UNITED AIRLINES, FLIGHT 872 — Six hours from the US coast, and our flight has been turbulent. More turbulent than normal. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of what I can expect when I land.
Rewinding 48 hours ago, and I was preparing for Jaime to arrive in Taipei. We’re a few weeks into the semester at NCCU, and it was time for a planned vacation. A Fulbright conference collaboration with China, Hong Kong, and Macau had been cancelled and as a result, I had a few more days break. Jaime was already awake, and getting read to head to the airport.
And then? The letter came. The letter above.
I’ve read it over and over again, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.
I’m not sure how I feel about the chaos and panic of home compared to the calm and organization in Taiwan. So many have been affected by COVID-19, and so many deserve strong and decisive action.
As with so many others, 2020 has been profoundly surreal—for me, for us, for all.
I arrived in Taiwan at the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. I marveled at the news and I was insanely curious to understand what was happening around me. In some ways, live in Taipei was not so different. I’d been here before, and the city was its usual self: buzz and bluster, with packed markets and smiling faces. The smell of stinky tofu and the hum of the metro system.
Some things were different, of course. The smell of disinfectant often hung in the air, and faces masks were near ubiquitous. Public health announcements hung like movie posters. In a densely crowded city, folks went about their business, but they kept their distance from one another. Just a little bit. I couldn’t go to a pub without having my temperature checked.
As COVID-19 grew, so did the Taiwanese response. Quick and decisive action to close schools and delay the start of the academic calendar—K through college, and beyond. Enforcing quarantines and communicating threat so that those (including myself) can engage in social distancing. Pulling back on public events and otherwise asking folks to stay calm, stay informed, and stay safe.
Despite living in a country with deep cultural ties to China and during the Lunar New Year, Taiwan remained strong. Safe. Caring. Compassionate. Smart.
Over the last few months, emails and messages came in from friends from back home and elsewhere, asking if I was okay. I was touched with the concern, and I was proud to reassure them that I was fine. Daily temperature screenings. Thermal scanners on campus. Never more than a few hours go by without being doused in disinfectant. I’ve never been more clean, more sanitary, and more aware of my health—I’ve even managed to lose about 20 pounds, with a good mix of ready access to fresh produce and clean air for which to run in, by the river.
And now? I find myself on a steel tube, coming home to uncertainly and disorder. Coming home to a disorganized and opaque leadership. Coming home to those on social media who still believe that COVID-19 is a “media invention” and will “ be damned if they’ll be told to socially distant.” Coming home to anger, aggression, and downright hostility. Coming home to politicians eager to score points points on the lives of thousands, likely tens of thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands. Coming home to individuals—including neighbors, family, and elected officials—who will reject these critiques and insist that it’s all a clever hoax, and do so with foolish pride. Coming home to academic colleagues (not at Texas Tech, I should say) more upset about the added labor of moving their courses online, than understanding that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
This is a moment in our collective human history that commands our joint and individual respect. I sorely hope that we’re able to provide it—to ourselves, to each other, to our Fourth Estate, and to COVID-19. If we cannot be united for a greater good now, I fear that we cannot ever be reunited.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep my Fulbright going. I’ll be live-streaming from my West Texas office back to my two NCCU courses, Monday and Wednesday nights from 8pm to 11pm—that’s how I’ll stay in-sync with local Taipei time to avoid disruptions for students. They’ll still head to class in Da Yong Hall, and I’ll dial in for our weekly chats. COVID-19 had already forced much of our data collections online and we’ll continue with those also—I’m quite excited about some of the work that we’ll be doing, perhaps coming to a conference or a journal near you. =)
Beyond all of this? I’m largely “off” social media these days, and instead engaging with my close family and friends to check in on them. I never thought I’d say it, but I feel a profound sadness. I should state here that my beef is not with a technology that amplifies the voices of the few to allow them to the many—indeed, the age of information and social networks fascinates me a levels that I still do not comprehend.
My beef is with the voices themselves.
My hope is that those voices are attached to humans, which are attached to souls.
And that those souls, still hope to understand each other.
COVID-19 will ripple through generations. The best we can do now is wash our hands and give each other some space.