Chicken Udon Soup

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe! We haven’t been traveling much obviously, but this is the very taste of Asia in a bowl which I love. I don’t really cook Asian food very much because now that we live in Taiwan, that stuff is cheap to take out or eat at a restaurant. We do however have to pay top dollar to eat slightly sweet and not authentic western food, so that’s what I usually make at home to the way we like it. However, I did have the inspiration to make this chicken udon soup recently since I started planning meals at home, and it turned out so well I want to record it for posterity! It’s big on vegetables and taste but very light and healthy tasting. I used this recipe as a basis for it but made my own alterations.

Prep and cooking takes about 45 minutes (or the night before). Serves two generously. I don’t really measure the weight or the amount of food I prepare anymore… I just eyeball it.

Chicken thighs
One carrot
One package bok choy
Two green onions
4-6 garlic cloves
One chunk ginger
One pack of precooked udon noodles
Neutral oil (I used sunflower)
Soy sauce
Japanese rice wine or cooking wine
Dashi or miso
2 quarts chicken or veggie broth


So start with the chicken, maybe the night before. I started reading Salt Fat Acid Heat this year, have become a fervent believer in salting meat. For tough cuts of beef or pork, the night before or two days before would be great. For something like chicken thighs, don’t sweat it – salt it the night before or like I did an hour before cooking, and they still turn out even more tender and flavorful. I salted the package of chicken thighs with about a teaspoon of salt overall and then let it sit in the fridge for an hour.

Next, prep the vegetables. Peel the carrot and julienne or thinly slice them so they can cook quickly. Wash and cut the bok choy in either half or in quarters lengthwise. Finely mince the green onion and peel and slice the garlic. Ginger can be peeled and sliced into large thin slices, since you won’t be eating them directly.


Warm up a tablespoon or two of oil in your pot over a medium heat. I used a large dutch oven (just my new Le Creuset, no biggie). Next, add the chicken thighs and sear them on both sides. Then add a tablespoon each of soy sauce and rice wine. Turn the heat down to low and let the meat cook until done, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Using the same pot, directly pour in your two quarts (or thereabouts) of broth and turn up the heat to medium-high so it can boil. I use hot water pre-heated in my water kettle and add a small spoonful of Better than Bouillon to create the broth. Add a small spoonful of dashi or miso which will add a good umami flavor, and then add a little more soy sauce and stir it up until any soy sauce or anything else stuck to the bottom of the pot is dissolved into the broth.

When your broth starts to boil, you can add your vegetables: first, the garlic and ginger and carrots. Let it simmer for about 5-7 minutes and taste it so you can make sure the broth is really coming together. If it needs more flavor, add a little soy sauce or something else you prefer (like more dashi or miso). It doesn’t need to be too salty since you have the soy-sauce sauteed chicken to top things off. Next, add the bok choy or whatever other leafy vegetable you want to use and the precooked udon noodles. This can simmer for just 2-3 minutes because it takes very little time to cook. At the same time, now that your cutting board has some more space on it (if you only use one like me), go ahead and slice up the chicken thighs.

Before you put it in a bowl, taste everything to make sure it’s ready to go. The broth should be to your liking, and the carrot should be slightly tender, not crunchy. If you can find them and if the chunks aren’t too big, fish out the ginger so you don’t eat it by accident. Ladle the soup into a big bowl first before arranging the chicken on top, and finish with a handful of green onions. If you like spice, like me, you can slice up some spicy red pepper and put it in there along with the bok choy and udon noodles so it doesn’t stay in there for too long. Or just make sure you have the sriracha sauce handy. Enjoy!

Taiwanese Baby Hotels: You Can Check In Anytime You Like (And You Can Leave Too!)

This past month has been a very happy time for us. Steve and I were overjoyed to welcome our baby girl Elise into the world on May 28. While we’ve had a tiring time as new parents, the past three weeks have been much smoother for us compared to how people have it in the rest of the world for a great reason: Taiwan’s postpartum centers. We first heard about them four or five years ago from our friend Kara who stayed in one when her daughter was born. These “baby hotels” are East Asia’s 21st century way of resting and recovering during the first month of the postpartum period. I’ve had trouble finding a good explanation of these baby hotels online, so of course, I’m taking a stab at it myself.

Confinement sounds pretty scary, but this is a time-honored Chinese practice really mostly about giving mothers a chance to properly recover from childbirth. In Chinese, the term is “坐月子” which means to “sit [for the duration of] the moon” (or a month). It involves getting quality sleep, eating healthy foods that will help your uterus contract and breastmilk come in, and following hygiene guidelines that reduce your risk of getting sick. Today, these postpartum centers, also known as “moon centers” in Chinese, can feature five-star treatment, with spa treatments, deluxe rooms, and even smartphone apps with a direct webcam feed to your child’s crib in the nursery.

Taiwan is full of baby hotels of many different sizes and shapes, but they offer similar basic services: three square meals a day (and two snacks!), housekeeping, and on-demand baby care 24-7. In December and January, we toured four places, including one attached to the hospital we gave birth at. At each location, we saw the nursery where scrubs-clad nurses bustled around and washed and fed babies and visited hotel rooms, which varied from quite large to smaller than our bedroom. Once, we even sampled a meal, which had beef broth and dark green sweet potato leaves. We were looking at places that charged between $150-250 USD a night, but more deluxe places, I had heard, charged between $400-500 USD a night. People stay as little as ten days but many Taiwanese mothers do the full 30 days, so it can be a pretty penny. Some places won’t let a partner stay with you. Other places are lenient about older children visiting whenever. Some places are even going to put restrictions on when mothers can leave. With all considerations in mind, we ended up scheduling three weeks at a place in Beitou just off the MRT station, with a very large spacious room and a gorgeous view of the MRT line and mountains. As a partner, Steve stayed the entire time, and they had no restrictions on when I could leave or come back.

Though we were both excited about going to a baby hotel, I found it difficult our first week. I felt melancholy being away from home and missed our dog. Waking up during the night to do night feeds or pump felt strange. I even preferred the food at the hospital, and secretly regretted not reserving a spot at the hospital’s postpartum center (which would have been good but was definitely more pricey). A week later, we had settled into a pattern, and my milk supply came in, so Steve was able to convince me to leave Elise with the nursery overnight, and we started going out for evening walks and couple time. I have also been able to get pretty much 6 or 7 hours of sleep most nights! This last week, we have been moving into a new apartment and cleaning up our old place, so it has taken a lot of energy. Overall, the time has flown by, and tomorrow, we’re checking out of this place. I’m excited about our new apartment but also sad since it has been very relaxing here.

A day in the baby hotel starts between 6 and 8 am, when the nursery rings me to let me know Elise is awake and hungry. They wheel her over in a little movable crib, and I nurse her while sitting in an armchair in the morning sunlight, so she can get adjusted to the morning and lower her bilirubin levels. Around 8 am, breakfast arrives, and I eat after or during nursing while Steve drinks coffee. While she’s still awake, we have been able to do some video calls with the two sets of new grandparents, who are all infatuated with her. After she falls asleep, we shower and do our own thing before she wakes up a little after noon. In between, housekeeping comes to sweep the floor, take out trash, and bring me fresh towels and maternity pajamas, which button on the side for easy nursing access. A nurse usually also visits in the morning to check my blood pressure and temperature, ask after how my uterus is contracting and if I’m experiencing any pain, and also make sure to take Elise’s temperature. Lunch comes promptly at 12 pm, and I’m usually able to eat before Elise demands her own lunch, which we usually do while sidelying on the bed. Afterwards, we both take a two-hour nap. Around 3:30 pm, an afternoon snack arrives, and then Elise typically wakes up again around 4:30 pm for another feed before dinner arrives around 5 pm. For our evening feeding, I try to pump so that Steve can give her a bottle and bond a little. Bottles also typically take less time than nursing. After 6 pm, we push her back to the nursery with a few bottles so that we can go out. Our evening snack comes at 7:30, and then I do one more pump before bed around 11:30 pm, and then hopefully sleep until at least 6 am.

The biggest part about being here is obviously the 24-7 on-demand baby care, which allowed us to learn parenting on a gentler curve and just be happier with each other. Any time we want, we can wheel her back to the nursery with a bottle of milk or ask them to use formula that we bought, and leave her there if we need to go out. There are two or three nurses on staff at all times, feeding and washing and changing babies and rocking them to sleep. One of the nurses came yesterday to do a whole washing baby demo which was very informative! It took us a little while to take full advantage of this, because I wasn’t sure at first how much we wanted to let go. But once we did, it became a lifeline to sanity and rest to give her up at night. We could deal with new parenthood as a daytime job, instead of a 24-hour job! I think most new parents, even though they’re tired, they still end up operating and doing everything they need to do for the baby (if you have no other choice!). For me, only when I got a decent night’s sleep did I realize that by comparison, I had been in a fog last week and making questionable decisions. Also doing things that I normally did (rather than feeding/ changing this baby) helped me feel more like myself. Just walking around Beitou hand-in-hand with Steve felt like such a gift the first two or three nights, a reminder that I was more than a new baby feeding and changing machine. We even got out to our neighborhood bar trivia night to say goodbye to some friends and see others for the first time. I also had my first beer in nine months!

The crazy thing about giving birth and then new parenting is that right after you go through the ordeal of birth, which is incredibly mentally and physically demanding on both of you, you’re immediately thrust into the ordeal of having learn how to keep your baby alive and disease-free by nursing, changing, and washing the baby every few hours around the clock so you become sleep-deprived. Either birth or new parenting would be incredibly hard, but you have to do it all back to back! It’s kind of an insane physical and mental challenge. The magic of the baby hotel is that it has allowed us to concentrate on one thing at a time and rest too. Changing’s not so bad, and we could split it between the two of us, while we just left washing up to the nurses. So we focused on mastering feeding. The first week was all learning about latching, schedules, changing her before vs. after, figuring out milk production, how to pump, when to pump, what to pump with… it was the most dramatic learning curve I’d been on in decades, and every night we’d talk about how we made another big stride that day that changed our perception of this experience. Three weeks later, I’m more or less on top of pumping and feeding, we both recognize when she’s hungry, and Elise is a hard worker too, getting feeding times down from two hours to about 30-40 minutes. With this challenge largely under our belt, we are at least mentally more prepared to take her home and tend to her 24 hours a day, and learn night feedings, using cloth diapers, and washing her once a day. I am so glad for this grace period that basically gives us more runway to figure things out before taking on more challenges. Without our parents at our sides, this is the biggest thing about the baby hotel that I would recommend to anyone expecting a first child.

