My grandfather’s story fascinated me when I was a child. I felt sad for him—I couldn’t imagine being permanently separated from my family. And, with age, that sadness transformed into deep grief as I recognized that my grandfather had spent his entire life shouldering this quiet, boundless pain. But I felt something else, too: an irrational terror that the same thing could happen to me. Over the years, this fear was quelled by an understanding that, unlike my grandfather, I lived in relatively stable and peaceful conditions, that there was no way that what had happened to him in China in the late ’40s could happen to me. But now I’ve found myself in a collective nightmare.
I moved to Taiwan several years ago for a Fulbright. Because the bulk of my family is now back in the U.S., I divide my time between the two countries, spending several months of the year in New York and New Jersey with my family or attending work-related events. In early March, shortly before the coronavirus started to dominate national headlines, I flew to San Antonio to attend a writing conference, and planned to spend the following week visiting family before finally returning to Taiwan. But then things in the U.S. changed rapidly. Within days of my arrival in New York, both the NBA and Broadway shut down, and by the weekend, the number of confirmed cases in the city alone had exploded.
Read: My whole household has COVID-19
I started checking my flight status and Taiwan’s CDC site obsessively. I knew there was a possibility that my flight would be canceled or that Taiwan would bar Americans from entering as a preventative measure; it had already restricted travelers from China, Hong Kong, and Macau months earlier because of COVID-19. And yet, even as I fretted, a part of me wondered: Wouldn’t it be a good thing to be trapped here? Shouldn’t I hunker down and weather this storm with my family?
Still, the rational part of my brain thought I should go back to Taiwan if I could. After all, I had a life to return to—I had relationships I cared about, plants to water, a baby goddaughter I missed, and a class I had promised to teach. To stay in the U.S. for an unknown stretch of time meant feeling unmoored, anxious about what was happening here but also about all I had left behind. The other reason, perhaps, was a need for some sense of control. The part of me that had learned to ignore my anxious, overzealous imagination did not want my worst fears to win; maybe proceeding as planned was one way to deny they could.
In the week leading up to my flight, I lay awake at night, my skin bathed in cold sweat, my chest tight, light-headed and unable to swallow ( yes, I did worry that I had contracted COVID-19). My mind conjured up the worst: I would leave and borders everywhere would close; my mother would fall sick and I wouldn’t be able to return to her side; the world’s infrastructure would collapse and I’d never be able to speak to my family again. The possibilities nauseated me.