Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Monday, May 26, 2003

SARS Conspiracy Theories

Most mysterious tragic losses of human life bring forth conspiracy theories.

The first that I've heard of is that SARS might have been caused by accidental leakage of China's biochemical weapons currently underdevelopment. Scary... that could offer some disturbing insights into the Chinese government's whole handling of this situation.

The second is that the SARS virus may have come from outer space . When I first heard about this theory I almost rolled on the floor in laughter and simply thought: Oh my g-- We are being invaded by aliens. Our lives are in danger... the universe is at stake... it's the end of the world.

Makes for a good sci-fi story tho'... bioterrorism from outer space....

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Like an overloaded hard drive, spinning in an infinite loop, a day feels like a week- long exhaustion. Mundane situations expend nervous energy in the confines of my mind. High density multiplies the intensity. Inverse proportions of energy are expended on the trivial. Narrowing walls and halls of thought. Out of control, over alert or necessary precautions? Conformity, complacency, carelessness, or rational balance of risks?
Not a day goes by without thought or mention of SARS. It’s a topic that weighs heavy on our hearts and minds and one that we cannot be rid of in our waking moments because we know that there’s an invisible enemy out there that poses an eminent threat to our physical health. SARS is eroding our social interactions and endangering our psychological health. SARS patients and their relatives are being isolated and alienated by quarantine measures. Others under any sort of suspicion, founded or not, are being ostracized by the uninfected community, who do not want to risk contraction. People are so paralyzed by fear of the unknown, it seems that they have forgotten that at any time, anyone of us could fall victim to this frightening disease. We are all at risk.

We have already seen how one person’s lack of social responsibility or understanding of the virus can quickly and unwittingly put others at risk. Accepting our social responsibility is not negotiable. In the case of SARS, the simple actions of an individual can equally endanger or safeguard the health of others. It is important that we put aside our self-interests in thinking how our lives will be inconvenienced by quarantine measures for a few weeks or even months, when countless lives are at stake. We all have the power to fight this.

People have responded to SARS with hyper-vigilant, self-defensive measures, self-
imposed isolation, selfishness, distrust of others, a sense of hopelessness or worse yet complete denial. My concern is that we do not let SARS break our human spirit and hope, leading us into hopelessness and denial. We cannot let this virus defeat us. It is my strong desire to make some small contribution in the fight against SARS. Work needs to be done to reinforce our social responsibility and to heal the wounds of an alienated nation. We need to find a way for common citizens to make a difference in the fight against SARS.

I believe that it’s time for us to reach our to our neighbors, to extend our goodwill and support to the innocent victims of SARS, specifically, those under quarantine. So much focus has been on how to keep more people from getting infected. This has led to hostile divisions and distrust in the population. Ironically, much of the solution to this epidemic lies with those who are already infected. These people are our unsung heroes, sacrificing their freedom for the safety of others; they are now living in fear and uncertainty. In their desperate time of need we should give them our support, encouragement and above all, appreciation. The significance of their contributions to the fight against SARS should not be underestimated. And likewise, we should not underestimate the power of positive reinforcement, simple understanding and personalized human contact.

I would like to give hope, meaning and purpose to quarantined patients by offering words of encouragement and appreciation in the form of a daily phone call or card. My vision is that either 1) a nation wide campaign be launched, mobilizing the entire population or that 2) a task force of volunteers be formed to participate in such an effort. The purpose of the task force would be simple and specific: to deliver affirming, positive messages of acknowledgement and appreciation to people under quarantine, whose actions, have saved our lives and the lives of so many others. This is the key element- that volunteers are the ones who initiate contact with the sole purpose of encouraging those under quarantine. The volunteers will not be expected or allowed to counsel SARS patients- that is a matter best left to mental health professionals or SARS telephone hotline, nor will volunteers be expected to offer other forms personal assistance. If the need arises, perhaps referrals to other volunteer organizations offering personal assistance services could be provided if needed.

In practicality, I’m not really sure how feasible this project really is, especially with regard to obtaining personal phone numbers or even addresses. And of course there’s the obstacle of language; my language proficiency is not strong enough, especially not in written form. At least, I’m sure that somehow I could get letters or cards of encouragement and support mailed to hospitals or centers where SARS patients are being quarantined.