The food and housekeeping help was also really nice. Every meal had two main dishes of protein (fish, tofu, chicken, pork, or beef) and a meat broth, as well as two vegetable dishes, one bowl of rice or carbohydrates, and one helping of fruit. Some of my favorite dishes were scrambled eggs in the morning with stir-fried mushrooms and salmon and century egg congee. I also especially enjoyed a tomato and onion soup with pork. My one complaint is that dishes are slightly too oily sometimes. Afternoon and evening snacks are usually something sweet. My favorite were black sesame dessert dumplings and sweet potato chunks in ginger tea. I originally thought that it was slightly overkill – I think I was having like at least 1000 calories at every single meal, and I never felt hungry. After going out for lunch one day and eating regular restaurant food, I realized that that was the point: not being hungry at all meant that I was eating enough for the two of us. There was also a different herbal tea provided every day, and we got a fresh thermos of it delivered, with more in the common kitchen. Steve and I both enjoyed that. Overall, it helped me stay very hydrated, which is a must when you’re producing so much milk. Finally, I have to say I really appreciated the help from the housekeeping staff. A few times when we needed the sheets changed ahead of time, I just picked up the phone and called the front desk, and someone showed up to change and take away the laundry. Offloading those things to other people who are always cheerful and nice is huge.

That is not to say there aren’t any drawbacks from staying in a baby hotel in Taiwan. The lack of privacy has been a little disconcerting. Staying in a hotel is just not as comfortable and private as being in your own house. And it was a bit difficult to relax away from home in the beginning while learning how to parent. Sometimes we were trying to figure out how to handle paperwork or discuss our impending move (not recommended) when housekeeping just rang the bell and walked right in to deliver towels or lunch. The other problem is that confinement in East Asia typically comes with a lot of cultural expectations about hygiene standards. You’re not supposed to wash your hair until weeks later, because you might catch a cold from if you don’t dry your hair quickly. Twice, the visiting nurses reminded me I needed to blow dry my hair after the shower. (I smiled and thanked them, but I really don’t ever blow dry my hair, so no thanks.) You’re also supposed to keep warm and not eat cold foods. One afternoon, I came back from running an errand with a mango iced smoothie, and the front desk lady was very shocked and reprimanded me. It’s a little bit like having a bunch of Chinese aunties around you giving unsolicited personal advice. I’m used to it, but it’s not the most fun thing in the world. Fortunately, that was few and far in between. Due to the pandemic, we were also not able to have any guests visit us. Normally, that would be pretty sad. Some friends of ours opted out of staying in a postpartum center because they didn’t want their parents to wait two weeks before meeting their grandchild. However, our parents are all across the ocean, so it wasn’t a big problem for us.

Overall, I think these baby hotels are God’s gift to womankind. And that was my opinion before we stayed at one. Now that we’ve done a stint here, I’m really grateful for all the support we received, and we are overall pretty happy with the choice we made and the amount of time we spent. It made it possible for us to better enjoy Elise’s first few weeks and establish some good memories along with the crazy dawn feedings and being spit up on. It certainly wasn’t cheap, but I think we reaped some priceless benefits at a very important time in our lives. With Baby #2 (someday), I would take advantage of the nursery even faster, and make sure to schedule fewer things in our lives (like no moves!!!). And next time, who knows? Maybe we’ll even do the whole month.

Terrible Apartment Photos, Taiwan Redux

Time for a fun post! In the before times, when this used to be a fun travel blog ( I mean, back when there was travel), I made a series of posts about terrible apartment photos that we encountered on our great circumnavacation. Of course, it all started with Taiwan, but we quickly found that both France and Croatia have their own unique contributions. We’ve looked for apartments on and off again this past year, and while the apartments have changed, the quality of the bad photos have not. Thus, I am proud to present another edition of Terrible Apartment Photos.

The Bad Bathroom Photo

Sometimes, you just have a bad bathroom photo. They are tricky spaces to take good photos of, but sometimes, you find examples that you just know can be improved on. For example, it’s great to know there’s much room for your legs when you’re sitting on the throne, but it makes you wonder: is there something wrong with the rest of the room that you didn’t want to capture it in this photo?

Other times, you have a great bathroom picture that shows all the relevant parts, but it may have been better not to take this picture at all, because everything is too violent of a shade of blue. I actually found it terrifying to look at this for a sustained period of time. There’s no way I could actually go in there, in either sense of the word.

The Ghost Arm Photo

I sympathize with Taiwanese brokers who want to take nice pictures of apartments that don’t feature themselves haunting the back of a mirror or a reflective pane of glass. However, they usually end up making themselves more conspicuous by trying to hide their main body and just showing their floating arm in the photo with their phone or camera at the end of it. This second one is actually my favorite example of this genre.

The Incomprehensible Layout Photo

I appreciate it when landlords go to the trouble of creating a little layout or something rather than making you put all the pieces together yourself by minutely examining each photo. However, some people just go overboard. I mean, I read Chinese, and this was still nearly incomprehensible to me. Why go to the trouble of drawing an entire layout and labeling everything, and then using a stylus to scribble more details about the apartment on TOP of that?

And no, it doesn’t get any better when you use multicolored font to do it.

The Twin Peaks Room

This room won the lottery: no windows AND a crazy dizzy patterned floor. It would be a dire punishment indeed to have to sit at that corner desk and stare at the wall.

The What Happened Here Photo

I would be disappointed if this apartment didn’t actually come like this.

The Unrealistic Staircase Photo

On the downside, you can’t walk up these stairs if you’re wider than the average Taiwanese person or happen to be holding something like a child or a box that is skinnier than the width of these stairs. On the bright side, you would be perfectly safe walking up these stairs while drunk, because if you stumbled, the walls would hold you up. You win some, you lose some.

The Tiger King Apartment Photos

I saved the best for last: sometimes, an apartment just evokes questions that have no answers. Who is the amazing person moving out of this place? Why did they have four plush tigers, but two of two different types? Why are these four tigers all basking in the light? Do they have their backs turned on the stains on the floor for a particular reason? Is that a child-sized scooter or motorcycle in the corner? Or maybe, tiger-sized? We’ll never know, but we’ll always enjoy the speculation.

A light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s been nearly two months since I last updated about the condition of COVID-19 here in Taiwan. While some things have changed, our condition has largely stayed the same. Thank goodness Taiwan has stayed on point during this entire pandemic and continued to move quickly to stop loopholes and rectify mistakes. Our baby is due in less than two weeks, and we feel very comfortable and safe at this time in this country. When things began, it certainly didn’t look like we were going to be living in one of the countries that was handling it the best, but we are very relieved to say that four months later, Taiwan is very close (perhaps much closer than any other country) to declaring itself COVID-19 free.

In late March, we went on spring break early, and Taiwan saw its borders tighten. Now only Taiwanese citizens and those with Alien Residence Certificates would be allowed to enter the country, and everyone who came in needed to do two weeks in quarantine (now followed by a week of self-monitoring). I guess it’s a testament to how well Taiwan has normalized this move that I am astonished most places aren’t doing it. In fact, the UK is just about to start similar measures (though perhaps not strictly enforced) almost two months later, according to The Guardian. When I protested to Steve that I couldn’t believe they were doing this so late in the game, he just shook his head, and showed me that it was by far a minority of countries that had such a tight quarantine control. It’s no wonder that it’s basically everywhere in the United States.

By the end of spring break, we found out that school would be doing one more week of distance learning, which I think it was the right call to just pause and see how the island was doing. In fact, the Friday of that second week, April 3 was Tomb Sweeping Day, a national holiday and a three-day weekend for all of Taiwan. Over fifteen years ago, it was Tomb Sweeping Day and the massive amounts of domestic travel that day that kicked off a second wave of SARS infections, so officials were especially on alert. There were sweeping policies islandwide to check for temperatures on the high-speed rail, Taiwan Railway stations, and other bus stations and transit points. When we got back to school that next Monday, everyone was sent a survey so we could declare where we had been the entire weekend and with whom. It was basically pre-emptive contact tracing on a huge scale.

Moreover, when we came back to school, we saw some big changes to ensure that social distancing would be in effect. First, in addition to the temperature checks at school, everyone was now required to wear a mask, from the smallest children in kindergarten to the faculty and staff. Large group meetings were cancelled, so all-staff or faculty meetings in any division were moved to Zoom and held remotely. Large tents were set up in school courtyards with long tables that held only four chairs each. People were reminded to not move any of those chairs and to keep your mask on unless you were eating. Fortunately, since I have my own office, I was able to not have to wear my mask all the time if I was just sitting by myself. It was a big change from business as normal, certainly, but as we were reminded, it was a small price to pay to even be able to be at school. In mid-April, we did a call with other offices at international schools across East and Southeast Asia, with colleagues in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, and more, and school after school reported that they were working from home after 2, 4, 6, even 8 weeks of lockdown (the longest stretch belonged to schools in Hong Kong). And then there was us! Wearing face masks and calling in from our office at school. We learned that more than 91% of schools around the world were currently closed. To be back here working, seeing students file past, and have our normal routine to hold onto felt amazing.

Of course, nothing goes off without a single hitch! On April 14 and 15, Taiwanese Navy sailors disembarked the Panshi which had gone on a diplomatic and friendship mission to the Pacific nation of Palau, with which Taiwan maintains diplomatic ties. Three days later, the CECC reported that three of more than 700 people who had been on board had tested positively for COVID-19, and the number quickly rose to more than 20. Of course, those more than 700 sailors had also gone home and were had contact with more than 2,000 family, friends, and acquaintances. Two admirals were removed from their posts for their neglect; it was originally believed that they had contracted the virus in Palau, but later determined that some people must have had it on board in the first place. Fortunately, they had a solid supply of face masks and general practice of wearing them, so were able to keep it from spreading to the entire ship. As of May 4, the CECC had registered 36 cases from the Panshi cluster, by far the largest cluster infection that had occurred in Taiwan. (That same article gives some comparisons that make this naval infection seem pretty light indeed compared to others in France and the US.)

