Issue: 2022: Vol. 21, No. 1

Watching the COVID World from Taiwan

Article Author(s)

Savannah Lee

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Savannah Lee is an Atlanta native, who completed a two-year Fulbright Fellowship in Taipei, where she studied Chinese and earned a Master’s in Business Administration. 
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Savannah Lee Taiwan
The author with her classmates at their MBA graduation from National Taiwan Normal University in 2021.

I recently returned to the United States after spending 2019-2021 in Taipei, where I earned my MBA as a part of the Fulbright program. I picked a strange time to be abroad. While the United States (as well as most places in the world) went through a shared pandemic experience, I can’t relate because of Taiwan’s successes keeping the island COVID-19 free until May of 2021 when I returned home. As peers regale tales of working from home, baking sourdough bread, childcare difficulties, adopting dogs, struggling through job changes or furloughs, begrudgingly moving back in with parents, and protesting, I sat unmasked in noodle shops, went to bars, coughed without hesitation, and had in-person meetings with my professors. When I tell people I didn’t have a pandemic experience because I was in Taipei, they shake their heads and ask what it was like. My short answer is that it was like being trapped on a perfect island, and that above all I was grateful (and felt slightly guilty) to be where I was, but also longed to support my American community. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (Taipei is famous for torrential downpours). But, I was grateful for my unusual experiences for what they taught me about the world, and myself.

Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic became a worldwide news story, catapulting the small island and all its political troubles, particularly with the WHO, in front of millions. In 2002, SARS hit Taiwan ruthlessly. When first reports of COVID appeared, it was determined to prove that it had learned from its mistakes. Taiwan news never paints China in a positive light, so, as soon as reports of diseases were circulating from China, the Taiwan government needed no further excuse to immediately shut down all travel to or from China for legal residents of Taiwan, with no exceptions. One of my good friends from China had made the last-minute decision to stay at his family’s house a little longer after the Chinese New Year to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He paid dearly as he was unable to return to Taiwan for eight months despite his valid residence permit. I breathed a sigh of relief as I had hoped to go to China during the New Year of 2020, but then thought my procrastination to apply for a Chinese visa was good luck.

Starting in March 2020, Taiwan locked the borders to anyone without a valid residence permit and required everyone entering the country to complete a two-week quarantine. Cases rose slowly in Taiwan as the world began to shut down and citizens returned from overseas, but these cases never spread because of the strict quarantine. I anxiously watched COVID cases climb in the U.S. from the island, concerned for my family and friends back home. I felt guilty as I watched graduations being canceled and friends being fired. The Taiwan government began to require masks in specific locations but did not shut down since there was no local transmission of cases.

Against advice from the Fulbright Program, I decided to travel back to the United States in the summer of 2020 to support my family while my dad lay in the hospital on a ventilator. My brief stint in the United States was more of a culture shock than anything in Taipei. I was amazed how little people seemed to care about COVID.

Since I needed to return to school after being with my family, I experienced the Taiwan quarantine system firsthand. Upon my return, I was shuffled into various lines at the airport where I had my temperature checked. I added the government COVID center as a contact in my phone and proved to the authorities that they could reach me. Then I was thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant before taking a taxi lined in plastic back to my apartment for a two-week stint in my room.

During quarantine, the Taiwan government openly tracked my location with a special SIM card in my phone to ensure that I did not leave the GPS perimeter of my quarantine location. If you did, they called the police. They additionally called and texted you to check in. If you didn’t respond to a call or text in 15 minutes, or your phone shut off, the police came banging on your door within 30 minutes. I learned this the hard way after my phone charger broke in my wall one night. My phone died, and the police knocked on my door at 6am on a Sunday asking where I was and why my phone had stopped transmitting my location. On the verge of tears, I grabbed my broken charger and did my best to mime and describe my problem while promising that it wouldn’t happen again. They took my picture, confiscated my passport, and told me that if it happened again, I would be in big trouble.

