Monday, May 24, 2010

Taiwan History: SARs

The arrival of SARS:
This is a bit of history. I can't remember though whether SARs was 2003 or 2004.
SARs was a weird thing as it came, paralyzed Asia and then disappeared never to be seen again. It is natural to compare it to swine flu, but for those of us who were here then know, it was much, much worse: SARs caused panic, economic slowdown, and a real change in behavior for a few months. For example, even the foreigners were wearing face masks.
April 22nd - Taiwan is habitually unlucky – if there is a disease out there or a freak weather system we get it; but, for once, the country had been holding it breath watching the crisis in China, Singapore and Hong Kong, hoping it would stay unaffected. No such luck. There is a collective national sigh as the horror that Taiwan had been free of for the last two to three months finally stuck, president receives a call to say that SARS cases are suspected in Hoping Hospital.
April 24th Hoping hospital is closed down and quarantined off with staff and patients all inside. It is suspected by some the administrator of the hospital was covering up cases which led to the infection of his staff.
A human tragedy and the cries of help of your fellow citizens proves not to be a time for China to show a compassionate helping hand, but score more political points and squeeze the Taiwanese people. The WHO has to scale down the number of officials it wants to send to Taiwan for fear China will object. Meanwhile, the government insists the WHO did not need Beijing's approval to visit Taipei, while China said last week it had given the health body permission to visit Taiwan. According to sources China tried hard to get a clause inserted in the WHO response mandate making it essential to get the approval of the national governments before the WHO could despatch health officials to a country. Presumably, there only aim was to prevent Taiwan getting any help and holding it to ransom.
After a couple of weeks of staying in we plucked up the courage to meet for dinner.
“So, have the bars been busy?” I asked Pierre. Needless to say Pierre knew he wasn’t going to get it, so had still been going at as usual.
“Deserted,” he replied. “That is Taiwan – Ok to bang complete stranger without a condom, but SARS, now that is dangerous shit.”
While we were talking Eric was covering his mouth with his hand.
“What are you doing?” asked John.
“Sorry,” replied Eric realizing it was a little too much.
I understood his paranoia. When I sat down I had taken off my mask – it was difficult to eat otherwise – but immediately started to feel insecure, sense the germs rushing into my mouth, up my nose, and burrowing into the porous regions of my eye sockets.
Everyone now had to wear a mask on the underground and in public places. Along with getting temperature checks every time we went into buildings.
“I feel like Hannibal Lecter in this bloody thing!” snarled John.
“Funny! I feel like a doctor,” said Eric. “You?”
“A 19th century highway robber,” said Pierre.
“Me? Just a little bit of a dick,” I replied.
“There you go,” said John. “A psychiatrist would love us.”
“I feel sorry for this guy,” said John. “I mean this is a good falafel and this guy is going to go out of business.”
SARS meant empty restaurants. As I drove into town, I looked in the windows of restaurants and it was a sad story of just a couple of people in each, who, like us, couldn’t stand staying at home any longer. It was hard to relax as we were acutely aware at every second of the movement of our hands vis-a-vis their proximity to alien surfaces. They had been wiped down – we witnessed it – but now our hands had brushed these surfaces, and who could be sure the waitress did a good job with her disinfectant? And anyway, we had been to the bathroom since the dousing meaning it was likely some person or persons, had wandered over to our table for very good reasons and rubbed their probable SARS infected hands over the table…then again perhaps we were being paranoid.
“I am out of here soon,” said John rubbing his hands again with gel. We were surprised the big tough guy, was worried about this - His wife was heavily pregnant but ensconced in Taitung on a mountain where there had been no recorded cases and he, personally, was least likely to have a problem: he was super fit and super fit people didn't die of this respiratory disease. It was his fear of dying in Taiwan getting the better of him again. He had watched the people quarantined off in the hospital with their relatives outside crying for them and got in a panic. He was right, it was a horrible way to go: from the moment you found your 38 degree temperature they were going to isolate you and you were going to die alone in a bed, your family and friends unable to do anything but write ‘I love you’ on a piece of paper and hold it up at the window.
Eric was technically a trainee doctor of Chinese medicine and still going to the clinic everyday. That evening he started to think about whether he was obliged or not. Convention has it that the medical profession, being one of the emergency services, was a potentially dangerous job. True. But he wasn't sure he had signed some sort of unwritten contract with society to ‘risk his own life’ as well as save others.
He decided to call his sister because her husband was a doctor. Still she was not very sympathetic.
“Of course, I am worried, but you are not the only doctor in the family. I have to worry about Simon, whether my kid’s father will be home everyday. There is a responsibility,” she said.
Eric put down the phone in reluctant agreement, but then he remembered Simon was a plastic surgeon and the only way he was going to die in the line of duty was to slip on a bag of fat he had just lip suctioned and stick the scalpel in his throat. The more he thought about it, the more it occurred that none of the plastic surgeons, heart surgeons and gaenocologists, he knew ever put themselves anywhere near contagious sick people. They bathed in the glory of association with the fire and police departments, drawing 10 times the pay and none of the risk.
May 18th - Record jump of 34 reported SARS cases.
End of May - Suddenly every thing is under control and people are slowly beginning to fill the streets again. But China is not finished - Despite Taiwan having no new SARS cases for the requisite time laid out in WHO rules, it can't get itself off the list of SARs countries. It is rumored because China has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to ignore requests from Taiwan to be removed from the list until China is taken off the list.
All seems a distant memory now….