Mercifully, nearly three weeks later, it seems like the Panshi cluster has not resulted in widespread community transmission throughout Taiwan, and it remains the only stain on Taiwan’s otherwise fairly pristine record. In fact, it is amazing that we have recorded more than 10 days of zero new cases in Taiwan. On May 10, the acting head of the CECC Health Minister Chen Shih-Chung announced that Taiwan had no cases for the third straight day in a row, and marked no domestically-transmitted cases of COVID-19 since April 12, meaning 28 days straight of no domestic transmission. To celebrate each zero day, the Grand Hotel has been lighting up its rooms to say “ZERO” using its facade.

Unfortunately, I think the international community really hasn’t picked up on that so far, since New Zealand has been getting much more fanfare for their zero cases, which was just recently achieved in early May. Not to trivialize their hard work, because most countries have not been able to do this at all, but New Zealand boasts a population of 4.8 million overall, which is smaller than the population of the Taipei–Keelung metropolitan area, at just over 7 million. For a country that has five times as many people and was much closer to the initial epicenter of the pandemic, Taiwan is giving a masterclass in how not to lose your head and protect your population in the middle of a pandemic. If not for its much larger neighbor to the northeast, this country would be getting MUCH more international attention.

I tried a quick experiment, and found that a search for “new zealand zero cases” yielded 402 million results on Google, while a search for “taiwan zero cases” yielded only 49 million results, about 10% of the attention New Zealand has gotten. Most of the articles on the front page for Taiwan come straight from Taiwanese news outlets, whereas the New Zealand reporting is all over global media like CNBC and the Guardian. I mean, come on, folks! To be a bit cynical, perhaps Taiwan is purposefully not getting enough publicity. If a country with high population density can flatten the curve to the extent that it’s been done here without an economically catastrophic shutdown, then maybe all those other countries could have done it too if they’d taken it seriously enough in the beginning or prepared better beforehand. In other words, maybe we’re the ones breaking the curve and making other countries look bad by comparison. The US is a tough comparison as a country with ten times the size of the population and the fourth biggest country (in terms of land area) in the world. But many European countries with populations of less than 10 million like Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland have had much larger outbreaks.

This is not to say that the Taiwanese economy and society has not been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. A slower but visible effect has been shuddering through the economy thanks to the lack of international travel and business. Last month, I sent off Stella for a few days while we did our babymoon in Yilan, and the lady who ran our dog boarding place confided that they had had to lay off most of their workforce, only keeping their core employees. Summer’s their high season, when all the teachers and families board their pets there while they jet off to the US, but with the lack of travel this year, they’re looking at less than 50% of their usual capacity. They offer wonderful service, and it’s the only dog boarding place Stella has ever liked, so we’re hoping they’ll pull through. This weekend, we went downtown to our favorite breakfast spot from our old apartment, and the couple who runs the joint was delighted to see that we were so pregnant. They asked after us and even rubbed my belly. After we ate and got the bill, they told us that it’s been very rough not having their usual crowd of Japanese and Korean customers. To compound those woes, the large KTV building next door recently had a fire break out and is now closed for the time being. It turns out those clients usually order to go and bring a lot of food to their KTV session. So now they’re down on business all around. We haven’t even gotten to the Taiwanese travel agencies yet! We have two or three on our block, and nobody’s stepped into them for weeks now.

Around the island, there are more and more signs of cautious reopening, as the zero cases reinforce the perception that there is no widespread community transmission. New Taipei City has given the okay for museums and libraries to reopen to the public. CPBL, the Taiwanese baseball league, has been able to allow 1,000 fans to come to their Friday game this past week. They all wore masks and sat at least 3 seats away from each other, skipping every other row. Also, the concession stands were still closed, and no food was allowed, eliminating other potential vectors of virus transmission. In an excellent illustration of everyone being on the same page, the CECC has given permission for municipalities to decide if they want to reopen night clubs and hostess bars, but those municipalities have not decided to go ahead on that at the moment. Everyone’s taking social distancing very seriously, because they have recognized that zero cases doesn’t mean there’s no risk. Early steps and serious steps are the ones that have kept Taiwan relatively safe so far, so nobody’s relaxing these procedures. If anything, it’s gotten more intense in the last month or so; we are being scanned for body temperature and asked to sanitize our hands at almost every restaurant when we eat out.

As the situation improves, there are more and more chances for Taiwan to shine on the global stage. Taiwan is now donating millions of surgical face masks around the world, in a brilliant move that makes use of the existing infrastructure. The government allotment of face masks has risen from 2 every 7 days for adults to 9 per every 14 days over the last few months, and as the domestic supply for hospitals and the general public has been satisfied, the CECC decided to make it possible for people to donate their allotment instead. Just by using the same app that we order them, we can now choose to donate them instead, and Taiwan is easily able to centralize that donation mechanism, sending them out under the banner of the entire country. I’m glad the government is getting the praise and kudos from all these donor countries because the government is the one responsible for the truly amazing response and ramp-up of mask production and rationing. We pay just 52 NT (less than $2 USD) for our allotment of 9 every two weeks, and that’s thanks to them as well!

Since the pandemic outbreak, the US and other countries have seen many incidents of prejudice and xenophobia, and I wish I could say that Taiwan bucked this trend too when it came to COVID-19, but that’s not entirely true. Quite a few restaurants and bars in Taiwan have been reported as not welcoming foreigners, posting either signs on the door or notifying their clientele via social media that foreigners are either denied outright or must show their passports upon entering. This is downright stupid on two fronts. First, the CECC has been reporting only imported infectious cases of Taiwanese citizens who came back and have tested positively for COVID-19 while in their two-week quarantine period. (The last foreigner to have tested positively for the virus seems to be from March 13.) So there hasn’t even been a huge cluster of foreigners who are bringing COVID-19 back to Taiwan; it’s pretty much just returning overseas Taiwanese. Secondly, since mid-March, the only foreign citizens allowed back in are those with Alien Residence Certificates (ARCs), who are first and foremost subject to the same two-week quarantine period but also generally go through customs with e-Gate, a method which takes about 10 seconds and results in no entry/ exit stamps in your passport. So not only are these folks barring (statistically speaking) the wrong people from entering their establishments, they’re using the wrong tool to screen them out. It just stinks of blatant discrimination. It’s been mostly brewing on Facebook and discussed anecdotally in expat circles, but on May 6, Chen Shih-Chung addressed the phenomenon at the end of one of his daily briefings, noting that the virus does not differentiate between nationalities, and urging people to have empathy for each other. This weekend, when we went to an apartment viewing this weekend, we actually got a whole lot of questions from the apartment agent about my “foreign husband”. Even though I told them we were both American, they insisted on asking whether Steve was Asian-American or Caucasian. (Why did this even matter?) We still made it to the viewing, but it was a reminder that there’s a lot of uninformed opinions out there, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, Taiwan has weathered this storm well so far, and we have relatively little to complain about compared to everyone else in the world. I have plans on another entry on how COVID-19 in the US looks from this side of the Pacific, but right now, it is enough for us to count our blessings. We are truly fortunate.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 4

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

In Part 3, I write about going back to school, watching the COVID-19 situation explode in Europe and the US, and why US higher education has made an epic mistake.

Part 4:

When I started writing my updates about COVID-19, I didn’t think there would be a Part 4. It seemed clear to me that the story of the coronavirus in Taiwan was a three part story, and it was holding steady. The focus would now be on the rest of the world, and anything I could write to help friends and family now encountering the same thing would be a good idea. Really, we must never think these things, because “That doesn’t apply to me or my country (anymore)” is exactly what got everyone in hot water in this pandemic. (The sheer hubris!) In short, last week, Taiwan has been battered by a new “second” wave of COVID-19 cases, imported from Europe and the US, and in response, has locked down its borders with all other countries, accepting no foreigners who do not already hold residence here. Those moves have definitely alarmed people, and now, supermarkets are busy right up until closing time, with much more empty shelves. We even saw an hour-long line for getting face masks at the local pharmacy. It took some of us by surprise, but it shouldn’t have, because among the many lessons to be learned in the COVID-19 pandemic is that the unexpected can, has, and will happen.

How did it happen? Even the Minister of Health Chen Shih-Chung has admitted that the authorities should have seen this coming earlier. On March 12 and March 13, the CDC reported two imported cases, the second case being an American man who had been infected by four friends from the US. Steve reported to me this grim evidence that the virus was much more widespread in the US than previously thought. The next day, the CDC imposed Level 2 restrictions on California, New York State, and Washington. On March 15, six new cases were confirmed in Taiwan, all of them imported. One of them was a high school student who had just come back from Greece. His homeroom at school was quarantined as a precaution, and when several days later, a second case was reported at his school, the entire school was shut down. These sorts of policies have enabled Taiwan to get ahead of the virus clusters, but as a result, several municipalities started announcing a policy which was quickly taken up by the entire Ministry of Education on Monday, March 16: no students or teachers at elementary through high schools were allowed to travel off-island until the end of the spring semester. On March 18, Taiwan moved the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand onto its Level 3 warning list, and at the same time also closed its borders to foreigners completely. Now, even Taiwanese citizens and those with residence certificates like us had to undergo an obligatory 14-day quarantine if we were traveling back to the island. The same day, 23 new cases were reported. And on March 20, Taiwan moved the entire world up to Level 3. The same day, 27 new cases showed up in Taiwan, with another 18 new cases diagnosed the next day on March 21. Finally, on March 20, we received one of only three emails we’ve gotten from the American Institute in Taiwan throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, tersely announcing a rare Level 4 Advisory, basically saying, “Come back to the US or stay abroad indefinitely.”

