“Kinda Sad Freedom Dreams”
Some insider tips on how not to quarantine with a baby; Michelle has her first meltdown in Taiwan (yes, it’s only been 48 hours); and links on the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong civil society
Hello from freedom! We survived quarantine! We regret to report that, unlike Benjamin Disraeli, we didn’t finish our books, nor do we understand [insert major field of study here] any better. But we do understand quarantine a bit better—or, rather, we understand a bit better what one should not do in quarantine with a baby. (More on that below.) To put it briefly, one should do the exact opposite of what we did.
Our refrain since leaving quarantine has been “Where did our perfect baby go? Did we ruin her?” Before we went into quarantine, she ate everything, never threw tantrums, slept profusely, and said hello to strangers. Now she wants to drink milk exclusively, throws things at random times, and says no like George in Peppa Pig (definitively; like a slap).
We console ourselves by reasoning that she’s about to turn two: maybe this is just part of “normal” development and not some irrevocable trauma we inflicted on her out of deference to, you know, a global pandemic.
We made a lot of mistakes, but our biggest one was not packing enough toys. Baby quickly grew bored of everything in our room, and the only way to entertain her was screen time—namely, endless repeats of Peppa. (As a friend said over Zoom, watching her lounge on the bed mainlining television and popping snacks: “She became American as soon as she left America.”)
What happens to children if they watch eight hours of TV in a day? Reader, we googled it. Multiple times. Our conclusion: nobody really knows, because no scientist in the world is so monstrously unethical as to run such an experiment on a two-year-old. Most studies set the bar for excessive screen time at 1.5 to two hours a day on average; none recommend more, although a lot of articles take the “be kind to yourself” tack. In the slimmest of silver linings, the studies seemed to focus on long-term side effects, and what’s two weeks in the span of eighteen years? On the other hand, two weeks is a long time for a two-year-old. At least Peppa Pig is “quality” programming, we told ourselves—the Guardian says so! On the other hand, there was an article calling it “visual fast food.” Back and forth and back and forth. The studies confused us more than they clarified our predicament.
Anyway, we’re happy to report that since leaving quarantine the baby hasn’t watched any TV and seems to have forgotten all about Peppa. So maybe, in the long run, this will all be a blip? Fingers crossed.
Michelle has a meltdown at the washing machine
I had been feeling pretty good up until it happened, though in retrospect there were hints.
At a red light, just a few hours after we left quarantine: “What’s that say?” I said to Albert, pointing to a truck that had what appeared to be a poem on it. The light turned green before Albert could answer, and the truck sped away. “Never mind,” I said. “I guess I’ll never know what it said.”
At the supermarket, attempting to purchase toothpaste for the baby: I couldn’t for the life of me read the packaging. But I needed to read the words. I needed the reassurance and inspiration that only advertisers of baby toothpaste are qualified to purvey. I needed the package to swear to me, This tube is not a delivery system for poison, it’s okay if the baby swallows a small amount, of course no baby knows to spit it out. But the Chinese characters were too hard. I needed Albert’s help, and Albert was in the cutlery aisle, looking for Japanese knives. I did not buy baby toothpaste.
And then at the washing machine. A friend had texted on the last day of our quarantine to ask what my plans were for Freedom Day. “Laundry,” I replied, “and then the optometrist.”
“Those are kinda sad freedom dreams,” she texted back. “Lol,” I replied, though I stand by my sad dreams. Albert and I both have poor eyesight and desperately need new glasses because the baby has loosened or outright broken our current pairs. And the pile of dirty clothes we amassed in our hotel room—socks we’d worn on the flight here, baby socks smeared with soy sauce—was not just an eyesore but a nosesore. So into the Freedom Machine I threw everything I could, added some detergent, and closed the lid. Then I realized all the buttons were in Chinese. I could read WASH, CLOTHES, and maybe HOT. And also, I thought, the word for “start.” I hit START.
Nothing happened. The machine remained dormant.
He arrived too slowly, I felt.
“What do these things say?”
While he was trying to read the buttons, his silence agitated me.
“Are you listening to me? I can’t fucking read this language!”
As is often the case when I have a meltdown, Albert likely figured ignoring it was his best strategy. So he remained calm. One amazing quality about Albert, some odd combination of saintliness and self-confidence, is that he never gets defensive—which, unfortunately, just feeds the temptation to attack him. He pressed another button. Nothing seemed to work. The machine wouldn’t come alive.
“I’m mad at you,” I continued.
“What? Why are you mad at me?”
“Nobody here knows I’m good at English. They just know I speak it. I had three things going for me in the U.S.: English, law, and conversational volubility. And you took them all away.”
Technically the third thing was an outgrowth of the first, but I was not interested, at this moment, in semantics.
“Conversational volubility?” he said.
“Yes. I used to be very voluble. Remember?”
“You’re still voluble,” he offered.
“Not in Mandarin. You took me out of my native country where I shone and put me in a country where I’m stupid.”
He could have poked fun at my use of the word shone, as I would have done if our roles were reversed. (Really? Do you think you’re in a musical?) But he simply said, “I can’t figure out how to use this either. And I can read all the buttons. It’s the washing machine, not you.”