I just had a great idea! I know that among my advanced English students - that some have done charitable work with orphanages and nursing homes… I’m going to ask them to lend me a hand with this project. I think that we can start drafting some Chinese language form letters for people to sign as a show of support, or they (the letters) can serve as a model for people to write their own letters, or perhaps we can even make cards or a large card for several students to sign.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

Why have I become so paranoid about SARS? It’s not that I’m a hypochondriac. In fact, I’m usually not that quick to go to the doctor and I don’t like taking medication. Even when my allergies are at their worst, I resist taking my antihistamines on a daily basis because I don’t want to become dependent on them, or for my body to become too accustomed to any one medication, thereby rendering the medication ineffective.

The crux of it is the fear of the unknown and the lack of control-not simply because there’s so much uncertainty and contradictory information, but mainly because SARS is a public safety and community health matter. Much of the unknown depends on the behavior and ethics of other people. People are the key to curbing the spread. I just don’t trust that people in Taiwan are properly safeguarding themselves not only for their own sake, but for the sake of others. And from what I’ve seen so far- I really wonder about Taiwanese people’s sense of social responsibility. There have been many cases of people either diagnosed with SARS or SARS-like symptoms who have been ordered to undergo home quarantine, only to disobey by traveling to another part of Taiwan, to continue working, to show up for a class or examination, and the list goes on… How safe can we feel or how much can we trust the general public if we can’t even trust health care professionals to make appropriate decisions? An ear, nose, throat doctor returned to his private practice disobeying orders to quarantine all Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital employees. The only thing I can say in this doctor’s defense is- we don’t really know the complete circumstances or reasons that compelled him to go back to his clinic to see patients.

Friday, May 02, 2003

It FINALLY got published!

My letter in response to the Hidden Minority in the Taipei Times FINALLY got published- even though I emailed my letter a day after the article appeared on March 30. I almost didn't even know that it got published! I had given up any hope of it getting published. Then one day when I was in the office of the English department at the college, one of my fellow teachers mentioned that he had read my letter, and the original article that I wrote in response to. It turns out that he's a pretty avid reader of the Taipei Times. Well I was speechless and embarrassed that I didn't know what he was talking about. LOL! My excuse is that it was midterm week and since I was swamped, I hadn't read the paper during those past few days. Fortunately, I subscribe to the Taipei Times, so I was able to look through recent copies and find it.

It's too bad that my letter wasn't published as promptly as I had responded. I wonder if my point got dilluted by the delay in publishing. Who would remember or even know what I was referring to almost a month later?! Guess the War on Iraq took precedence in the newspaper's reporting (in late March/early April) and the publishing of my letter was preempted. I posted my letter to the editor on this blog on March 31, but it always looks better in official print .

Friday, May 2, 2003

Almost overnight I noticed the change. Last night I was IM ing a friend in Taipei. Apparently Taipei is in a mass pandemonium after the case of Hoping hospital . At office buildings, sports clubs and other public places, they’ve begun measuring the temperature of everyone and anyone prior to admitting them. If you weren’t already paranoid about getting SARS- you will be after having your temperature taken five times a day and after the constant bombardment of news. They haven’t taken any such drastic measures here in Kaohsiung yet, I told her. But I did notice that since late February/March, bus drivers have taken to wearing face masks to cover their nose and mouth. In the newspapers there are daily images of face-masked people in Hong Kong and China and of people whose work requires contact with the public.

This morning I went to the college to enter my students’ midterm grades. When I arrived by taxi, I was stopped at the front gate for mandatory temperature measurements- for myself and the taxi driver. A fever is one of the first symptoms of SARS. Later I took the bus home and immediately noticed that the normally old, worn looking buses seemed conspicuously immaculate, with the floors free of dirt and trash, the seats wiped so clean they looked shades lighter and brighter, and every other window was open- it’s sad to say that these improvements could only be attributed to desperate attempts to prevent SARS.

SARS could be anywhere- it can be transmitted by touching surfaces touched by a SARS carrier (the virus can survive on most surfaces for 3 hours), by close contact with a carrier (especially in enclosed crowded public spaces), and some SARS carriers may not even display the textbook symptoms.

Beware of public transportation, public places crowded areas, communal areas or objects, enclosed spaces with poor circulation, any objects or places in which there is high exposure to human traffic. Wash your hands frequently with soap and rub them for at least 20 minutes…Be careful when touching communal objects with your hands, don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth (all possible points of transmission). SARS is so highly contagious it’s hard to know how and when to properly protect ourselves, or who to protect ourselves against. With a disease of this nature it seems like the risk of exposure multiplies exponentially with lightening speed. It is completely mind boggling and obsessively compulsively distressing, and consuming, once you really start thinking about all the permutations and combinations.