In the space of a single week, the quarantine and travel restrictions had changed with dizzying speed, keeping pace with the doubling of cases to a total of 169 as of Sunday, March 22. In fact, rather than wait for further restrictions to who could and could not enter school, with just such a mobile population, our school decided to start spring break early by a few days, and we left school on Wednesday, March 18, hoping to resume everything next Monday, March 30. Currently, that’s still the understanding, but with everything that’s happening, a week seems like a very long time. All of a sudden, even our trip on island to Yilan later this week is starting to look slightly irresponsible, and Steve has been going back and forth on whether we should make the 30-minute trip by cab, hotel shuttle, or public bus or train.

On March 19, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen went on record as saying the next two weeks are a crucial test for Taiwan. Given that the borders have been effectively shut down and all incoming travelers must complete a mandatory quarantine, if the jump to community transmission happens, it will be right now. So how is quarantine being enforced? Here is a FAQ for passengers just arriving in Taiwan, and a flowchart showing what happens to passengers (though it’s outdated). When they get here, Taiwan has arranged for quarantine-ready taxis to take them to their residence anywhere on island or a pre-arranged quarantine hotel. The government is even helping with subsidies for travelers or family members of travelers who need those hotel rooms. (This is a pretty ingenious move given that the entire travel industry in Taiwan is suffering badly, just as their global counterparts, so giving them business that also facilitates safe entry into the country is a great idea.) Once at home, the government will use your cellphone to track your movements, and may call you several times a day to ensure that you’re where you said you would stay for 14 days. In fact, this tweet from a Taiwanese college student has gone viral (I’m so sorry) this week, showing the speed and seriousness of the quarantine policy:

To alleviate further stress, people are being offered NT $1,000, which is just over USD $30 per day to stay in quarantine. While some have expressed unease over these regulations, I have come around to the notion that it’s worth avoiding the risk of infection from these travelers, whether Taiwanese or foreign, because people are going to take risks! Early on in January, one man was found to have avoided quarantine and shown up at a Kaohsiung dance club, and eventually he was fined nearly USD $10,000 for not disclosing his symptoms. In March, after the COVID-19 pandemic was already broadly known, one man evaded quarantine and was actually found at the Kaohsiung International Airport trying to fly out of the country. He was eventually fined to the full extent of the regulations, for USD $33,000, which is a pretty penny indeed. Right now, telecom providers are working closely with the government to make this sort of tracking possible, but I feel pretty confident that if any country’s government is going to give up this sort of power later, it’s going to be Taiwan.

Though community spread looks unlikely given the strict quarantine procedures, there are other concerns for foreigners like us. Many expats here, including a lot of friends, take advantage of Taiwan’s generous visa waiver policies, which have long indicated that if you just transit in and out of Taiwan every 90 days (or 3 months), you can basically stay here indefinitely. No one in immigration bats an eye seeing your passport full of blue exit and entry stamps. On our very first trip to Taiwan in 2013, we met a British man who bragged about having spent 20 years here, while never getting legal working or living status. It’s very common for people to talk about going to Hong Kong or Okinawa for a day on a “visa run”, even though it’s not very accurate because you don’t have a visa. Given Taiwan’s new policies last week, though, that was starting to look like an untenable situation. What if you couldn’t come back after your next run, and that was due to happen in another 10 days? Where would you go with so many flights cancelled? What if your home country was Italy or Iran or the United States? Those visa-exempt expats aren’t even the largest population of foreigners in the country. That would be the migrant worker population of over 700,000 people, primarily caregivers and domestic workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. It’s possible that those workers if infected with COVID-19 would not choose to get care or come forward in time (thus putting more people in danger) if they were worried about being caught for overstaying their visa or working without papers; the National Immigration Agency currently estimate 48,000 plus of those migrant workers have overstayed. So the government also had to step in and make changes to their immigration policies, reinstating an amnesty program that softened penalties and fines to the minimum, and a day later, gave a 30-day extension to those who were caught in the situation of having to make another visa run. More kudos to the Taiwanese government for making these pragmatic changes.

Given all the news in Taiwan, the mood in Taipei is decidedly a weird mixture of the apocalyptic and nonchalant, not unlike what is going on in the United States. On Thursday, just after the border shutdown was announced, a friend warned me on Thursday not to go to Carrefour, our large local supermarket. “The scene in there might make you go into labor right away,” she joked dryly. We ended up going around 9:30 pm anyway, just before closing, to pick up a few staples. Toilet paper was pretty low, and the shelves of rice were half empty. Astonishingly, all the canned soups and beans were gone, as were instant noodles. While produce shelves were full of fruits and vegetables, the meat section was practically wiped out. On the other hand, on Saturday, Steve and I ventured downtown to a few destinations and found shockingly large amounts of people out in the parks, definitely not social distancing. While the 80-degree temperatures certainly encouraged hanging out outside and the risk of transmission is much lower in non-enclosed spaces, we were still surprised to see Huashan Creative Park full of people with many dogs, kids, and picnic blankets. After hitting up a yarn shop downtown, we made our way to Dadaocheng Wharf, thinking it’d be a nice outdoor place to have dinner from some of the boutique food trucks that have sprung up there in the past year, and we found a similar scene of hundreds of people mingling, few of them with face masks on. “Are these the same people who just filled their entire cart with twenty packs of instant noodles?” I asked Steve blankly. With a grimly set jaw, all Steve would say was that the next case was probably in the crowd in front of us. We left the park and took a taxi to a favorite pizza restaurant where we washed our hands and sprayed them with alcohol before eating, contemplating the mixed messages we were seeing this week.

Last week, Steve predicted that just as there was a before-9/11 and an after-9/11, there would be a before-COVID-19 and after-COVID-19. The best article I’ve seen so far that outlines what the future looks like is in MIT’s Technology Review: “We’re Not Going Back to Normal” (March 17, 2020). The silver lining is that it may lead to a better future, as Taiwan’s history has hinted. For the past four years, we have lived on this small island of 24 million people, which has had to become pretty darn scrappy in a constant fight for survival. Since 1949, Taiwan has faced the constant threat of annexation by force from China, and survived bombing crises and American derecognition, and become increasingly marginalized by the world. This constant vigilance against its larger neighbor has become a way of life here. I mean, this island still has an annual national air raid drill, when everyone has to stay off the street or risk a very hefty fine, which is something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. (I rode out last year’s in my favorite hot pot shop behind school.) That survival instinct is part of what has kept Taiwan alive and ready to respond. When in late December, Chinese social media started showing a buzz about a mysterious respiratory disease in Wuhan but then went dark quickly. Among other things, I think Taiwan picked up on that censorship and the fact that something might be going on in China. That helped them start fever screenings right away on flights to Taiwan from Wuhan on December 31, the same day that China informed the WHO there were cases of a severe, unknown pneumonia in Wuhan.

Meanwhile, in a place like the US, people keep writing articles with callbacks to the Spanish flu, to World War II, to the last time that the entire country mobilized around a single cause like this, instead of milling around aimlessly like insects. During a video call this weekend, a friend in Chicago stated soberly, “The United States is melting down.” What we’ve seen in the past two weeks with the worsening of situations in Europe and in the US makes me mortally afraid for the lives of people in the US and the lives of friends, family, and close acquaintances who are now doctors and nurses. We’ve stopped making plans three months out, after the birth of our child, or even six months out. Nothing seems so sure anymore. Previously rock-solid companies and organizations have wavered in the face of this disaster. It is incredibly difficult not to despair, however. California, New York, and Illinois only began enacting state-wide stay-at-home orders this week. It seems like authorities have just been dragging their feet, overly fearful of disrupting the economy or restricting travel (in this land of the free) that they have not been able to call for more swift and widespread action to save lives. We are incredibly grateful to be living in a country which takes health and such threats very seriously, with responsible and swift leadership at the helm, but what will happen to the country that we love when this is all over? What about our families? Who will be left? The future looks very uncertain to us. As articles repeatedly say, Taiwan has lessons to share with the rest of the world, but the US must first pull through this and be in a position to learn and change in the future. That is what seems up in the air right now.

This post brings us up to the present, just two months since the crisis began raging in Asia. As the situation changes in Taiwan, I hope to keep writing. For friends abroad, if this has been helpful to read, I hope you’ll also consider also writing down your story, with or without frequent citations to CDC press releases! As an inveterate blogger and note-keeper since fifth grade, I have always found it useful to write down my daily thoughts about small and big things happening in my life. I think we all realize now that this is a global event, something that all of us will look back on and remember where we were and how we got through it all together. Maybe it’s through a blog like this, or through art and poetry, or even through a family podcast. Perhaps we’ll reminisce in a better world where countries have learned how to become more resilient and robust, like Taiwan after SARS. Or perhaps we’ll recall these times while sitting in an apocalyptic wasteland toasting our dinner over an oil barrel fire. At the same time, misinformation and bad faith actors are pushing their agendas the world over, using this pandemic as an opportunity to seed doubt, fear, and hatred around the world. By writing my little bit of truth from my perspective to the best of my ability and preserving it for the rest of the world to see, I hope to combat that. You can too.

In Part 5, I write about what happened in Taiwan between March and May 2020, from domestic controls to loosening up and the subsiding of the first wave of the pandemic in Taiwan.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 3

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

Part 3:

Though three weeks of extended break seemed like forever, they ended quite abruptly. On Monday, February 24, we went in to school for a fever screening training, which I was promptly excused from by my supervisor and our Head Nurse. Fortunately, school was not so short staffed that we needed a pregnant woman to man the stations! To speed up the entrance of over 2,300 students and 500 faculty and staff members into school every day between 7 and 8 am, nine stations were being set up around school at regular entrances, and teams of 2 people would take their positions at each station. One person would be responsible for using an infrared gun to take temperatures, and ensure that everyone registered below 37.5 Celsius. The best place to take the temperature was over the right or left eyebrow, and we were instructed to ask people to pull aside bangs to make it simple. The other person would be responsible for making sure that that person also stretched out their hand for a spritz of sanitizer, and if a student had a temperature of 37.5 Celsius or above, to take them to our quarantine room where they would be given a mask and instructed to wait until a parent could take them home. Both persons working the stations would wear a face mask for the duration of their time, and the nurses demonstrated the correct way to put on (and then NOT TOUCH) a face mask to make sure that it was working as necessary.

