defense because he is seen as a threat. People die in grocery stores, churches, schools and outside of convenience stores in front of crowds at the hands of government employees with no repercussions. In Taiwan, you leave your bike unlocked on the street overnight because no one would ever even consider stealing it. There is literally no crime. There are no guns. I’m honestly not even sure if cops have guns. I assume they do somewhere, but I’ve never seen one. Never interacted with a police officer. Never seen one shoot somebody on the news. Never seen a cop put their hand on their hip while they approach a driver at a routine traffic stop because their first priority is to protect the status quo of the power structure.
Though pandemic response and crime rate might seem like unrelated phenomena, it seems likely that they are byproducts of some core cultural values. If you had to pick one word to describe Taiwan, you might choose “safe.” Given the current global context, this is a quality I have come to appreciate more in the last couple of years than ever before. Safe from Covid. Safe from crime. Safe from guns. Safe from fragile white men. But… is there such a thing as too safe?
At the beginning of the pandemic, in America, perhaps the only thing spreading faster than Covid was misinformation. There were mask “mandates” and then bans on those mandates and then school board meetings and Supreme Court rulings and presidents blaming China but then saying it was just the flu and anti-vaxxers and vaccinated anti-maskers and whatthefuckisevengoingonanymore? In Taiwan, from the start, the pandemic was handled unbelievably effectively. The only thing that was spreading, and not incidentally, was fear. And at the beginning, the fear was valid! The virus was deadly. But the fear was amplified and intensified by messaging from the government that included grim daily briefings to which people would tune in and afterwards anxiously chat about the daily “number” (of cases) like you might discuss the weather.
Borders were closed. Not only could tourists not get in, but teachers, business people, and even citizens trying to get home to see their families couldn’t get in without a strict 14-day quarantine (not to mention a bunch of insanely complicated paperwork). If you wanted to go into a restaurant, grocery store, gym, or 7-Eleven, you had to scan the QR code with your phone so the government could track everyone’s footsteps in case of a case. You couldn’t eat or drink on trains. You couldn’t even run in a park or ride on your scooter without a mask. And people just accepted it! And did it! And it worked! I still find it to be nothing short of a miracle that Taiwan remained essentially Covid-free for 2 years.
But then things changed. We got vaccinated. And I do mean just about everybody. We were slow to get doses at first, but once we did, the rate rose steadily and at the time of this writing, we are over 80% fully vaccinated. Compare that with 67% of Americans, who have had access to vaccines for far longer. Couple a high vaccination rate with the fact that Omicron and other variants have become more mild and we should be good, right?! After two years, it finally can be said in truth that it really is “just like the flu.” And yet… the fear in Taiwan remains.
After border restrictions were loosened, cases have been on the rise. Even though 99.9% of cases have mild or no symptoms, the government has shut down public schools and sent them online for the last two weeks, with a third to come. Private schools like mine have had the option to remain open, but many parents are too afraid to send their kids to school, resulting in a horrible hybrid monster with 6-year-olds watching class on their computers which isn’t fun for anyone. Borders remain closed to anyone without citizenship or a work visa and there is still mandatory hotel quarantine (though it has been reduced to seven days). Many people are still afraid to leave their houses on weekends and they judge you if you do. Some parents and teachers at our school want everyone to take a rapid test every Monday morning whether they have symptoms or not.
It’s weird. It’s weird to go from one place where I was the person following the rules, staying inside, and trying to warn others to take this more seriously to being the person who thinks the government has brainwashed people with fear and that we need to stop worrying so much about this thing. It’s weird, or perhaps challenging is a better word, to see the extreme pros and extreme cons of a strict and powerful central government and an obedient population. Taiwan is a democracy, yes – progressive in many ways (like voting for a female president and being the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage), but also still conservative and traditional in many others (like near-automatic prison time for possession of any amount of cannabis). Taiwan is a country filled with contradictions. It’s very old in its origins, but in its infancy with concern to its independence. It’s a youthful and popular player in the global market. It’s a political lightning rod trying to build its own identity apart from China, yet, like Harry Potter and Voldemort, so much of the history, values, and ways of thinking of the two countries remain inextricable. Like everything, it’s complicated.
Meanwhile, back to the important issue: ME. I’m riding out the last month of the school year praying to the gods that I and any of my students don’t get Covid, not because I’m worried about getting sick but because another home quarantine and teaching online might just do me in. And at the same time, all of the teachers who are flying home or traveling this summer are debating if it’s better just to get it now and get it over with so we don’t have to worry about getting it the week before our flight and messing that all up. Do I continue to be cautious, or do I live it up for the short time I have left abroad? Do I love it here? Yes. Has it started to feel a little suffocating? Also yes.
In conclusion about Taiwan, I’ll say that it’s beautiful and wonderful and magical and lovely… but it ain’t perfect. And about America? Well, it ain’t perfect – far from it – but at least you don’t have to wear a mask on a motorcycle.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re well! For no good reason, here’s a picture of a panda at the Taipei Zoo and me at a baseball game.