To be Alive is Through Trial and Error - Kayo Chang Black
Big-bearded men in baseball caps and flannel shirts congregated around grey folding tables. Their wives trailed behind them in tank tops and shorts, revealing pale limbs that hadn’t seen the sun during the long, southern Indiana winter. I went up to see what they were looking at—and gasped.
I stood before the rows of shotguns, rifles, and handguns. Growing up on the suburban west coast of Canada, my experience with firearms had been limited to my brother's B.B. gun and my father's pellet gun that he bought at a garage sale.
I have never seen so many guns in my life! I texted my husband, Derek. Should I be a tourist and take pictures?
Yes! He replied.
As a Taiwanese Canadian visiting my husband’s American family without a green card, I was a tourist. So I aimed my phone toward the tables and snapped a few pictures.
It was early May 2021, and my father-in-law, Ray, brought me to a police auction in Scottsburg, Indiana, shortly after the CDC updated its mask guidelines to enable vaccinated people to resume indoor activities without masks. I saw a man bent down, inspect a shotgun, frown, and shuffle forward— it was surreal to see the lower half of his face and read his expressions after eighteen months of mask-wearing. But then, I also wondered how many people at the auction were vaccinated.
Derek’s family wore masks and received vaccines to protect Ray’s health. He was battling Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), a terminal and irreversible lung disease that was choking the life out of him— only a double-lung transplant could extend his life. In the autumn of 2020, when my father-in-law was first diagnosed, Derek and I lived in Sri Lanka. We packed our apartment shortly after Derek's sister called to share the news. Then, we flew to Madison, Indiana, a historic town along the scenic Ohio River where Derek and his sisters grew up.
We arrived in December 2020, intending to stay for six months. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Taiwan closed its borders. I was free to go to Taiwan, but Derek, an American citizen, was not. Therefore, we got stuck in the rural Midwest.
After inspecting some worthless costume jewelry and low-grade gold trinkets at the auction, I caught up with Ray. He dragged his oxygen tanks as he milled around the tables, scrutinizing the firearms.
"See anything good, Dad?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Did you see anything you wanted to bid on?"
"Nah," I said.
We left as more mask-less people entered the auction.
How quickly Americans—specifically rural Americans— ditched their masks was not shocking. Back in 2003, I thought mask-wearing was stupid too.
"Chang Chia Jung, don't you dare walk out of that door without wearing a mask!" my mother yelled as I opened the front door. I was visiting my parents in Taipei as SARS ravaged the city.
I sighed. It was never a good sign when my mother called me by my full Chinese name. I turned around and accepted the mask from her outstretched hand. She watched me put it on.
"Be careful," she said.
I walked out of the door and stepped into the elevator. When the heavy metal door closed, I took off my mask and stuffed it in my pocket.
I got on the MRT, the Taipei subway system that connected the sprawling Taiwanese capital. As I entered the train, I noted that every person wore a mask. A few people gawked at me, shocked and dismayed by my bare face. I ignored them and sat down with what others might have perceived as impish glee. I felt invincible— I figured I would be safe from the virus if everyone wore a mask.
I believed SARS was blown out of proportion. I was convinced that the Taiwanese media utilized fear-mongering tactics to scare homemakers like my mother— but I wasn't about to be fooled. Despite having no scientific or medical knowledge, I believed the effects of the virus were exaggerated and the benefits of masks overrated. Therefore, I continued to make a show for my mother by putting on a mask before going out and taking it off as soon as I was out of her sight. Who would've thought many Americans would have similar sentiments about another coronavirus and mask-wearing almost twenty years later?
Less than two decades later, I returned to Taiwan at the start of another viral outbreak. Derek and I had recently left Hong Kong, where we lived for nearly eight years, after accepting teaching positions at a design university in Colombo, Sri Lanka. When the new coronavirus first appeared in Asia, Derek and I were in Taiwan celebrating the Lunar New Year with my parents. The morning before our flight back to Sri Lanka via Hong Kong, Derek and I sat around the dining table with my parents. As we ate our breakfast, the room was silent. Everyone was in their little silo with their phones, scrolling through their Facebook feed or reading the news. Derek sipped his coffee, the crease in his forehead more prominent than usual. "This is not good," he grumbled as he took a screenshot.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Look," Derek said as he showed me various screenshots revealing the rapid daily increase in infections.