I’m starting to succumb to sinister forces that have been gnawing away at me. Now I’m in super panic, paranoid mode, I feel threatened. I feel a heavy responsibility for my own health and the health of the people around me, especially my parents. I realize that being a teacher put me at high risk. Teachers are in a highly vulnerable position with all the students that they come in contact with- who knows where the students have been or who they’ve been in contact with… teachers are constantly in close contact with others and are exposing themselves as they speak in class, but unlike most professions, face masks aren’t an option- donning them wouldn’t be very conducive to teaching. The risk factor goes both ways- not only are teachers at a high risk, but equally dangerous is the risk to students if a teacher is a carrier. I can’t stop obsessing over this. SARS is not only a threat to our physical health but extremely crippling to the psyche- it feeds and ferments hopelessness, desperation, and our hypochondriac tendencies. Is it a losing battle? We can’t completely avoid going out in public. Will we grow weary and wonder if the precautions that we are taking protecting us at all? Are we being taken hostage by all of these preventative measures and the media’s reporting?
My head has been spinning overtime as I struggle- recently a wrench has been thrown into my plans. Lately, so many things that I had planned on have fallen through, leading me to reluctantly reassess my game plan. Timing has conspired against me and my diligent efforts as a dedicated teacher have fallen on the blind. I recently discovered that although I applied for a full-time teaching position at the college where I've taught for almost 2 academic years- I'm not even being considered as a candidate for a full-time position. Why? Because I don't have a PhD. The college (which I will graciously not name) where I've taught specializes in preparing students for the hospitality industry (i.e. airline, culinary arts, hotel management, tourism), and it's planning to become a university. Is this necessary I ask? Is it necessary for students in these fields to obtain bachelor degrees or even master degrees? In Taiwan, for schools to qualify as a university they must employ a certain percentage of PhDs. It's a strange phenomenon sweeping the country. It seems that every other technical college is vying to become a university. Sometimes I think that Taiwan has a case of education inflation. It's been said that Taiwan has an unusually high number of PhDs per capita. A PhD is becoming a minimum requirement for teaching at most secondary institutions. I don't question the necessity of having instructors with PhDs in secondary institutions, but it depends on the type of secondary institution (technical college or university) and the subject matter. As one of my British friends who's a business English teacher aptly put it, "It doesn't even matter what you have a PhD in, if you have a PhD in Hello Kitty you're hired." He's seen people from Russia or the Philippines (non native English speakers no less!) with PhD's in engineering or other diverse subjects being hired to teach business English. Having a PhD seems to supersede other basic criteria such as teaching ability, or experience related to the teaching subject matter. Certainly, having a PhD does not necessarily make someone an effective, personable teacher, and where teaching English as a foreign language is concerned, the teacher's interaction with students is of paramount importance.

All of the current full-time English teachers at the college only have master degrees with the exception of the newest one, who has a PhD and was hired last semester to oversee the English department's curriculum. So it's my misfortune that the college has now decided that they will only consider PhDs for open teaching positions. I suppose that in these tough times of late, many of us have learned in one way or another, that diligence and hard work doesn't necessarily ensure job security.

The sense of purpose and level of satisfaction that I gain from teaching has been marginalized... I feel like a pawn. There's no incentive, and a feeling of being unappreciated; I think I've let these feelings of hopelessness overflow into other parts of my life- feeling stagnant, unmotivated, uncreative and uncertain. What motivates me now in my teaching is the sense of responsibility I have for my students' education, otherwise I'm beginning to lose my balance and sense of purpose in my life.

I've been overwhelmed by a sea of self-doubt with waves of uncertainty and indecisiveness. Being in Taiwan in the past year and a half has certainly allowed me to clarify many of my personal goals and future plans. I wonder if this is a sign that I'm meant to leave Taiwan sooner than planned (i.e. by year's end), or if I've accomplished what I've set out to accomplish in Taiwan. Will I have any regrets when I leave Taiwan? How much longer should I stay? Should I accept a similar full-time teaching job in Kaohsiung or start over and look for other work and/or move to Taipei? Am I postponing the pursuit of certain future plans (to be sought in Canada and the U.S.)? Is the timing right for me to return to the U.S.? I'm losing sight of what it is I wish to accomplish?