The next day, we headed to work for the first time in a month. At school, most people were enthusiastically greeting each other, and I remember walking up to colleagues in my department with a very big smile as they exclaimed over how big my belly had gotten since we had seen each other. However, it did seem much quieter than usual, with no parents sitting in the cafeteria talking to each other over a cup of coffee, and fewer people lingering about the school. Some Taiwanese staff wore a face mask even inside at school, and as a result, sometimes I could barely tell who was coming up to say hello and exclaim over my pregnancy and ask about my due date! Back in the office, my co-worker and I spent a good week trying to figure out our new workload, as the nature of my job had definitely changed, with fewer events to figure out and coordinate. Over the next two weeks, school also made other changes as the Ministry of Education gave guidelines: no gatherings over 200 people, school-wide events or events with off-island schools and organizations were canceled or postponed until the fall, and the cafeteria changed the operation of its usual salad and yogurt bars to leave fewer items in the open and to have all our bakery items entirely shrink-wrapped. Even fewer visitors were allowed on campus, and all who came had to declare their travel history to the school.

Despite those changes, normalcy had begun to settle in again in Taipei as schools re-opened and families resumed their daily schedules. We still made food at home several nights out of the week, but took alcohol wipes with us to restaurants when we ate out. At each restaurant or store, staff would invariably have a bottle of alcohol or sanitizing spray on the counter so that people could help themselves. On the MRT and public transit, we wore face masks, but out in the parks or on the street during the day, it was more like 50/50. People had either taken to heart the CDC’s reminders that masks were not necessary if you were healthy, or the rationing that had continued was taking its toll: either way, people were only wearing them where they needed to. And of course, we donned them for our monthly visit to the doctor’s at our hospital for my pregnancy check-ups.

Meanwhile, a different sort of shift had taken place as the COVID-19 situation continued developing around the world. On February 22, a friend shared an article on the pending pandemic nature of COVID-19, throwing the entire crisis into a different relief for me. According to the authors, “containment” is a strategy that cannot defeat an outbreak, only delay it. At this point, we were seeing that the situation in South Korea and Japan meant travel bans, quarantines, and contact tracing could not stop the epidemic, only slow it down. So what should communities and individuals be doing about this now? How should governments communicate about it to their citizens? I quickly realized that it really is better for the public to be prepared and ready which make them feel empowered, rather than to place all your faith in governments that say they have it “under control” or “on lockdown”, and later on see that trust betrayed. That’s what’s happening now, as the masses in Italy and the US and other nations experience the whiplash of everything changing in a mere week or two. Their countries had not prepared them adequately for the magnitude of the change that was coming, and because of the lack of containment and mitigation, their crises are even larger. As a result, instead of closing for three weeks, schools and universities in the US and Europe are now looking at closing for three months, an entire spring semester truncated.

As Steve noted, Taiwan has fared so well so far because it has continuously looked ahead to what will be needed in the future and made plans for that now. Similarly, we had prepped our pantry and was in good shape despite the toilet paper panic. As we started calming down about the situation in Taiwan, we started wondering, what if COVID-19 did make inroads into the United States? What about our families? On February 25, we sent a few messages to Steve’s parents to see how they were doing, and they responded that there were no reported cases in South Carolina, where they lived, and that “it doesn’t seem to be a big concern here”. During our next Google Hangout chat, we sent on an NPR article on getting prepared for coronavirus, which was filled with very commonsense advice, like stocking up on prescription medication, non-perishable food supplies, and working through emergency plans. What was the worst case scenario? Who were the most vulnerable people? What would Steve’s parents do if his 90-something year old grandmother caught the virus? What if either of his parents got the virus? Who would take care of their two dogs? Talking through each scenario gave us all some clarity and sense of control over the situation. Being prepared, we impressed upon them, was the key difference between panicking when the situation hit the fan and being able to calmly execute the steps that would keep us and our loved ones safe. Later that week, I had my weekly video call with my parents and urged them to do the same thing. Without even realizing it, Steve and I had pivoted from worrying about ourselves and considering evacuating back to the United States to worrying about our families and hunkering down in Taiwan.

Steve had continued his voracious reading of COVID-19 related reports every single morning, and was starting to speak constantly about “the sigmoid”. The sigmoid is mathematical jargon for what is also commonly known as the logistic curve. Everyone and his mother has now heard about “flattening the curve”, but this video by Three Blue One Brown explaining the logistic curve and the exponential growth behind it that drives the spread of diseases like COVID-19 is worth a second look for everyone. (I felt so much smarter after watching it, and you will too!) He was worried that Japan and South Korea were on the sigmoid already, and that Italy and Iran were as well by the waning days of February. It’s worth noting that the United States was not at that point, and despite the number of cases in Taiwan, we weren’t either. Starting in early March, the world had begun to pay even more attention to coronavirus and gratifyingly, to what Taiwan had been doing. News outlets started reporting on the concrete steps that Taiwan had taken to jump on this crisis early. We were resting on our laurels a little bit. I had started hoping that this could be a great demonstration of soft power that would enable Taiwan to get an observer status back in the World Health Organization, or if we could start exporting face masks to other countries, oblige them to remember that in times of need, Taiwan stepped up.

But in the first few days of March, we started seeing the numbers creep up in the United States, and the lack of direction on a national level became downright alarming. Why wasn’t the United States testing in large numbers? Why had they turned down the WHO’s offer of test kits in favor of developing their own, which turned out to be initially faulty? Why weren’t they at least temperature screening anyone who came in, as had been done in Taipei since mid-January? Why could hospitals not test for anyone who had symptoms of COVID-19? It was mind-boggling, as we had just learned that South Korea was pioneering drive-thru testing, and Taiwan was testing thousands. Steve noted that it was not a good sign when the US CDC stopped reporting testing numbers around the beginning of March. “You never want to hide the good numbers,” he pointed out. (Though the CDC has started reporting this information again, it’s not in line with the way the rest of the world does it, which is largely by number of people tested, not samples – most people need two samples to be verified, and may be tested multiple times.) We started seeing the first few Twitter reports of empty shelves, people voluntarily quarantining themselves in San Francisco, and the NYC subway system getting sanitized every 72 hours (for comparison, the Taipei MRT which runs 18 hours a day has been getting sanitized every 4 hours). We started feeling powerless despite all our warnings to family and friends, and worried over the fact that no one seemed to be in charge with a central strategy. One evening over dinner, we just spent time brainstorming things we would do if we were heading up DHHS or the CDC, and almost the next day, I laughed to see that Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes had done the exact same thing in “12 Steps to Tackle the Coronavirus” (March 11, 2020).

Given everything we thought, it was still a shock to me the next week when the situation really started to hit the fan. In retrospect, I thought everyone was on the same page as my parents and Steve’s parents. They had been informed about the seriousness of COVID-19, because we had all been talking on a weekly basis since mid-January. But obviously, not everyone had family in Asia who had been going through it. In fact, friends informed us with disgust that some people had thought this was a Chinese-engineered virus or simply a hoax to keep their attention from the impeachment process. From this side of the ocean, the tendency of fellow Americans to see such incidents as hoaxes or hollow threats is more laughable than ever. We’ve been wrapped in such a blanket of security that allows us to believe we’re immune (sometimes literally) to all the ills that affect other nations, that we never even saw this one coming.

So last week, the panic in the United States just began taking over our social media timelines and news feeds. There were nonstop pictures of empty grocery store shelves, from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to Kroger and Target. There was a run on toilet paper (of course!). People started hoarding hand sanitizer and worse, price-gouging by selling those supplies on Amazon and eBay for many times what they were worth. It was overwhelming and awful, and I started feeling my eyelid start twitching again. As the cascade continued, schools and workplaces started shutting down. Friends who were teachers started brainstorming ways to translate their courses online, and friends who had families were looking at how to entertain and take care of their little ones while dealing with the impending dread and fear of having their parents and older relatives taken from them. It was everything we had experienced last month all over again, and it was the rest of the people I cared about who were going through it now.

At this time, I was outraged like many were in the United States to find that the system was failing its most vulnerable people. To be clear, there are multiple instances of the system failing to protect vulnerable people right now in the US, from people who are facing eviction, high medical bills, and food insecurity, just to name a few problems. But the one that is close to my heart is higher education, and I was absolutely enraged to find that universities were beginning to close and kick out students from their campus without a backward glance. This was happening at some of the most well-resourced, well-heeled, private non-profit institutions that the US had to offer. The US CDC had put out some clear educational guidelines on how to prepare your student body for containment and mitigation of COVID-19, but universities saw much bigger risks. Spring break was coming up for a number of schools, and the worry was intense that students would not obey travel recommendations and inevitably bring back cases of COVID-19 to these crowded campuses. I can’t say in all honesty that it was the wrong decision to make because that is a lot of unknown and a lot of risk, but universities went about it in decidedly the wrong way. Schools like Harvard sent out emails giving students mere days before spring break and stubbornly kept classes in session, setting off waves of panic as students struggled to pack their belongings and move out to perhaps more unsanitary conditions than those in student dorms, increasing the number of people traveling by planes, trains, buses, and automobiles at a time when social distancing was supposed to be adopted widely. There was a huge disparity in information and resources available to students who were dealing with a cascade of problems that came with being forced off campus: where would they stay? Could they get any financial assistance with buying plane tickets or finding storage at the same time as 5,000 of their peers? What about the income they were depending on from their work-study or campus job? Would they receive refunds for room or board or tuition? How could they be expected to figure this all out and then still pay attention in online classes? Sad to say, but I don’t think universities even considered the number of local adults whose lives they’re throwing into economic disarray by taking away their blue-collar jobs as cooks, cleaners, janitors, and generally everyone who keeps a campus up and running. It didn’t look like UChicago did, anyway.

As disappointing as this was, I saw mutual aid groups (UChicago, in Greater Boston, Harvard, Tufts, MIT) beginning to emerge when students and alumni realized that the universities were unable to facilitate this change in a meaningful way for their student bodies. Where they failed to step up, people came forward to offer sublets and rooms and couches as well as food, face masks, supplies, and comfort when institutions threw them out. The silver lining is that people are forging closer connections with each other, which we sorely need in these trying times. But the more damning downside is that colleges and universities were given the chance to shine in this, and they threw it away. While the a few schools were able to provide laptops, airport shuttles, free storage, pay students who were supposed to work on campus, and in general, throw some of their resources at the problem, most schools disappointed their students completely.

