January, A Year Ago and Today
About a year ago, I stepped on a plane to Taipei to vote in my first Taiwan presidential election. My Taiwanese ancestors, ruled over by successive colonizers, were never allowed to choose their leaders. Even my father could not vote until he was middle-aged. Voting is very important to the elders in my family. I felt it was high-time I appreciated exercising a right that my forebears never had and that many Taiwanese died for. Of course, last year was also a presidential election year for America. I had an idea then, back in January 2020, that I might write a book about my experience framed through a Taiwanese American lens, comparing Taiwan and US elections.
I flew to Taiwan on January 8, 2020 and voted on January 11. Incumbent 蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén (Tsai Ing-wen) won by a historic landslide. As I’ve written before, it thrilled me that the first time I voted for a Taiwan president was for a woman, of partial Aboriginal descent no less, something I’ve never had the opportunity to do in the place where I was born and raised. I was feeling all the things and felt sure I had cooked up a potentially great book idea. Little did I know what the year ahead was about to bring.
On January 13, while I was still in Taiwan, the first case of coronavirus was confirmed outside China, in Thailand. On January 16, I flew home to Seattle, Washington, absorbed with my ideas and somewhat inattentive to the headlines that the new virus was spreading around the world. Four days later, on January 20, the first COVID-19 case in the US was recorded in Washington, in the county just next to where I live. The day after–but really the same day because of time difference–the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Taiwan. From that point forward, the two countries couldn’t have followed more different trajectories. Whatever I had thought I was going to write about vaporized in an instant.
I will never forget those first eight months of the pandemic living in the US, watching terrified as leadership fumbled and we became the worst hit country in the world. Moreover, I was living in the first state to record a COVID-19 case, working as a community photographer and journalist. While others were locked down, I was still out in community, documenting and writing about the devastating impacts of the virus on everyday people. Then, in fall 2020, I was blessed to be able to bring my son to Taiwan to live for the school year (thanks to the foresight of my A-kong who got me a Taiwan passport decades ago, when I was myself a child). Moving from the country with one of the worst Covid responses to a country with one of the best Covid responses worldwide was a shock. As the pandemic has raged on these last five months since I moved, the contrast between the US and Taiwan has not once ceased to amaze me.
Women-helmed nations like Taiwan have led some of the best efforts to combat the virus (I wrote about this previously) which has resulted in much better longterm outcomes for their countries. By the end of October 2020, for instance, Taiwan had clocked 200 days without community transmission. That virus-free streak ended in December when the first locally transmitted case in eight months showed up here. But since then, Taiwan has continued to address new cases immediately with robust contact tracing, enforcing quarantines, doubling down on travel restrictions, disseminating lots of information to the public, etc. At the time of writing, Taiwan has still only seen a total of 895 cases and 7 deaths, compared to America’s 25.6 million cases and 429,000 deaths. Remember both countries recorded their first cases around the same time.
This month, America finally inaugurated a new president and the first woman of color vice president in US history. Thankfully, the new administration (unlike the previous administration) takes COVID-19 seriously and has hit the ground running with a serious pandemic response and vaccination plan. When I talk to my friends, family, and community back home, I see them smile for better times ahead, but I also see their sad, tired eyes, and the lines on their faces. After 4 years of turmoil, devastation, and deepened divides under the previous administration, culminating in the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, a lot of us are hopeful, but a lot of us also feel pretty beat up and just plain exhausted.
Meanwhile, here in Taiwan, life is fairly normal. Kids go to school, adults go to work, businesses are open. People go out on the weekends and vacation during holidays. Taiwanese people have asked me what it’s like in the US and if I know anyone who’s had Covid. When I answer the pandemic has been a nightmare and I know many people who’ve had Covid, they are astonished and can’t imagine what that must be like. Taiwan was just announced one of top three countries in the world for successful pandemic responses, ranked third behind New Zealand and Vietnam, with a score of 86.4. The US was at the bottom of the list with a score of 17.3.
And the book I was so sure I was going to write last January? Well, I try to write as often as possible but frankly am not sure what story I’m trying to tell now. Looking back, I can’t help shaking my head in disbelief. Living the first stages of the pandemic in the worst affected nation, moving suddenly to a country with one of the best pandemic responses worldwide, all during a historic presidential election year for both nations… I imagine I’m going to need more hindsight, a lot more hindsight, before I can weave that one together.
Feature image: Tsai Ing-wen rally, shot January 2020
© 2021 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