Connecting Two Countries Through The World Wide Web - Bridgitt Ku '21

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Before the pandemic started, I had plans to spend the fall semester of my senior year in Taipei, Taiwan, studying in an intensive Chinese language program. I was only five when I moved from Taiwan to North Carolina with my mom and sister, returning during the summer every one or two years to visit my dad. During those visits, my interactions in Taiwan and knowledge of the country were constrained by the short nature of my visits and the attention span I held as a child. Therefore, this study abroad experience was meant to “connect me to my roots,” and I was devastated when the program was ultimately cancelled. Thankfully, an opportunity opened up when all my classes moved online for the semester and my dual citizenship allowed me entry into Taiwan’s borders. 

For the past few months, I have been living in my hometown of Taichung. Although it is not a traditional study abroad experience, this semester has offered me the rare flexibility to make this international adventure my own. I meet weekly with a Chinese tutor who is able to tailor our conversations to my skill level, introducing advanced words, phrases, and cultural anecdotes that I may not have learned in a traditional class setting with other students. Although the 13-hour time difference was an adjustment, I have been able to stay connected with LSP through virtual whole groups, cohort get-togethers, and meetings with my mentee Bryant who is also social distancing outside of Charlotte. At the same time, I am progressing my civic engagement project virtually, meeting weekly with Dr. Smith to discuss my independent study on Chinese Americans in the South. I have been able to traverse the beautiful and majestic areas of Taiwan that I had not previously explored by hiking Yushan, the highest peak in Taiwan, scuba diving near Liuqiu Island, and taking surf lessons in Kenting. The length of this stay has also allowed me to reconnect with family members that I had not seen in sixteen years and celebrate important holidays such as the Mid-Autumn Festival. 

At the time of this post, the entire country of Taiwan has documented a little over 700 total COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Compared to the five months that I spent in lockdown in the U.S., the difference in pandemic response between the Taiwanese and U.S. governments has been jarring. After the 2003 SARS pandemic shook the nation, the Taiwanese government was proactive in its containment of COVID-19, enacting strict border control measures, performing rigorous contact tracing, and alerting citizens early on to a possible pandemic. Upon my arrival in the country, I was required to quarantine for 14 days, staying in a state-subsidized quarantine hotel, and given a care package filled with a thermometer, face masks, and ramen. Through a portal in the communication app LINE, there was a daily mandatory form for me to log my temperature and symptoms, and a representative from the public health department called me daily to check-in for updates. The fine for breaking quarantine is steep at NT$100,000 (or ~$3,500 USD) and strictly enforced. Although Taiwan is now operating normally with businesses opened to full capacity, a level of caution continues to exist. Mask-wearing has been a common courtesy in Taiwan even before the pandemic, and its use continues to be encouraged and sometimes enforced in public spaces. There are temperature check and hand sanitizer stations at the entrances of malls, government buildings, and some restaurants. Most importantly, the sense of collective duty and respect for the elderly that is prevalent in Taiwanese culture has cultivated unity across political divides in the attitude of both the government and its citizens towards pandemic prevention.

Publicly excluded on the international stage, Taiwan’s COVID-19 response has given the nation a rare voice and spotlight. Since the beginning of quarantine when I gave a detailed breakdown of each meal delivered to my hotel room, I have been sharing the details of my travels on social media with friends and strangers who have had little to no previous exposure to Taiwanese culture. I will forever be grateful for this precious opportunity to promote awareness about Taiwan - a country that I hold dear to my heart.