A world with more masks.

I had the opportunity to ask my friend Laila, who is living and working in Taiwan, how the pandemic has affect her life there. Laila and I met at university and I’ve enjoyed keeping up on her travels and experience abroad.

What did the pandemic feel like to you when it first “began?” How has that changed over time? What has your experience been with the pandemic in terms of where you are in the world? In terms of culture? How do you feel it has changed you? Have you learned anything? Has it been painful? Traumatic?

I’ve been living in Taiwan. For me, the pandemic had a very real and tangible start date. During the Chinese New Year holiday, my parents had come to visit me and we had all traveled in Cambodia for about 10 days. January 28, 2020, my parents flew back to the US wearing masks for the first and certainly not last time, as news broke about the first COVID case in Cambodia. January 29, 2020 I flew back to Taiwan wearing my mask and landed to dozens of messages from my Taiwanese boss about how masks would be required at work and what type to get. I remember feeling so stressed and panicked as I realized I’d been wearing the wrong type of mask on my flight, and that masks were already sold out so many places. For maybe the first couple of months, you could line up at any pharmacy or convenience store with your national health card to get masks. You could only go every couple of days to prevent people from hoarding masks. There was only one time when we were worried about going into lockdown, so I tried to stock up on some food and toilet paper, which was all readily available., However, stores and public places remained open during the first couple of months, when people were most nervous. We still have not gone into lockdown or quarantine over a year later. Temperatures are checked before going in anywhere and alcohol to sanitize your hands is available everywhere. Otherwise, life has continued mostly as normal.

I remember feeling panicked for about a week, the first week of teaching with a mask and moving all the desks to be socially distanced. We would sanitize the desks before and after class, but otherwise class proceeded as normal. It was hard for my students to adjust to learning English with masks. For the first 5 months I had been teaching with my class of completely new English learners, we had really focused on how the shape and placement of your mouth and tongue affects the sound. Now, they couldn’t see my mouth and I couldn’t see theirs to help them, so sounds like short “a” and short “e” became very difficult for them to distinguish. 

I felt strangely calm as we got used to it all because it became very clear the government had a plan and that everyone was going to follow it and do their part. Living in Taiwan, there is much more of a sense of collective duty and responsibility. Wearing a mask when you are sick is already a part of the culture, so shifting to wearing masks all the time was rather easy. 

What has been most difficult probably is watching from afar as the rest of the world struggles so much from this. Things like hearing how other people from PLU who were living abroad were forced to return to the US, all while I sat safe and sound in my apartment in Taiwan. Hearing about food shortages and toilet paper shortages, while I walked past fully stocked stores everyday. Hearing about people losing their jobs and their homes, while I continued to work as normal. I started to worry my parents or brother would catch COVID and that I would be halfway around the world, unable to say goodbye if the worst nightmare came true. I had called my dad to ask if he thought I should go home, and he said with such intensity that I should stay in Taiwan, where it is safe to go out and eat at restaurants, where I can work, where I can live normally.  

It seems cruel and selfish to feel sad about my safe and healthy situation in Taiwan when so many people have been through much worse. I didn’t realize how much I would feel isolated and alienated from the rest of the world, but in a completely different way than others have been alienated and isolated by lockdowns and quarantines. When talking to friends back home, we sometimes have little to say, because their life has remained in the bubble of working from home, while I have traveled throughout Taiwan. We are cautious and careful here, but because everyone complied with government safety and prevention measures, life has continued essentially as normal, just with more masks.

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