What’s the argument in favor of what the universities should have done or how they carried it through? The only real argument I’m willing to accept is that universities have been caught completely flat-footed, duped just like the rest of the US was, into thinking this wasn’t a big deal at first. According to VOANews, “In most cases, U.S. universities and colleges followed similar trajectories, first announcing they would move classes online but that campus facilities would remain open, and then either all at once or through a rapid series of announcements, finally deciding the campuses would close entirely.” The speed with which things escalated indicates to me that behind those rapid announcements were hours of panicked meetings as high-level administration had to quickly come to grips with what America is figuring out – it’s not enough to get hand sanitizer and food and be prepared yourself, it has spread too far, so you must take that next step of cancelling schools, events, and social distancing.

To play devil’s advocate, Steve pointed out pragmatically that higher education is really just a service, and people are paying for courses and a diploma. It just sucks in times like these to be forking out a quarter of a million dollars and to get shafted like this. But I think it sucks on a very different level that is much more damaging. Colleges and universities in the US have long been selling a different product than a diploma: they have sold to us the promise of a community that you will be a part of forever, a brand that you can be loyal to because it lives up to its pure ideals of growing knowledge and enriching lives and helping the world. But this reaction is beyond disappointing, because nickel-and-diming your students and refusing vulnerable populations the right to stay on campus and eat in your halls does not look like this. Speaking as someone who has worked in higher education and philanthropy and has donated to all the schools she has attended, I don’t think higher education is going to recover from this for a long time.

In Part 4, I write about the second wave of COVID-19 cases hitting Taiwan, just when we thought it was starting to get better, and maybe, what lies ahead for the future.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 2

In Part 1, I write about Taiwan’s brush with SARS in 2002-03, the beginnings of the crisis in January, and Taiwan’s initial reactions that put us on a path to getting ahead of the virus.

Part 2:

Before going to bed on February 3, I checked my phone to see an important message sent from school administration to all parents. With a sinking feeling in my heart, I checked, and it was what we had suspected. On February 2, the Taiwanese Ministry of Education had issued a statement saying that the winter break for Taiwanese schools that was due to continue until February 11 would be extended two more weeks until February 25. Many people suspected that international schools like ours would follow suit, and this message confirmed it. We would have three more weeks of extended break, and students would keep up with classes through digital learning. (Also of note, the statement asked employers to provide leave for their employees so that at least one parent could take care of children if need be.)

In my private journal that night, I wrote: What is the new normal? It is face masks all over the place. It is quarantine and cabin fever at home. It is a long winter vacation and staring down at three more weeks of uncertainty. With all the feverish preparations going on around us, I had been looking forward to going back to work, with all its attendant schedules, activities, and some semblance of normalcy. While I was grateful for the chance to spend more time with Steve and Stella, I felt suddenly adrift and cut off from things. As someone who also mainly coordinates and plans events at her job, I was not sure about what the next few months would mean for all of the things we had been scheduling for the spring.

At the same time, Steve and I continued a conversation we had already begun about how to prepare for the worst situation with COVID-19. With a baby on the way and a dog in our family, Steve was on high alert, trying to figure out how to get ahead of this and how to make sure it didn’t impact us. The most dire scenario seemed like we needed to get the heck out of Asia. We could always get on a flight and fly back to the United States, where we would stay with Steve’s parents or my parents, but his more likely because it would mean we could be ensconced in the suburbs away from the busy city centers. How to get out of Taiwan with our dog though seemed like a bigger problem, because animals would probably have stricter quarantine regulations, and pets being abandoned in Wuhan was already presenting as a problem. We talked about that for a while before bringing the conversation down to earth. While the Taiwan CDC and CECC seemed to have things under control and cases were still in the single digits, we wanted to address a much more likely scenario: self-quarantine. The memory of SARS and self-quarantine were still fresh for other teachers at school, and we felt like that was much more of a possibility. While we probably wouldn’t get it if we were careful, we might be cooped up at home without the ability to go outside for a while. We needed to make preparations for that. So we made a long list of things that we thought we would need, like over the counter medications that we didn’t have at home, food and non-perishables that we would find it inconvenient to be without, and some dog medications and supplies that we also wanted. We called it our preparation list, and the next day, we headed to Costco to start beefing up on those items. Even if the worst didn’t happen, we would feel better being more prepared, and we would be able to use up all those supplies eventually. As the Disreputable Dog of Garth Nix’s Lirael would say, “It’s always better to be doing.”

I also wrote in my journal, In my condition, my parents have been calling and asking me to wear face masks. I have acquiesced, and even Steve notes warily that it may have been overly optimistic to go out and eat at hot pot and go to these markets where there’s just a ton of people. Even without the threat of coronavirus, we’re courting flu during this season for sure. This is basically what I mean – even though logically speaking the threat of getting sick is very minimal, and now we’re wearing face masks for anything where we are interacting with other humans (on the MRT, at the store) rather than just ourselves (walking the dog, mostly, or sitting in the park), it still feels psychologically distancing to follow the coronavirus online and at home, watching that red map expand over time, centered on a dark crimson-shaded silhouette of China. Everyone’s being cautious and preventative, but I’m hesitant to call it “overly cautious” now. In all of this, I feel our baby moving inside me. Kicking in the mornings, flutterings during the day, and reassuring me that all is well inside. The kicks are getting stronger, and despite feeling like I’ve got an octopus inside, it makes me smile so much to feel this new life. It is absolutely an amazing thing. I worry about keeping myself healthy, about keeping her healthy, about keeping all of us okay.

So Taipei was holding its breath, but things were due to take a darker turn soon. First, on February 6, Taiwan shut its borders with China, Macao, and Hong Kong. Our friends Henry and Camilla who were living in Hong Kong and had been planning on coming back to Taiwan for the impending birth of their first child had scrambled earlier that week to get an earlier flight back, and when the borders shut, it became clear that their snap decision was one of those decisions that seemed overcautious at first but was excellent in hindsight. It’s worth noting that shutting borders to certain countries, as Europe and the US are beginning to do now, is actually not the stringent ban that it seems to be. For example, you can’t prohibit a citizen of your own country from coming in – that’s what it means to be a citizen. So in this case, Taiwanese citizens like Camilla would have been able to come back. When it comes to Henry, that could have been a bigger question. In fact, a friend who had been traveling in Finland was worried that she wouldn’t be able to return to Taiwan if they transited through Hong Kong. Fortunately, it also became clear that foreigners who already had an Alien Residence Certificate would be allowed back in.

Then on February 7, the other shoe dropped. At dinner, our phones started buzzing simultaneously, evidence that there was a nationwide alert about something. Occasionally, such alerts are sent for typhoons or earthquakes to all cellphones within the area, so we weren’t too surprised, but the contents of this one was a surprise. It turned out that on January 31, the day when I went downtown for yarn and we had hot pot with a bunch of friends, was the day that the fateful Diamond Princess had docked in Keelung, Taipei’s main shipping port and the northernmost city in Taiwan. After the Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama and was found to be carrying COVID-19, Taiwanese officials had been busy tracing the past path of the boat, and found that though the carrier they believed to have infected the boat, a man from Hong Kong, had disembarked already on January 27, the rest of the passengers including some which may have had the virus took a day in Taipei. The text we had received came with a link to Google Maps, where they had recorded the cruise ship passenger itineraries, and depressingly seemed to contain absolutely every single tourist hotspot in the north. With this one move, COVID-19 seemed to be at our front doors. Steve was grimly satisfied that his prediction about the dangers of hot pot seemed to be justified, even if no one had seemed to catch it from this event yet, but this was the spark that fanned the flames of panic in Taipei. January 31 was still the New Year holiday, and most of Taipei’s population had probably been out and about in these locations. A week had already passed, but everyone who had been in those locations anytime between 6:30 am to 5 pm (probably the time that the Diamond Princess was in harbor) was asked to self-monitor their health for the next week until February 14, when the 14-day incubation period for the virus would have passed. My LINE messages from that time record worried back and forth messages with Donna, whose sister had already flown back to the US, and was worried about burning through her sick leave by going home since they had gotten a foot massage that day near one of those locations. I myself had gone to the yarn store just a few blocks away, but thankfully had been wearing at least my cloth mask that whole time.

Three weeks had seemed like a boring eternity to me, and I had idly wondered whether it would be a good idea or not to take a long weekend in Yilan or the south of the island. Now it was coming home to us that the virus was right here in the city, and that it would probably be a good idea to go absolutely nowhere in general. Steve even stopped going as often to his co-working spot just fifteen minutes away because it would mean getting on the public transit more often. Instead, we started taking long walks at night on the riverbanks with Stella. With my expanding belly, I was getting restless at home, but at night in the open air, with a slight breeze, it felt good to stretch my legs and walk for hours. This was the main way we spent time outside in the subsequent few weeks. Occasionally, we made trips to dinner or lunch with a few friends (scrupulously keeping our distance from those who had just gotten back from travel abroad), but more often, we made lunch and dinner at home. Fortunately, the time passed more quickly than I had expected, and with the number of cases continuing to increase linearly (instead of exponentially), the mood was tense but not panicky. When we met with friends or went out, we joked about how great it was to be able to get our house in order, do many loads of laundry, and get as much sleep as we wanted. Even for my friends who had switched to digital learning and online teaching, their first class was usually at 9 am, more than an hour later than usual. So though people complained about spending more of their day in front of a computer, it was not as bad as it could have been. I think the most sympathy had to be given to parents, who were doing their best to entertain and to cope with their young children. While at our school, there were continuing lessons and classes being conducted digitally, many parents I knew were trying to take it one day at a time and not be run ragged by the prospect of being at home for so long with everyone. Fortunately, school still provided a little bit of structure, allowing children to devote themselves to particular subjects throughout the day. I even heard from some friends that this provided a silver lining for their student engagement; some quieter students wrote more on discussion boards than they would raise their hands and say in class. Also, instead of spacing out for a 80-minute class, students were spending 40 minutes doing timed writing exercises, and overall devoting more energy to doing their work than they would perhaps have in class, not that they’d admit to such!

