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During the dark winter days at the end of England’s latest lockdown, a caught my eye and made me pause. It says our heart shrinks in space. Apparently, if we spend a long time in space, our heart contracts. And then once we are back on earth, where gravity grounds us again, our heart readjusts and puffs up, like a coat out of storage.
I miss my parents and grandparents in Taiwan terribly, after more than a year of Covid separation. Those who have lived in the U.K. know winters here are dark, cold, rainy, windy and stormy affairs. A friend told me earlier on in her perfect Queen’s English that the trick to getting through a British winter is tea, not with milk but gin. She was joking, of course. I have lived here long enough to suspect the Brits only allow two things to mix with their tea, milk or lemon. But slap a lockdown on top in January, children to home school, things to remote work, and we were all barely intact. A thin line of sanity, not much more. I stopped watching Boris and his coterie on pressers after my daughter, wise beyond her years, coolly noted that nothing good ever happens when Boris comes on television.
A year ago when the U.K. entered its first national lockdown in March 2020, my parents sent us masks and hand sanitizers from Taiwan. At the time, there was no hand sanitizer to be found in the U.K. The box was air mailed, the postage a staggering amount. I held the box outside and stared at the originating address in Chinese characters and felt us connecting. I imagined my parents taking it to their post office, clutching this box of metaphorical gold, and our fingers meeting at the same spots on the cardboard. I felt the hands of my parents, their love, with a tremor that surprised me. Because, growing up, we were not a physically affectionate household. Affection was assumed and not outwardly expressed. Once I flew back to Taiwan with kids in tow after a 12-hour flight, my gentle father, upon meeting me at Taoyuan arrivals, shook my hand.
During this past year of lockdowns and travel restrictions, I felt like the cow herder or the weaving maiden in that sad Chinese love story about how this pair of star-crossed lovers could only meet once a year on Chi-hsi when heavenly magpies take pity on their prolonged separation and form a bridge for them to cross. I look out during this Covid time, so close and yet so far, with a longing for the familiarity of my childhood and the assurance of being close to loved ones. We can see each other but not reach. Like most migrant families, our hearts are cleaved in two, sometimes more: one part is where we are, and other pieces are held with our relatives. Family members scattered at different points in the universe, stars glistening on the dark sky, beckoning and meeting us in our dreams.
In my dreams, I have seen my grandmother many times. I awake each time with tears on my face. She has dementia and is no longer mobile. Last time I saw her almost two years ago, this woman who raised me — while my parents, like so many young parents struggling with the eternal dilemma of balancing work and family, began their careers in the city — stared back blankly. I don’t know if she recognized me. If there was a tiny clang in the memory of her long life that remembered her first grandchild (and thus favorite, I tell myself), the little girl she indulged with fresh mangos from the countryside.
Since Covid first hit, my fear has been for Taiwan. Maybe because I couldn’t reach it quickly and wouldn’t be able to help if my parents and grandparents fall ill. So much for a filial daughter, letting the elderly take care of the elderly. Maybe Taiwan felt like David in the battle against Goliath. As Taiwan now braces for its worst Covid outbreak since the start of the pandemic, I find myself dreaming in case numbers. What are the numbers today? Maybe this preoccupation is driven by my own panic upon hearing a friend painfully recount how he watched the funeral of his father streamed to him across borders during lockdown, his only way to be there. How he howled through the night, but his normally fastidious neighbor didn’t complain in the morning. Thank goodness for neighborly humanity.
At the darkest of our lockdowns here, it was the sheer fact that Taiwan was fine, that my extended family could live normally and not contend with lockdown solitude that gave me relief. My parents often ended calls with: “Don’t worry about us. Taiwan is doing well. Things are more serious there where you are, please watch out.” Later, this would be backed by random photos of them going about their everyday life. “Stop showing off!” I would text back in pretend envy. I was grateful for them that Covid was at bay, like the piano from my childhood that floodwater could never reach. And as the end to Covid felt near with vaccines, I dared to hope for an August return. Maybe we will see you soon. The kids are so tall now, you wouldn’t believe. Maybe my grandmother hasn’t completely forgotten us in her fog. Maybe there is still time to connect, and there is no space separating us.
My heart shrinks in that diplomatic space where Taiwan doesn’t exist. Professionally, those in the public policy space outside of Taiwan cannot wear our hearts on our sleeves. While we are often hired for our ability to translate East to the West like a modern-day Marco Polo writing dispatches of Kublai, we work within the constraints of diplomatic relations. We know the complicated dance we trot to stay within the protocol of functional ambiguity, in order to meaningfully spotlight and work with Taiwan. How to get over the descriptive problem of Taiwan not quite being a country with full membership in the international system but still participates. The terminology to adapt so as to remain legally correct. The professional lines to watch in this nebulous space. The things to say, like a Memorandum of Understanding for where a bilateral treaty would routinely stand. Like what the Financial Times did when it first on Taiwan’s parliament legalizing same sex marriage in 2019, “the first Asian jurisdiction to allow the unions.”
Recently, I read Representative Hsiao Bi-khim’s in Commonwealth Magazine, speaking on U.S.-Taiwan relations (she has fans within foreign service circles for her smarts), and was almost relieved when she herself explained these diplomatic constraints, as if it exculpated all of us in this tense, awkward dance of Taiwan’s nonrecognition. “There are some long standing frameworks guiding Taiwan-U.S. relations,” Hsiao begins before moving to the punch, “People in Taiwan may find this unfair, but that’s the reality.” In this reality, we are bound by formality and shake hands instead of receiving the deep, melting embraces we crave, the physical equivalent of Representative Hsiao not being addressed with the honorifics that normally befit ambassadors.
Watching Taiwan and Covid from the outside of this formal diplomatic space is seeing a nation internalizing and performing its own dance of immigrant excellence that so many of us as immigrants keenly feel. To be more than ordinary is our raison d'être in a new land, our entry ticket tallied in merit points. Like Taiwan knocking at the door of the WHO, we want to be net contributors! We have things to give! Masks, alcohol sprays and gowns; our knowledge, energy, and affection. Years ago, I spoke to a Chinese man who found himself in the U.K., his back hunched from years of hard physical labor. He said the same thing, “having things to give,” and I instantly understood him. He lived on a paltry weekly allowance as an asylum seeker. But his eyes lit up when he spoke of helping the police as a witness. Because, even on the margins of society, he could help. He was finally seen.
When my other half told me that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental physical forces but that it always wins against the other forces, I outright disbelieved him. It cannot be the humble gravity, apple falling from the tree. How could strong nuclear force not thump gravity? No, he shook his head, it is gravity. Gravity is the only force that cannot be cancelled out, when others can be nullified by an opposite charge. So the innocuous gravity travels through space, persistent and unencumbered. I am now more toppled than I have ever felt in this past year of Covid. I am too far away to guard the beloved piano from floodwater, but gravity means we are tugged by objects far away, even those we cannot reach.
And somehow, I know in the depth of my core, I am not shrinking in space. Gravity pulls me to where my heart has always been: in the kitchen corner of a humble countryside abode in a marginalized jurisdiction of the world, my grandmother is burning wood and making food. She turns, smiles and asks me in Taiwanese Minnan if I want more mangos. I reply in this secret tongue we share. A-Má, I call out like a child and reach for her, and there is no space separating us.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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