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stupid expat in Asia: It is different for the Vietnamese brides

Eric got better over the years in Taiwan - A combination of us and his wife shouting at him the moment he started talking about racism. But is wasn’t just that: I think he slowly did realize he was happy and it was different, but it had its benefits.
This was one of his last stupidities – at least that we all new about….
During the early 2000’s the south-east Asian bride phenomenon had accelerated to epic proportions – To the point where 1-in-10 of Taiwan marriages were to a Asian bride and 1-in-8 children born were mixed race. In response, Taipei city government among others had established a support center to help them integrate into society, and was now offering free Chinese classes.
Eric, pissed at having to pay, was trying to make a point. “Why can’t I sign up? I am a foreign spouse?” he said to the woman in the center.
“I don’t think this is for you! It is for new brides. New in Taiwan,” she replied. 
“Lady, this is sexist! I met my wife in the States and I just arrived last week. What is the difference?” he replied.
Helping foreign spouses - and he knew it before he went - meant south east asian women married to Taiwanese men. Most western expat guys came because they were interested in Taiwan, they met their wives here after first having time to get used to things, but a minority did come here after meeting their wives back in America or Europe, and for those people, as Eric rightly pointed out there was no difference. Still, the staff behind the desk didn’t know what to say, how to explain the difference because it it obvious: You are a western man. Your Taiwanese wife belongs to you. She married you so that she could have a western lifestyle. You speak English and your Taiwan wife and relatives want to practice theirs. You will eventually leave. We don’t make you follow our customs…Besides, and most importantly, we are not doing this because we want to make Taipei an international city, but because there are so many Vietnamese and Indonesian brides now we have to. Sorry, there are not many of you! You just ain’t a priority!
The same is said for our (western man/Taiwanese woman) children – the authorities regard them as western because we are, and why waste time and resources on them, when obviously they are going to go back to England to go to school. They want to send their children there after all.
All the woman could say was: “Sorry, I understand you, but nothing I can do.”
Eric hadn’t given up: “My wife is a journalist, you know! I will be back later so you can explain on camera.” That evening his wife tried to persuade some newspapers to take the story; they got her point – eventually! - but didn’t really think the subject newsworthy. Calling their bluff proved sufficient, as the next day the manager of the place offered him a chance to study - he went for two weeks, just to prove his point. He was happy with himself; we weren’t happy with him at all.
John: “God, you are anal! We hardly have the learning curve of some poor girl from Vietnam who marries an alcoholic, socially mal-adjusted gas bottle delivery man twice her age, then has to go and live in his crap little apartment in the countryside with his mother and father, learn overnight how to cook his favorite bamboo soup and clean the beetle nut stains from his wardrobe of white vests, while, his relatives treat her like a slave and shout at her in an alien language.”
“It is not the point, it is the principle.” But Eric no longer felt good about his victory against the system.
“It is exactly the point!” we all said.