"This is going to be huge," he said. "We'll need to buy masks since we will be out and about in Hong Kong during our layover," Derek said.
Even with my almost-a-decade in Hong Kong, where people wore a mask at the onset of the slightest sniffles, I never adopted the habit. It seemed uncomfortable to obstruct my airway, especially when I was sick. But Derek, the non-Asian of us, would wear a mask the second he felt a tickle in his throat.
My father indulged Derek and drove us to a pharmacy. The clerk informed us that medical masks were sold out. At the second pharmacy, we got the same message. By the third sold-out pharmacy, Derek was agitated. My mother started panicking. Even though I was indifferent about masks just hours before, my imagination began to run wild as I stood before empty displays and recounted scenes from The Walking Dead.
Finally, my father pulled over to a dingy store near my grandmother's house, the Taiwanese equivalent of the Dollar General. "Let's try here," he said.
The medical masks were upstairs on the second floor. After scanning the picked-through rows of empty racks, we spotted some packets of 3M masks. After our ordeal, a part of me wanted to hoard them. But Derek only took three packages, leaving two for the next person.
Derek and I took the 90-minute flight to Hong Kong the following morning. We double-masked on the plane and the Airport Express that took us into the city. We met for drinks with friends, and our conversation veered into the new virus that originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, China. My friends said obtaining medical masks in Hong Kong was impossible, so Derek and I doled out our supply, thinking we had plenty for our journey. We had several more drinks and hugged everybody goodbye before returning to the airport for our flight to Colombo.
The late afternoon in February 2020 was our last hurrah under the shadow of the new virus, which eventually became known as COVID-19.
The government imposed a curfew shortly after we returned to Sri Lanka. At first, we didn’t know what it entailed—we assumed that we just had to stay home at night— after all, it would be insane not to let us go to work or get groceries. Then, a couple of hours before the curfew commenced, I read the government bulletin more carefully and realized it was an all-weekend lockdown. All the stores were closed by then, and we couldn’t restock our food supplies. That night, we scrolled through the news and read about the Sri Lankan police arrested people for leaving their homes. The next day, we climbed to our rooftop and saw soldiers armed with AKs patrolling our neighborhood. By the end of the weekend, the government extended the curfew indefinitely but decided to lift it for six hours for people to restock supplies.
When we arrived at the grocery store armed with our masks, hand sanitizer, and nylon shopping bags, the line to enter the grocery store had already snaked around the building and down the street. We followed the line, and it was six blocks before we found the end of the queue. There was no social distancing; people were inching closer and breathing down our necks as the line crawled.
An hour passed, and we were still waiting to enter the store under the blazing sun. After drinking the last drop in my water bottle, I left Derek to fetch more water from our apartment. Upon my return, we continued to wait. A security guard finally took our temperature and waved us into the store five hours later. Inside the store, the shelves were half empty, and people grabbed whatever they could. The scenes of a zombie apocalypse played in my head as we elbowed our way to the meat section to snatch the last frozen chicken. Then we stuffed our shopping bags with a dozen eggs and fresh produce to last a week. Derek also stocked up on canned vegetables, rice, and pasta.
When we got home, we still had thirty minutes before the curfew started again. So we dumped our groceries in the kitchen, threw on our bathing suits, and sprinted to the beach. The sand was scalding hot, and we hopped into the water to cool our feet. We leaped into the choppy waves, determined for one last dip in the Indian Ocean before the government locked us up. I jumped onto Derek's shoulder, and we giggled and splashed around like children. We finally exited the water when soldiers with A.K.s strapped across their chests appeared.
I opened the refrigerator a week after our grocery shopping trip. "We are running out of fresh food," I announced. "Soon, we will get scurvy and die if COVID doesn't kill us first!"
"Quit being a drama queen," Derek said. "We'll be fine."