Life in my 180-square-foot bedroom for two weeks broke me down mentally and gave me much sympathy for prison reform movements. I had grandiose plans of practicing vocabulary, looking for a job, and writing my thesis. Instead, I played video games, watched TikTok, and jumped rope at a rate that made my downstairs neighbors hate me. It was rough, but I was grateful that all I had to do was pay this small price for another year of freedom from the pandemic. The Taiwan system was rigid, foolproof, and intense. Put simply, we paid up front but then were free to live life normally.

People sometimes ask me if being a white person in Asia was like being an Asian person in the U.S. during COVID. The answer is an absolute no. In general, whiteness in Asia results in the red carpet being rolled out, resulting in good customer service, apologies for broken English, compliments, and Facebook friend requests. COVID shifted this dynamic as more strangers said rude things, but I’d be remiss to talk about negatives of my experience without acknowledging that the position of whiteness in Asia is fundamentally one of privilege, which is not true for Asians in the U.S. While I did get negative comments and got smacked once, my experiences were nothing compared to the experiences of people of color in the U.S., particularly Asians, or the experiences of southeast Asians in Taiwan.

I commonly got stares and listened to people talk about me because they thought that I didn’t understand them. Mostly these comments were innocent, such as kids speculating about my nationality or noting how strange my curly hair looked. During COVID I listened to speculation about whether I was one of the Americans who was infected. I got in the habit of wearing my mask even when it was not required to be culturally sensitive, and because I didn’t want to be “that” American who refused to wear a mask. “AmeriKarens” made just as many headlines internationally as they did in the U.S.

Once, a young boy (unmasked) stood behind me (masked) and asked his grandma (unmasked) where she thought I was from. She immediately told him to back away because I looked like a dirty sick foreigner, and I would give him a disease. I politely turned to her and explained that I was wearing the mask to be polite but wasn’t sick, could speak Chinese, had already been living in Taiwan for a long time, and was just as likely to have COVID as she was. She turned bright red and didn’t respond. Another older lady on the subway once started beating me with her umbrella, similarly citing dirty foreigners, but old women don’t hit that hard, so I simply grabbed the umbrella and told her that if she hit me again, I’d call the police. That got her attention and she scowled as she disappeared into another car. In restaurants, you often bump elbows as you share tables with strangers, but when hosts placed a Taiwanese group at my table, they would often point, stare, and ask to be placed elsewhere. I usually would smile and say “no problem,” as I didn’t want to make a scene. I thought about Asians worldwide who had similar experiences. Taxi drivers wouldn’t stop for me, and people gave me plenty of space while I waited in any line.

Despite the ignorant comments, plenty of Taiwanese people were enormously understanding and went out of their way to help me make the island feel like home. In Taiwan, trash, recycling, and compost trucks drive by your neighborhood playing pixelated classical music (think about being on hold with Comcast) at regular times for you to throw away your waste into the back of the moving truck, but the trucks are almost always late, so waiting with your neighbors is often the bedrock of your community’s networking. I attracted a lot of attention while I waited for the trucks, and once my neighbors realized that I could speak Mandarin, they often asked questions about life in the U.S. Some of these questions were deep, such as,“Do Americans really not want to wear masks?” or, “Is it true that you can get a vaccine almost everywhere in America right now, for free, and people aren’t doing it?” Most showed genuine concern by asking about my family. They asked about the health care system, why the government had never enforced masks, and about why some states had it figured out and some didn’t.

Around the Chinese New Year of 2021, my next-door neighbor realized I wasn’t going to be able to go home for the holidays and started offering me her dinner leftovers every night, along with an explanation of what everything was and how to make it. One night, I politely declined a meat dish because I’m vegan, and my neighbor politely understood and fed scraps to her corgi. She brought me decorations for my door to help me usher in good luck for the new year. The next week, she dropped off homemade vegan 粽子 (zong zi, steamed rice with fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves) and 湯圓 (tang yuan, mochi filled with sesame seed paste that goes in dessert soup), and then consistently made me plates of cut fruit, promising me that it was nothing and that she had bought too much fruit at the market anyway. At one point, I heard her daughter ask her in front of me to stop visiting the foreigners because we had diseases. I told her daughter in Chinese that I had already been here for a long time and wasn’t likely to have COVID, so her daughter immediately switched to speaking in Taiyu (the Taiwanese dialect) to drive her point home. My neighbor said nothing of the incident but continued her visits.

