Here in Taiwan I don’t have a personal vehicle, so I usually take the bus or call a taxi. My parents don’t drive so they have found a few “regular” taxi drivers to take them on their daily errands to and from work. I sometimes use their “regular” taxi driver, who I will call Mr. Z, if I’m in a pinch or the bus is too inconvenient. Back in mid-May, when SARS was at its height, public buildings and schools began taking people’s temperatures before admitting anyone onto or into their premises. As we all well know, unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, the first symptom of SARS is usually a fever defined as over 38 degrees Celsius. On a routine pick up from the college where both my father and I teach, our regular taxi driver’s temperature was measured at 38 degrees- the magic number that triggers fear, suspicion, despair, isolation … he was immediately advised to go to a nearby hospital for treatment and asked to report to us on his condition.
At that time most common knowledge about SARS was somewhat ambiguous and unconfirmed. We knew that SARS could survive at both high and low temperatures, but seemed to survive longer at cold temperatures. I had read that the virus could last up to 3 days in refrigeration! I had heard that SARS didn’t survive well in high temperatures, so as the summer progressed the virus would probably wane. There were theories that the virus thrived in enclosed areas, therefore enclosed public spaces were to be avoided and people were encouraged improve room air circulation by using fans and opening their windows instead of using air conditioning. People were encouraged to wear masks in enclosed public areas such as office buildings, department stores, etc. What was known was not yet conclusively proved, so it was hard to decide what was mere conjecture, prudent suggestion or theory.
Needless to say, we called another taxi to drive us home. It was the most physically and emotionally tense taxi ride I’ve ever experienced. I sat stiffly in the back seat trying not to touch anything, donning a mask, windows rolled down, wind blowing my hair all about and into my face, my mind was racing I didn’t even know to feel, I began wondering how many people had sat in this particular cab today, if any one had coughed, sneezed or left behind any other human secretions carrying the invisible enemy we could not escape by will, if fate should dictate otherwise. I wondered if I was now a carrier, what traces I might possibly leave behind for some unfortunate, unsuspecting victim. A sense of doom was looming- the sky outside even began to look overcast and gloomy, but it was probably just a sign that the sun had set. The traffic seemed thicker than usual and it was- since we left later than usual and had now hit rush hour. Glancing at the meter as it jumped gave me no comfort since it just reminded me how much longer this ride was going to take and how much more it would cost. Traffic was at a stand still.
All of us, my parents and I had ridden in Mr. Z’s taxi that day. We were stupefied, but soon moved into action. We took showers and put the clothes we had worn that day into the wash. My father called Mr. Z’s wife to advise her of the situation, and to ask if she had heard from Mr. Z since he went to the hospital. My mother began calling our family doctors for advice. A few hours later, Mr. Z called and reported that he had had a blood test at the hospital revealing that he didn’t have SARS. It was a moment of relief, but we still weren’t out of the woods, since we had heard that the incubation period for SARS was said to be 3-5 days.
So as an extra precautionary measure my parents and I decided to impose home quarantine on ourselves. During that time we would minimize our contacts with others and sad to say, in time we’d be able to see if our driver Mr. Z developed SARS- a prime indicator for us.
So for one week I faced the demons, uncertainty and fragility of life that SARS had awakened for me. It was a waiting game, but a welcome diversion in away because I had become so exhausted mentally and physically by going out into the SARS battlefield. This whole experience forced me to evaluate the downward spiral I’d been experiencing lately. How did my outlook here in Taiwan change so drastically since the beginning of the semester? When I returned in February, so many things seemed possible. I had great hope, optimism, opportunities seemed abound, I had a plan; I had goals.
I had applied for a full-time teaching position at the hospitality college where I had been teaching for nearly 2 years, begun working on writing an English textbook, toyed with enrolling in an English Literature degree program at a university in Kaohsiung (just for fun, because the requirements were so minimal for someone like me- a foreign educated, native English speaker), planned to take more Chinese language courses and was considering go to Taipei to look for other work if I wasn’t able to secure a full-time teaching position at a college. Then, like dominoes, so many of these ideas started tumbling down in April when the full-time position at the hospitality college didn’t pan out, and the English textbook project was abandoned since the textbook was specifically suited to students at the hospitality college. I began to question my purpose here and what I hoped to accomplish- enrolling in a degree here was just another reason, or well disguised “productive” excuse for prolonging my stay here. Learning for leisure is one thing, but if I go for another degree it will something that is focused necessary for a particular goal or career objective and I realized that I was reaching for reasons to stay.
Maybe it was bad timing, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. In a way I had no specific, future direction, I wondered what my purpose had been in coming to Taiwan again, now I found myself seeking justifications for staying in Taiwan for another year. A year ago, a voice inside me had said one more year- and if you don’t get a full-time teaching job at the hospitality college, maybe it’s a sign. It’ll be a time for reevaluation.
Even before SARS hit I was beginning to wonder where I was going. Doubts and questions began surfacing and when SARS hit, it became all the more apparent, I began to feel even more isolated as I limited my social interactions and outings, avoided public spaces and mass transit. My frustrations rose when I witnessed Taiwanese people’s the lack of social responsibility and conscience- they didn’t seem able or willing to contain the spread of SARS… selfishly focusing on safeguarding themselves by ostracizing those in their community who were inflicted with SARS, breaking home quarantine rules, and record numbers of health care workers quit their jobs. There were even DOCTORS with SARS symptoms, who disregarded quarantine orders or did not voluntarily quarantine themselves, and instead they went back to work or traveling The SARS problem requires coordinated effort and forthrightness of people in society. In this right, many people in Taiwan have failed- by not taking SARS seriously, not taking proper precautions for themselves and others, not properly reporting their symptoms, not reporting their previous whereabouts, and not erring on the side of caution. It drove me crazy to think that my health was put at risk by all of this random behavior. The government hasn’t done much better. I began to realize that I was not really committed or obligated to stay here when I began to wonder why I had to put up with all of this. That I didn’t have to put up with all of this. If I were living in NY in a heightened state of terrorist alert, I don’t think I would have reacted this way. I would have found some way to manage the hardship. I would have had more faith in American society and the government. And I did feel it when I was in New York- the new feeling of togetherness among New Yorkers sharing in their vulnerability.