11 May 2020
“The customers clean the tables for me,” says the owner of an eatery in Taitung, a southeastern city of Taiwan.
As the virus spreads through most areas of Taiwan, Taitung remains a city that has not yet reported any cases of infection. Attracting both domestic and overseas tourists, Taitung is renowned for its natural scenery and relaxing atmosphere due to the low population density. Since the Taiwan Centers of Disease Control (CDC) strongly advises people not to travel abroad during the epidemic, Taitung has now become one of the most popular tourist attractions for people within Taiwan.
“Local people here are very frightened when tourists flood to Taitung on vacations,” the owner continues. “We are afraid of cluster infections. Originally we were not that aware of the virus, because the population here is not that dense compared to other cities. However, after 120,000 people crowded into Taitung during the four-day vacation at the beginning of April, we became very aware of the pandemic. My eatery, for example, has switched to disposable chopsticks and bowls in order to lower the chance of transmission. The numbers of customers are obviously decreasing, and many of those who still come to eat here bring alcohol sanitizer themselves, and they spray it on the tables right after they sit down.
“So the tables are exceptionally clean now,” the owner jokes. “They are sanitized twice, once by me and once by the customers!”
In order to go on a writing retreat and to temporarily get away from the stressful atmosphere in Taipei during the pandemic, I traveled to Taitung for a week. I actually was surprised at the owner’s observation. For me, since I was not a local, Taitung made me feel less anxious about the virus. I am used to not seeing faces on the streets of Taipei—people are always wearing masks no matter what on public transportation or in public spaces. However, things were different in Taitung. I met people “face to face,” whether they were owners of eateries, servers at cafes, or people at the beaches. They didn’t wear masks, and they greeted me with smiles. As a solo traveler, I felt warm when seeing these smiles. I never thought that I would feel this way simply upon seeing people’s faces. Living in Taipei, the city with the highest population density in Taiwan, I’ve grown accustomed to wearing masks and seeing others with masks. I believe that masks make us safe, just as stated in the instructions from the Taiwan CDC. What I never expected was that we would exchange our sense of human warmth for safety. Unconsciously, people have become alienated from each other because we don’t see each other’s faces. In a city like Taipei, a person’s facial expression is always cold and dim regardless; but we have even lost that coldness. What we have left is emptiness and sameness. There is no longer any facial expression, not even an indifferent face, and every face looks exactly the same—differing only by the various colors of surgical masks distributed by the government.
One early morning during my stay in Taitung, I strolled to the seaside to watch the sunrise. For over two weeks, the graphical curve of the infection statistics have been significantly lowering and flattening. After coming back from my trip, I walk on the streets in Taipei, and I notice that there are more and more people who are not wearing masks. When I connect to social media, I find that there are fewer and fewer posts about the virus. It seems as if the pandemic is coming to an end—just like that early morning in Taitung, the orange-red light of dawn has finally overwhelmed the benighted sea and gloomy sky.
Hsin-Hui Lin is a Ph.D. student at the National Chengchi University Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature. Her research concerns the relationship between literary texts and ecological and technological humanities. Hsin-Hui’s MA thesis The Cyborg Reading of Contemporary Taiwanese Literature received the 2017 Annual MA Thesis Award of the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature. She once worked as editor at Unitas Literary, one of the major literary magazines in Taiwan. As a fiction writer, she has won several literary awards in Taiwan for her short stories. Her short story collection Human Glitches 《瑕疵人型》is forthcoming in Chinese in June 2020.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.