COVID forced me to lay down deeper roots in Taiwan than I otherwise would have. In the absence of seeing my family for holidays, I intentionally cultivated a community. It took hard nights, tears, grief, and guilt for the life I was living to lay the foundation for a deeper cultural experience. I’m indebted to my Taiwanese and international friends who noticed how hard things were and helped me form relationships and build a community. My thesis advisor, whom I consider more like my Taiwanese mom, invited me out with her family for a nice meal to exchange red envelopes for the holidays. She explained traditions such as leaving fish on the table for a wealthy year and rubbing shoulders with lots of other people for good luck, which is something that not many people wanted to do in January of 2021. She let me, a few other students and her sons choose from red envelopes of different values and explained that life isn’t fair. She laughed as I drew the envelope with one new Taiwan dollar, which is worth about three cents. She forced me to eat more food, saying that I was too skinny. She told me to work harder on my thesis, and when I was stressed, she promised that I would do well upon returning to America, whenever that was.

I additionally put down much deeper roots with the Taiwan immigrant community because of COVID. My best foreigner friends were from Canada, Honduras, Turkey, Belize, and Indonesia. Even though our countries had different problems and responses, we had a lot in common. We lived in the paradox of being grateful and feeling almost guilty for being some place so safe, but also dearly missing our loved ones. We would cry in the morning over family members and friends getting COVID and put on our shared mask of being a normal student in school. I’ll never forget one of my more passive, soft-spoken, mature international classmates standing up for me as a Taiwanese student told me to get over this whole COVID thing. After class, as foreigners, we commiserated about our frustrations as some family members denied the existence of COVID and how some family members contracted COVID from those who didn’t believe and would end up dying. We combatted each other’s homesickness by committing to a passionate effort to help each other celebrate cultural holidays, which amounted to a lesson in empathy, as well as international cultures. We all needed family, compassion, and, most importantly, a way to celebrate genuinely within our own cultural norms. I’ll never forget fasting on Ramadan and breaking the fast at hot pot, attempting to make latkes on my gas stove, or learning how to cook empanadas.

Toward the end of my time in Taiwan, American pilots (who were subject to a different quarantine system) finally carried COVID over and the country went into a lockdown. I was devastated for the Taiwanese community, selfishly upset about the isolation, but began to feel excited about returning home. I ended up having a virtual graduation ceremony, but lockdown in Taiwan was short and sweet, and cases eventually dropped to a manageable level. When it was my time to go, I sat at a 7-Eleven waiting for my Uber to the airport with my tears blotting the nose of my mask. I was beyond grateful that I called Taiwan home for the two years of COVID, and that the experience had caused me to grow in such an unforeseen way.

One of the last units we did in my Chinese class was on feng shui. I’ll never forget hearing the idiom命二運三風水 , which translates to “first, fate; second, luck; third, feng shui.” My Chinese teacher had the habit of throwing 20 new words and phrases at us between the time the bell rang and when we left the classroom. I forgot most of them, but it struck me just how lucky I was to have been in Taiwan from 2019 to 2021. It was surely fate that I didn’t get into any of the China fellowships I had been hoping for as an undergraduate senior in 2018, all of which would have been canceled, or that I decided against working at the job I had lined up that laid off all the new people when the pandemic hit. I consider myself lucky that I got to have such a strange COVID experience that forced me to be resilient and taught me so much about the world. Of course, I wish COVID had never happened, but I’m grateful that I was able to have such an unusual and poignant time away from the United States. I really did pick a strange time to go abroad.