The crazy thing that I took away about COVID-19 was that astonishingly quickly, the new normal took hold, and it became incredibly hard for me to remember what life had been like before this. It was a part of every single conversation I had with friends or parents, Skype calls originally scheduled to update them about the progress of my pregnancy. It just became overwhelmingly the only topic of conversation. When we met up with school friends for drinks one night, the conversation revolved around digital learning, quarantine, and not heck of a lot else. When I looked at Instagram photos from the past few months or watched videos of bloggers walking around Taipei (one of Steve’s favorite things to look at on YouTube), I marveled that not everyone was wearing a face mask, and that people were just mingling around in these crowded spaces without any hint of fear. It seemed like a more innocent time already.

At the same time, we were also learning what consumer panic and supply shortages could look like. On February 8, Taiwan English News reported massive toilet paper sales in Taiwan. Rumors had spread that the increase on demand for raw material used to make face masks would mean that a lower supply of raw material for toilet paper and other paper products. Besides being patently false because toilet paper is made to dissolve in water, and masks need to stand up to some moisture, it was later discovered that the rumor/ social media messages were started by some people who actually worked in the industry and whether erroneously or willfully believed it could be used to their advantage. Taiwan’s been through toilet paper panics before, and fortunately, we were fully stocked even before this thanks to our penchant for being “preppers”, as Steve calls it. However, it made us realize that the true danger did not solely lie in contracting COVID-19. The atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and apprehension made people susceptible to all kinds of groupthink. While we were not in danger of running out of anything in particular, we could easily create our own problems because of ignorance and fear. In response, the Taiwanese government stepped up fines for spreading rumors about COVID-19 to a maximum of NT $3 million (USD $100,000).

Overall, all signs pointed to the Taiwanese government continuing to take this crisis very seriously. The CECC was continuing to work overtime, tracing the contacts of those who had tested positive. Every day, the Taiwan CDC would put out two to three press releases told us how many people were tracked, tested, and put on home quarantine or cleared to go about their daily lives, like this one from February 10. Chen Shih-Chung, the minister of health and welfare who was also the head of the CECC, was basically becoming everyone’s favorite politician. He held daily press conferences and was said to have rushed to attending one after working all night welcoming back a chartered flight of Taiwanese nationals who were returning from Wuhan. His popularity has soared so much during Taiwan’s handling of the entire COVID-19 outbreak that the public is spontaneously paying tribute to him already. Steve was quoting him constantly, and fond of referring to the fact that the current vice-president was an epidemiologist by training.

At the same time, digital tools were being made available to the public to help them handle the crisis. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, announced on February 6 at the same time that masks were starting to be rationed a platform to help track face mask supplies. Many apps and maps were being made to track face mask rationing so that the public could identify and visit the pharmacies which still had masks in stock. We used to find the ones closest to our house.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note how worried I was during this phase about anti-Asian sentiment. Several times in February, I shared Facebook articles with friends about the wave of xenophobia that Asians were facing around the world. Children were being bullied in school, people were being beat up in public in Europe, Chinatown restaurants were feeling the lack of business all over the United States, and microaggressions of a million different sorts were being reported all over the world. Imagine how hurtful it was for people to move away from you at the sight of you, for those people to start berating you for wearing a face mask, for people to get up if you sat down next to them. This happened in Europe before there was a single case declared. Here, it is impossible for people in Taiwan to shy away from others on the basis of looking like they were from mainland China. Until you open your mouth (and maybe sometimes afterwards), there’s just no way to know. Everyone’s behind a face mask anyway. But it pained me to see how racism and xenophobia were running rampant elsewhere in the world, given new free rein by the appearance of COVID-19.

Overall, I was feeling pretty ragged. On February 26, I wrote in my private journal, Feeling the baby move is a genuinely great feeling, and would make these days a transport of delight if it were not for the stress of the coronavirus outbreak and the pressure of making decisions, buying things, figuring out where to live. For the past few weeks, my lower left eyelid has been twitching constantly, a reminder that low-level background stress is permeating throughout my life. Maybe an exciting part of becoming a parent… maybe this epidemic which has killed a lot of people already is waiting in the background to pounce. Next week, we will return to school, but I’ve already been called in for a “fever screening training” to make sure we can take the temperatures for everyone coming into school. Steve’s good friends Andrew and Erin, who were planning to come in about a month for spring break, are probably not coming, because everyone in the US is afraid of coronavirus. They’re slightly more concerned about ending up in quarantine afterwards, but it’s really hard to convey how with spring coming, green leaves and sunlight on the trees, with rising temperatures and more folks out of doors not wearing as many face masks, the fear of contagion is more a fear than anything else. It’s really hard to convey that. We don’t know yet what will happen, but the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty when planning further out… it is a very difficult thing to deal with.

In Part 3, I write about going back to school, watching the COVID-19 situation explode in Europe and the US, and why US higher education has made an epic mistake.

Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 1

For the past two months, our lives have been turned kind of upside down just like the lives of everyone else living in Asia. The novel coronavirus, also now known as COVID-19, exploded onto the scene at the same time as Lunar New Year. In this time, it has gone from a mild concern to a full-fledged wildfire, rampaging through our lives, to a less urgent but still vital issue, as we watch the same waves that passed through East Asia begin to reverberate through the US. We’ve realized now that this is shaping up to be one of the biggest incidents in our lifetime, and seeing what is happening to our friends and family in the US makes us want to help and speak up somehow. I think one of the only places to start is by chronicling how we’ve seen it so far.

Part 1:

Though it seems like a bit of an exaggeration, our story really starts more than 15 years ago. While I was still in high school, the SARS outbreak in East Asia of 2002-2003 left an enduring mark on Taiwan. Thousands in Asia were sickened, and Taiwan had more than 70 deaths. Friends who were in Taiwan at that time had school canceled early, and went without their graduation ceremony in May. Old-timers at our school talked about the quarantine procedure that happened because some parents had gotten it, and one of them died. They shut down the school, and made sure that everyone stayed at home for two weeks, checking on them daily with visits in hazmat suits, handing them lunchboxes to make sure they didn’t have any reasons to go outside. Overall, more than 150,000 people were placed on a strict quarantine by the government. After SARS, the Taiwanese developed a habit of wearing face masks quite often if anyone exhibits symptoms of a respiratory illness. More importantly, the government made several changes, including instituting the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which is an agency that would be activated in times of crisis, and headed up by the Minister of Public Health. It would have emergency powers and be the central decision maker about closing schools, businesses, and instituting emergency measures.

Fast forward to 2020. In mid-January, we started hearing about a mysterious disease in Wuhan, China. It barely registered with me when I heard that my dad was leaving Shanghai a few days early for New Year’s break, but it ended up being a huge boon that he got out of China on January 17. On January 21, Taiwan CDC reported their first case of the coronavirus, a Taiwanese businesswoman who had just traveled back from Wuhan, and on January 22, the CECC was activated and already hard at work making sure that face masks would be available, even though the week-long New Year’s vacation had just started. By the time New Year’s break started here on January 25, the result was that Taiwan was already on high alert. I reassured my parents that we would be fine, but on January 26, when we went to Shilin Night Market for a walk, Steve and I were both taken back that we were the only ones in sight on the MRT or in the night market not wearing a face mask. In any given day in Taiwan, a handful of people on the train or bus are always wearing a face mask. It’s a polite thing to do if you have a cold or are suffering from allergy symptoms, because people will look at you askance if you sneeze, cough, or show a runny nose. The idea is: why aren’t you protecting other people by putting some cautionary measures in place if you want to be sick or look sick and still be in public transport? That week, we started playing a game, which was to see how many people we could count who were not wearing face masks on public transit. It usually ended up being 5 to 7 people, two of which were ourselves.

While I’m generally a little more burned out on the news cycle and staying away from the phones, Steve started voraciously reading everything he could about the newest cases, and decided it was time for us to start getting some preventative measures. First, we started walking around trying to figure out where we could buy face masks, hand sanitizer, or rubbing alcohol. Though this was only late January, we were already pretty late on the ball. Most places were sold out or only getting very occasional shipments. One afternoon, we saw a line outside Cosmed, a CVS-type of store, and I jumped in line without being able to figure out what was exactly being sold. Fortunately, it was face masks, and I got a pack of 5 purple masks, because we were only able to buy one pack per person. However, alcoholic wipes, hand sanitizer, and rubbing alcohol were nowhere to be found, even though we walked everywhere. On January 27, we received emails from school saying the New Year break would be extended for three days, and we would go back to school on February 6, not February 3. Many families had probably taken the break time to travel to China, Hong Kong, and other places where the coronavirus seemed to be more prevalent, and this would give us a little bit of breathing room to make sure that if people showed symptoms, they would not come to school.

By the time it was Steve’s birthday on January 30, we had gotten a hold of some masks, both cloth ones that are usually worn for people who are on scooters, and paper ones. The next day on January 31, we were scheduled to go to hot pot downtown with our friends Matt, Donna, Donna’s sister who was visiting from the US, and Jeff. That morning, I made a trip downtown while wearing my cloth mask to buy some yarn from one of the only stores that sells it. While heading downtown for the hot pot, Steve mentally wondered if this was the wrong move. Even in good times, he’s convinced that hot pot is just a terrible disease vector, as are most all you can eat buffets where many people are coming by and using the same handles to get condiments and drinks and desserts. So though it was a delicious dinner, Steve had his misgivings, which were entirely proven to be true a few days later.

On January 30, the CECC was starting to institute a 3-mask per person limit to be dispensed through convenience stores and other small marts. We only succeeded in buying some face masks after staking out the local 7-11 and being told that the delivery truck comes around midnight. So at midnight, we walked downstairs and around the corner to get our three per person, which were packaged in these little plastic baggies. That still constitutes half of the face mask supply we have at home!

On February 4, the CECC introduced another measure limiting face masks. Instead of being dispensed through convenience stores, only government-sanctioned pharmacies would have masks, and you could buy two at a time, once per week. They would track people via their National Health Insurance cards; for foreigners who didn’t have NHI, they would be tracked through their passport number. Moreover, each store would only be given 200 face masks per day. At the same time, Taiwan was ramping up mask production. By the end of the New Year’s holiday, there were millions of masks being produced every single day, and the majority of them was going to hospitals and other locales where they were hoping to build up at least a two-week supply if a large wave of patients hit.

