Originally, I’d planned to spend the March break snoozing in my dorm room, watering my suitemate’s plants in the common room and perhaps catching up on my studying. For reasons which we are all too familiar with, I actually spent my spring break holed up in a Holiday Inn in Massachusetts, pretending to exercise by walking around and around two rooms and subsisting off of endless bags of Trader Joe’s chicken potstickers.
Watching TV became a more stressful experience by the day, and my belated discovery of Librex, the Reddit-like app for Yale students, did not help me relax. In the end, my mom (who was originally visiting to see friends and was now on a rescue mission for her daughter) and I left to go back home to Taiwan on the very last day we could, before EVA Air (Taiwan’s national airline) closed all incoming flights from America.
The five or so hours to the JFK Airport were eerie. Over the span of two short weeks, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to have changed everything about life in America. Hand sanitizer shortages. Mask shortages. Toilet paper shortages. Road traffic seemed throttled, and even the trees looked more dead than normal. An advertisement on the radio invited listeners to come eat out at Chili’s, which sounded more like a cheap high school prank than an actual manifestation of capitalism. Even a simple stop at a gas station for a banana seemed to be tempting fate.
The airport was composed of a sea of masks (admittedly, we were also wearing two masks at once, and gloves, and glasses just in case coronavirus particles could float up and into our eyeballs). We got in line for check-in and waited alongside similarly gloved and masked silent passengers. I saw some people wearing laboratory goggles and at least one person wearing some kind of full-body suit with a helmet, like an astronaut. The wailing of a cat in the background completed the soundtrack to this real-life disaster movie.
Suitcases, wrapped in a kind of blue plastic covering (an ingenious new service peddled at the airport doors. I’m not sure whether or not they actually did anything, but the coronavirus can survive on almost any surface, I suppose), trundled down the line and we went to wait for our plane. I checked social media through the transparent film of the Ziploc bag in which my phone was temporarily being stored.
Being on the airplane was, next to waiting for pneumothorax surgery, the most harrowing 16 hours of my life. I was afraid to breathe, afraid to take my hands out of the cheap gloves I was wearing (somehow, the inside of the gloves turned into some kind of white powder that dusted every inch of both of my hands. I think it was fine.) despite how sweaty they were getting. There are few sensations worse than the feeling of your gloves getting more and more uncomfortable because they were not made for prolonged use, but you’re worried that if you take them out, you’ll catch the coronavirus!
My textbook dropped to the floor of the plane; I pondered for a moment whether or not there could then be coronavirus residue on it.
Making it back to Taiwan was a relief, considering we hadn’t eaten or used the bathroom for the duration of the flight. It was still a minor hassle to figure out the electronic health form all arrivals into Taiwan had to complete. The information you put on there (your address, phone number, email) would be used to help the government monitor you as you were placed under a mandatory two-week quarantine.
Finally, we were back home. Our key (wisely and safely left in the mailbox) wouldn’t open the house, so I squeezed in through the unlocked kitchen window (and tried not to think too hard about how easy it was to break into my own house) to open the house from the inside.
The quarantine itself was uneventful; I ate lots of instant noodles, walked up and down the stairs for “exercise,” and observed the growth of my plant (I have no idea what species it is. It is twice as tall as I am. It is going to hit the ceiling soon. I do not know what I or it is going to do about that). I played a bit of VAMPYR, a video game set during the Spanish Flu, and had an experience with it much altered from pre-coronavirus times.
As of now, I am unquarantined, and the Taiwanese government will not bring the force of its legal system against me if I leave my house for too long or go too far.
Still, everything has changed. The world feels less like reality, and more like a novel or a TV show of some kind. Last weekend, the police called to give us a friendly reminder that the majority of quarantine-breakers got fined for leaving their houses on the last days, in the last hours even, of their quarantines, because they longed so much for freedom and when it drew close they couldn’t resist anymore. Listening to that felt so… literary.
It’s hard not to think of our current situation as some kind of post-apocalyptic young adult novel. But we’re the ones writing the story. Currently, Taiwan’s been managing the pandemic with strict quarantines, early and enforced travel bans, and a culture that doesn’t look weirdly at travelers putting shower caps over their heads or wearing two masks at a time in the airport. It can seem hard, or silly, to take the steps we know we have to take (wash your hands! Social distancing! Zoom!), but all quarantines eventually end — what we’re in control of, each of us, no matter how small our individual contribution may seem, is how long it has to last.
Claire Fang | firstname.lastname@example.org