Derek comes from hearty, Germanic-French-Scottish stock and is genetically predisposed to survive long, harsh winters and unfavorable conditions of the Midwest. On the other hand, I grew up in the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest and never went without fresh produce or meat. When we lived in Hong Kong, I teased Derek as he stocked our pantry with cans of tomatoes and peas like a famine was upon us. However, during the curfew in Sri Lanka, I was grateful for his pioneering, forging ways. Though I was glad I wasn't going to starve, I shuddered at the prospect of eating canned peas for the foreseeable future.
My only saving grace was an English-language Facebook group called "Expats in Sri Lanka." I soon connected with vendors who delivered frozen meats, fresh produce, and eggs. One day, I found someone who sold Pakistani tangerines— the thought of the tart, sweet, and pulpy citrus fruit made my mouth water. I placed an order.
The next day, a 24" x 18" x 12" box showed up at our door containing 4 kg (8.8 lbs) of fresh tangerines. Derek stared at me, his blue eyes widening. "Why did you get such a huge box of tangerines?" he moaned.
"It's either this or none, and I really want tangerines!"
"How will we eat them all before they go bad?" he shook his head.
I had yet to consider this. I couldn't visualize what a 4 kg box of tangerines looked like until it arrived at my door. I took a deep breath—there were a lot of tangerines. “Well, they’ll keep for a while in the fridge, right?” I appealed.
First, we overfilled our refrigerator with a sea of oranges. We still had over half a box. We gave some to our building's security guards and our neighbors. But we still had plenty. Thanks again to Derek's Midwestern ingenuity, he turned the remaining tangerines into wine. It was perfect because the government banned alcohol during the curfew. Six weeks later, we floated in a buzz while the rest of the country remained sober.
The lockdown lasted ten weeks. When the government finally lifted the curfew in May 2020, we shot imaginary Roman Candles off our balcony. While excited about leaving our confinement, we knew COVID-19 was still upon us. COVID cases were climbing in the United States, and it was a matter of time before the virus would overwhelm Sri Lanka's wobbly healthcare system. The country didn’t have enough medical supplies, and the masks we purchased in Taiwan were long gone.
Meanwhile, MAGA hat-wearing people defied state-wide mandates in the U.S., claiming that donning the life-saving medical mask infringed on their liberty. Derek and I shook our heads as we watched the news, unsure whether to laugh or cry. Finally, after drudging through hundreds of posts on the Facebook expat group, I found a linen company that made masks using leftover fabric. Their cloth masks were surprisingly comfortable.
"But those cloth masks are not good enough," my mother nagged over a video call when I showed her my newly acquired face coverings. "They aren't going to protect you from COVID!"
Despite MAGA people's belief about undemocratic masks and my mother's dismay over homemade face coverings, the cloth masks gave Derek and me several months of freedom in Sri Lanka. As we traveled on their rickety train network, we saw many parts of the tropical paradise, from pristine beaches to overgrown jungles. Derek reminded me to take off my mask before he took a picture of me at a Hindu temple in Jaffna—I hadn't recognized how willingly I adapted to wearing masks while exploring Sri Lanka. After a ten-week lockdown under the threat of a deadly virus, mask-wearing in public spaces became second nature.
After we decided to leave Sri Lanka for the U.S., we called my parents in Taipei to share the news.
"But the COVID situation is dire in the U.S. right now!" my mother quivered during our video call, "those cloth masks are no good."
"We will be okay, Mama," I assured her. "The airline will give us more masks and face shields. We will have hand sanitizers, too."
"I am so worried!" my mother began to cry. "Wear at least two masks while you are flying! And don't touch your face!"
"And give me your in-law's address. I am sending you masks!"
"No, no, no, it's okay, Mama. They sell masks in the U.S., too!" I tried to soothe my mother, who was hyperventilating at this point. "We will be fine!"
My mother wouldn't hear it. "Taiwanese masks are better!"
I relented and gave my mother our U.S. address.
A relocation company came and packed our lives into ninety-two boxes and hauled them away. Though we were disappointed to leave our tropical paradise so soon, with the lockdown and the deteriorating economic situation, we were glad to leave.