The measure seemed to us like a severe overreaction at the time, but in a theme that would repeat time and time again in the next two months, measures that seemed like an overreaction turned out to be made exactly in time and to the correct extent. We were learning that in order to keep it in control, you had to get ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Our Italian trip is over and done with, and we are back basking in the humidity of mid-August Taipei, but I want to make sure to document the rest of our trip. Thanks to all my copious photos and Instagramming not to mention the wealth of Wikipedia, I have some great reference points. The most anticipated part of our Italian trip was the visit to the ancient sites of Rome, because I took Latin for six years and studied mythology and Roman history for most of that time. Many sites in Rome hail from the most fascinating times in its history – the late Republic and the early Empire (about 100 BC to 150 AD). In exploring those sites, we trekked through the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums, and the Baths of Caracalla.

The most rewarding but easily most tiring day was visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on a joint ticket of 12 euros. We lined up to buy tickets at the Forum as soon as things opened at 8:30 am, and scored a 9 am entrance to the Colosseum, bypassing what easily looked like a hundred and fifty people in line. Eek. The Colosseum was better known in ancient times as the Flavian Ampitheater, begun by Vespasian, who began his reign in 69 AD. His oldest son Titus continued the building, and it was finished by his younger son Domitian. Originally, wooden passageways under the floor of the Colosseum were used to channel the gladiators and beasts who fought in the stadium. Sometimes, they would be removed entirely, and the entire floor flooded with water to provide a stage for mock naval battles. (That ended after Domitian constructed stone passageways to replace the wooden ones.) It is still incredibly imposing, despite a few earthquakes over the centuries that have destabilized one side.

There was much more signage around than when Steve came last time, including some interesting permanent exhibits about the archeology done around the area. For example, we saw a lot of discarded foodstuff, and could extrapolate the ancient equivalent of popcorn and beer that the Romans would enjoy at the races. As we walked around, there was no shortage of folks who had not taken Latin for six years and decided to employed tour guides in various languages. Many of them spoke English, but it was fun listening to one family get a tour guide in very Italian-accented French. It was at least possible to hide from the sun amid the huge arches, so even though it got hot quickly, we did enjoy our time walking around the Colosseum. We capped off our visit by sitting in the shade outside admiring the Arch of Constantine and munching on some tasteless sandwiches. (There are very few food places surrounding these sights in the middle of Rome, so we had purchased sandwiches beforehand, but they were no prize either.)

Continue reading Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Rome: Pope Days Edition

Rome was hot and sunny. We have baked under the sun, trod through her streets, and walked underground beneath her buildings. We have watched many of her sunsets, but only one of her sunrises (it is usually too early for that). This was certainly the most anticipated city, but even a whole eight nights, the longest we’re staying in any one city, wasn’t enough to see everything we wanted to see. To sum up our Rome trip, we alternated Pope Days, which require a bit more modest clothing with long pants and t-shirts or shoulder-covering shirts, with Ancient Days, which generally require more sunscreen and hats since we’re out there walking from “hot ruin to hot ruin”. Steve was also slightly more enthusiastic about Pope Days, his bailiwick being more the history of early Christianity, and I of course wanted to come to Rome mainly to see the classics sites from 2,500 or so years ago, but we have a good overlap of interest in those respective topics.

I’ll get right to our favorite, the Vatican Scavi tour, which is actually a nice combination of our two interests. I think few people know that under the world-famous St. Peter’s Basilica (level one) is a church originally dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD, and that church itself (level two) was raised above St. Peter’s tomb, which is among a hillside of Roman mausoleums (level three). This was certainly all news to me, but we learned about it during a 90-minute tour that was probably the best bang for buck we’ve spent on the trip.

The visit itself was a re-do for Steve from the last time he was in Rome, which was roughly 15 years ago. The process has not really changed, either. We wrote an email with our availability, and were sent a few dates in response. Then we had to follow another link and pay so that we would be able to go. Days were selling out even months ago! So we were really glad this was all planned in April and May. We had a little trouble figuring out where to go, but after some confusion, we followed the correct police checkpoint on the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica and presented our credentials to the Swiss Guard. The Swiss Guard, by the way, had some fabulous summer costumes on – floofy velvet hats, yellow, red, and blue ribboned pants and shirts, not to mention a very sharp pike in hand. We almost wanted a picture with one!

Inside the Scavi, we and thirteen other guests were greeted by an effusive lady named Daniela who gave us very long explanations of everything as well as some very dry jokes. After some introductions about the history of the building, we directly descended from the level just under St. Peter’s Basilica to the underground scavi. Here, it was damp, cool, and musty. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves walking through what was obviously some narrow paths beside small cottages that were Roman mausoleums. Entire families were buried there, and clear marble inscriptions said that they were for particular families, children, their freedmen and freedwomen as well. We had to duck to pass the doorways in some to look at the mosaics or the wall niches inside which held room for urns of ashes and bone. Outside, we could clearly see some beautiful fresco decorations on the wall, and one that looked like a delicate bird held my attention for a full five minutes. What’s amazing to me is that nobody knew anything about these mausoleums until after World War II. They were only initially excavated in the 1940s to locate the exact remains of St. Peter, and it took a long time to figure out which bones were his, exactly. It turns out that there was a wall built on top of the marble box that was his grave, initially constructed as a part of the wall for the church dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD. The box itself was empty, but the wall had a cavity which contained a human skeleton, which the church now believes to be the remains of St. Peter.

When the tour ended, we were inside St. Peter’s Basilica proper, which we then walked into. First, we saw the Vatican Grottoes, which is on the second level. We saw plenty of sarcophagi of former popes, which varied from the very Baroque and flowery bronze and gold cover to very worn marble effigies which looked simple and austere. Then we emerged to the upper level,  into the church itself. St. Peter’s is vast. We have seen plenty of churches, and most of them could fit inside St. Peter’s Basilica. There were many statues, especially of marble carved to resemble fabric, like an angel or a saint with flowing robes carved of red marble. Around the frieze just under the ceiling, the immortal words of Jesus to St. Peter were carved: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam,” meaning “You are Peter, and on this stone (which is what Peter means) I will build my church.” There were also areas roped off for worshippers rather than idle tourists like ourselves. I even saw several confessional booths which were labeled with the different languages to which they catered – you could make your confession to a priest at St. Peter’s in English, Italian, French, and more. It’s neat things like that that make you appreciate being in a place of such international importance.

The other main draw was the Vatican Museums, which was the first thing we saw in Rome on our first full day here. It was a five-hour haul through these museums, the most impressive and large but also exhausting museum that we saw on our entire trip. Steve happened upon the right tickets online, so we jumped on it, and hustled off to the Vatican, evading touts and ticket scalpers all along the perimeter of Vatican City itself. Inside, the museums were an amazing array of everything that every pope has ever commissioned, acquired, or received as a present from various dignitaries and artists throughout the centuries. There were ancient statues like the original of Laocoön and His Sons, which you can tell is the original, because the hands of the children are lost. There are entire rooms of red and black Etruscan pottery from the 400s and 500s BC, amazing in their exquisite detail, of mythological figures or just merrymakers. It would probably take a lifetime to even just walk through every single room and look at each thing that was made more than two thousand years before you were born. One of my favorites was the Gallery of Maps, which was a very long room with exquisite maps painted on the walls of various parts in Italy, in gold and blue. The Vatican Museums was arranged in one long guided route which went one direction and ended up in the Sistine Chapel, and for most of the time, we were swept along by a tide of international tourists. Families from every country on earth it seemed like fanned themselves and chattered to each other or silently followed a tour guide with an upheld flag, listening to the guide through their Bluetooth headphones in different languages. We stepped out of that river of humanity several times to closely examine maps of Sicily or of ancient ports like Brundisium and Ostia.

One of the largest crowds was in the rooms of frescos by Raphael, including the famous School of Athens. It depicts many philosophers known to the Renaissance all arrayed in a marble courtyard, at its center Plato with one finger pointed at the sky and Aristotle with his hand facing down, five fingers splayed. I know the painting well, since I completed a 1,000 piece puzzle of the painting several years ago (not the conventional way of getting to know a piece of art, I know). In person, it’s very satisfying, being the entire width and height of a wall. It also depicts many other philosophers including Diogenes, Epicurus, Pythagoras, and more. I enjoyed that almost more than the final room that most people come to the Vatican to see: the Sistine Chapel. With its immense ceiling by Michaelangelo and surrounding frescos, the Sistine Chapel is more often known as an art gallery, but the truth is that it’s first and foremost a chapel for the Pope. In the Vatican, this is also the place that the cardinals gather to select the pope. However, most days, it is filled with hundreds of tourists (being a rather large room), who are all ushered to the center of the room so as not to impede traffic around the edges of the room. Everyone is gazing at the ceiling, trying to make sense of paintings besides the obvious one that everyone knows (Adam limply brushing the finger of God as an old man). And there’s an amazing amount to see. Possibly more because you’re not actually allowed to take photos in the Chapel. Every five minutes, there’s some guard yelling “No photo!” at some poor lady, which kind of makes it difficult to enjoy the sacred space, but anyway, some people get selfies in anyway. Either way, I appreciate the chance to just look at things. All around the chapel are larger frescos, and the frescos that run lengthwise depict the corresponding events in the lives of Jesus and Moses. There are also paintings of Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel next to paintings of the Delphic Sybil and other Sybils who are also regarded as having predicted the coming of Jesus. All in all, it’s quite a dizzying room, and you can only hold your neck at an angle for so long. At the end of an entire afternoon filled with dazzling art and beautiful examples, it’s in fact difficult not to fall asleep on your feet.

Of course, we enjoyed our time seeing these glittering examples of antiquity and the Renaissance, but it’s a word of warning to the wise: ration your time in museums, and give yourself plenty of time to recover just by sitting around and enjoying the gorgeous light and people-watching in this city. When it comes to museums, there is more than enough to keep you occupied for a whole day, but you only have so much attention and time, so keep your eye on the time.

More to come: Ancient Days in Rome and all the amazing food we ate!