I proceeded to hit every button in front of me until at last the machine grunted and began pouring water onto fifteen days’ worth of stinky clothes.
In California, then in France, I could go weeks—honestly, months—without calling my parents. Sometimes they would text Albert to ask if I was alive. During the pandemic I began to call them every day, but this was more filiality than longing, as I knew they missed their granddaughter.
On Friday night, my first time really living in Taiwan, I found to my surprise that I missed them genuinely, intensely. It struck me that the last time I’d felt this way was also the last time I lived in a Mandarin-speaking country—some twenty years ago, when I was doing thesis research in Beijing. Sensing my feeling, my mother called me every morning. She told me not to worry, to take it easy, that my Mandarin would get better.
She and I both know that we’re very different people; I sometimes joke, though it can sound mean, that I don’t know how we’re related. But of course one very simple way we relate is through language. English divides us, but Mandarin doesn’t. (Taiwanese too, which we spoke when I was a child.) Paradoxically, I understand now why she didn’t want me to leave the U.S.: she didn’t want me to experience being an immigrant. She never told me about any language-related meltdowns she had when she first arrived in the states, but she once confessed to me how much she dreaded receiving her student evaluations when she was a graduate teaching assistant in Michigan. Someone always made a comment about her English.
It’s clear to me now that she displaced onto me her own desires to master English—just as I now take solace in the fact that the baby will soon enter daycare in Taipei. I think to myself, not without some unhealthy expectation, that she’ll never have the sort of meltdowns her self-conscious, too-proud Asian American mother has; indeed, that she’ll quickly surpass me, correct me, effortlessly read poems on passing trucks and the buttons on our washing machine. Assuming, I suppose, that she doesn’t get kicked out of daycare due to the tyrannical behaviors she picked up during quarantine.
If you missed our initial pieces about moving to Taiwan, here’s Michelle’s missive and Albert’s reply.
Quarantine dos and don’ts
Thinking about quarantining in Taiwan with a baby/toddler? What on earth is wrong with you? Here are some unsolicited tips.
The obvious: get more space if you can afford to. We were lucky enough to find an affordable suite in Taoyuan—cheaper than Taipei—which was a lifesaver. We couldn’t find a connecting-room setup, but we had a room adjacent to the bedroom where one of us could try to work while the other looked after the baby.
Bring lots of toys. Like, lots. We had grand visions of unveiling a different toy for each day of quarantine, but we broke down during the baby’s first tantrum and basically gave her all of them. Our most successful offering was a 250-sticker book about “art masters.” We had Degas and Kandinsky stickers stuck to our backs for the whole quarantine, but it was worth it.
Screentime is okay. Give yourself a break. But try to have some sort of schedule, which we didn’t.
Mix it up with a bathtub and bath toys. Bath time is a glorious, screenless moment that you should prolong as much as possible.
Get a small speaker to play baby songs or children’s audiobooks. Using a phone as a speaker will only further the baby’s screen obsession.
Don’t forget comforts for the adults: yoga mat, coffee mugs (our hotel had tiny paper cups), chocolate and cookies, instant coffee and tea.
By all means get a Nintendo Switch and play with your friends, as we did. But don’t buy a used one without making sure the dock works correctly. Ours broke on the fifth day.
The systematic dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong—some links to excellent articles
We’re still getting our bearings and catching up on the news, but our friend Sebastian (interview with him here and here) sends along several important and alarming articles on Hong Kong.
The first is a well-reported CNN article that documents the ongoing attacks on academic freedom at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), one of the most prestigious universities in Asia and with more than 30,000 students.
The second, in Vice, follows the trial of Tong Ying-kit, a twenty-four-year-old former waiter found guilty of terrorism under the National Security Law; the article exposes the Kafkaesque procedures that have infested the legal system.
Our final recommendation is a terrific article in The Atlantic on the evolution of the newspaper Ta Kung Pao, which has become a tool of Chinese state propaganda. It’s deeply researched, with strong historical analysis.
Read together, these articles show a grim future for the freedom of thought and expression in Hong Kong.
October Book Club: An Ideal Presence
We’re excited to talk to you about An Ideal Presence, written by Eduardo Berti, translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker, and published by a wonderful new independent press, Fern Books. The book is structured as a series of brief accounts from people who work or volunteer in a palliative care unit in Rouen, France. This includes nurses and doctors, as well as aides, porters, a volunteer musician, a volunteer reader, and custodial staff. I know the material might sound depressing—it’s about those who care for the dying, after all—but the straightforward dignity of these caretakers is mesmerizing.
If you’re interested in our book club, which always takes place the last week of the month, please email us at email@example.com. All are welcome! We’ll send out an email to interested folks this week and set a time. For those looking ahead, in November we’ll talk about Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
Congrats on making it out too!
I agree with the tips for quarantine but would offer two modifications. 1. Go even more south than Taoyuan: there will be even bigger space for the same price, and even cheaper food for ordering in. 2. Instead of bringing toys in the luggage, just order toys (or books or whatever) online: most shopping sites can deliver within a couple of days at most.
As much as your letters are thoughtful and poignant and moving, they can also be funny. The scene with the washing machine 😆. Thank you for sharing x