In December 2020, days before our flight to the U.S., we learned that on top of his IPF, Ray had contracted COVID-19. My sisters-in-law rushed him to the hospital, where he stayed for several days. We called him on video chat, but he was despondent and gasped for air. The doctor suggested intubation. Ray refused and insisted on going home. Finally, after a few days of trying to talk sense into their father, Derek's sisters called in tears and told us that their father would die if he left the hospital. Derek and I called that night and asked Ray to listen to the doctor.
"Nope," his father shook his head. "I'd rather die at home with my family than die alone in the hospital."
I was incensed at Ray's stubbornness and refusal to listen to his doctor's advice. I begged Derek to convince his father to change his mind. Derek, however, understood his father's iron will and knew his only option was to respect his father's wish. Derek assumed he wouldn’t see his father alive again, so he prepared an eulogy. The night before our flight, Derek called his father. He was still at the hospital but was getting ready to leave. I sat next to Derek and watched him read his father the eulogy. Derek didn't break down until the end. "I love you," he sobbed. "I am proud to be your son."
I hugged Derek tight after the call.
Miraculously, Ray's condition improved after he left the hospital. My father-in-law is a social butterfly who met friends every morning at the local café and held impromptu huddles in his garage while watching a football game. Therefore, we suspected the isolation—rather than the virus—was destroying him. When Derek and I landed in the U.S. three weeks before Christmas, Ray was still weak but was on the mend. Unfortunately, although COVID-19 didn't kill my father-in-law, it ravaged his already damaged lungs. As a result, he needed supplemental oxygen twenty-four hours a day to sustain life. Nevertheless, I was relieved and bewildered that his defiance saved his life.
After our self-imposed fourteen-day quarantine, we went to the local grocery store. My heart burst with joy as I held up a rosy Honey Crisp. After a year of eating frozen chicken and fish, I almost cried at seeing thick cuts of USDA steaks in refrigerated display cases. In the pickle aisle, I stood paralyzed in front of rows of brined cucumbers with different labels, all shouting for my attention. It didn't bother me that I couldn't dine in at restaurants or go to the cinema—I was content to have a fridge filled with fresh food and our ability to stroll down the street without the watchful eyes of soldiers armed with A.K.s.
I was in the U.S. for six months in 2021 but had to leave before Derek received his Taiwanese spouse visa. While I resentfully waited for Taiwan to open its border to allow my husband to join me, I reflected on the pandemic. We all did what we could to stay sane. I jumped into the ocean minutes before curfew, bought too many tangerines, and hopped on an airplane halfway across the world to be with family at the height of a pandemic. Others rejected mask-wearing, mailed hundreds of masks to another country, or refused intubation—we had tried and failed to control this impossible situation. To be alive is through trial and error.
On May 11, 2023, two years after I attended the gun auction in Scottsburg, Indiana, the U.S. federal government ended COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. Even before then, many Americans have discarded their masks and returned to life pre-COVID. In Taiwan, even after the government dropped the mask mandate in April 2023, most people are still attached to their face coverings. When I was twenty-one, I was the only person without a mask on a train in Taipei. Twenty years later, I was struck by de-ja-vu— I was still the only bare-faced person on public transit even after the threat of infection, and its deadly effects had been significantly reduced. When I see masked children around the city, I wonder how the new generation of Taiwanese residents will learn what I took for granted— to smile, interpret facial expressions, and live in the world fearlessly, without a physical protective barrier.
Kayo Chang Black is a Taiwanese Canadian writer exploring hybrid identities, global citizenship, and the intersection of cultures. Her librarian career brought her to the U.A.E., Bahrain, and Hong Kong. After one year in Sri Lanka and another in the U.S., she relocated to Taiwan. She is the founder and writer of Parampara, a storytelling jewelry brand. Read her work in The Normal School, Herstry, the Jaggery, and Sunspot Literary Journal. Her essay, "Old Hong Kong, New China," will be published in Consequence Forum's fall 2023 print issue.