Written by Jens Damm.
With the outbreak and global spread of COVID-19, reports of the stigmatisation of Asian-looking people have been accumulating in Germany and worldwide. Therefore, for a small research project, I chose to conduct qualitative semi-structured interviews with Taiwanese who spent the time of the pandemic in Berlin. I focused on their personal experiences as transnational actors. I asked in particular about personal experiences of discrimination and economic hardships during the pandemic and their evaluation of the different COVID-19 measures in Germany and in Taiwan.
Two interviewees stayed for the whole time of the pandemic – with a brief trip back to Taiwan – in Berlin: interviewee I, a representative of the Taiwan Association in Germany, Berlin district, female, 30-40 years old, self-employed (interview carried out in November 2021). Interviewee II, a member of the Taiwan Association, female, 20-30 years old, working in the hospitality sector (April 2022). Two interviewees had spent most of the pandemic in Taiwan. Still, they visited Germany: interviewee III, a Taiwanese civil servant, male, 30 – 40 years old, who arrived in Germany at the beginning of 2022 (April 2022) and interviewee IV, an accountant and a student of the German language, male, 30-40 years old (June 2022), who visited Germany three times during the pandemic.
The seriousness of the Pandemic and Discrimination
All interviewees emphasised that the Taiwanese were much more aware of the potential danger of SARS-CoV-2 due to their previous encounters with SARS. ‘All Taiwanese, whether in Taiwan or abroad, were aware of the potential risk of SARS-CoV-2 because of the experience with SARS 18 years ago and the problems dealing with SARS, e.g., the tragedy at the Heping Hospital’ (I). All interviewees felt that Germans perceived early border closures by Taiwan and China as a threat from Asia. Interviewee II stated that the Western reports did not distinguish between the ‘real dangerous habits’ such as wet markets in China and the reality in other regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. ‘In the first phase of COVID-19, “Asian-looking people” were stared at in public, especially when they wore masks in public. And yes, after Taiwanese media and Taiwanese friends and relatives, as well as various Line and Facebook groups, had informed us that “a new SARS” had been reported in China, all Taiwanese in Berlin immediately started wearing masks on public transportation and while shopping’ (I). But none of the interviewees encountered a dangerous situation ‘So, although some people thought that we – that is my roommate and I – were crazy for wearing a mask, nothing actually happened. And that is one of the reasons why I prefer Berlin to other German cities. You are free to do what you want’ (I). Interviewee IV, who had travelled frequently between Taiwan and Germany, said: ‘I came back to Germany in October 2021 for 18 days. And of course, I was very afraid, so I brought a lot of masks, a face shield, and plastic gloves. And I also wore these clothes on the street when nobody else was wearing a mask outside. People stared at me like I was an alien, they thought I must be very contagious, and my friends in Germany made fun of me’. Interviewee I also mentioned that she heard about more serious cases in other parts of Germany, but ‘as far as discrimination against Asians is concerned, I have personally experienced nothing. But I also have to say that Berlin is a very multicultural city. It is definitely not a typical German city. And I am a person who commutes a lot, by public transport, by bike and on foot’. Interviewee IV, who stayed most of the time in Taiwan, compared Taiwan unfavourable to Germany: ‘But in fact, foreigners – whites – faced more prejudice in Taiwan than Asians in Germany, even if they had not left Taiwan during the pandemic. Many Taiwanese viewed whites as carriers of COVID-19. There were signs in restaurants and bars that foreigners were not welcome. My German teacher, for example, had not left Taiwan and was very upset that many restaurants did not serve him. Especially because he has severe allergies and coughs a lot. Many are still afraid of foreigners today, which is very sad.’
Impact of COVID-19 on Daily Life and Work
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on personal life and work situations depended to a large degree on the job and the specific personal situation: it was more severe for the non-permanently employed: ‘Students and freelancers particular encountered problems; first of all, many jobs were no longer available, only some could go online. It was also unclear whether the German and Berlin bureaucracy would be willing to help non-EU citizens with a limited visas and with language problems. Personally, as a freelance music teacher, I was only able to give lessons to younger students, as they were more willing to use online lessons, while older students stopped lessons during the pandemic… But in the end, it was easy to get money from the government, much better even than in Taiwan – the economic support worked really well” (I). This was mirrored by interviewee II: ‘Personally, COVID impacted me as I work in the hospitality sector. Many places closed down; no tourists came – neither national nor international. On the other hand, my employer promised that nobody would be fired, and the governmental support was good’. There was no change in income for the other two interviewees as they were permanently employed, and both could work partly from home. Both mentioned that, especially in Taiwan, working routines changed as the home office was unthinkable before in Taiwan, and a document not printed and stamped would have never been accepted in Taiwan’s rather bureaucratic system.
Cultural Differences and Geopolitics
All interviewees praised Taiwan for its fast response at the beginning and the resulting low case numbers. However, with Taiwan in 2022 encountering higher numbers of infections, all interviewees questioned the ongoing politic of Taiwan, especially the strict quarantine including the financial burden for people leaving and entering the island. ‘How do I evaluate the German measures: “moderate” – because I have the feeling the government reacted way too slow until that the pandemic was really spread out in the country. And contact tracing did not work well – unlike in Taiwan. Only when people lay in the coffin, Germans realise, oh, that’s serious. Very strict rules don’t fit the German culture style’ (interviewee II). They also draw comparisons with the Zero COVID policy in China: ‘As for the Zero COVID policy, it seemed fine for Taiwan in the beginning. But now Taiwan needs to change its policy. … Taiwan should follow Germany. China, Hong Kong and Taiwan now seem to be competing to see who has the best Zero COVID policy, although it has completely failed in Hong Kong and now in Taiwan’ (interviewee IV). The interviewees mentioned the lax enforcement of COVID rules in Germany: ‘In Taiwan the rules are very strict. When we are shopping or visiting a restaurant, one has to take every time one’s temperature and you have thoroughly to clean your hands. When we arrived in January 2022 in Berlin, it felt like there is no pandemic at all. When I went to the VIP lounge at Frankfurt airport, nobody cared, nobody asked about my vaccination status or required me to wear a mask’ (interviewee III). And interviewee II said: ‘Asians followed the advice given by the authorities and thought the pandemic is real. They asked: why Europeans don’t care at all. Why don’t they wear a mask? Why don’t they actually isolate themselves in like for the sake of all people? And yes, actually, some friendships were broken due to these attitudes’. Interview I expressed it as follows: ‘To put it simply, Taiwanese are afraid of death. Europeans are afraid of not being free’, and Taiwanese are also generally very obedient people. And there is a cultural difference. The health of the collective is more important than individual freedom’ (II). In addition, to a different mentality, interviewee IV also mentioned the impact of the war in Ukraine: ‘The Ukraine war is so much closer to Germany. When Russia invaded, suddenly, any interest in COVID died. No media coverage. Nothing. There were large-scale demonstrations against Russia. Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets and nobody wore a mask’.
“Foreigners” in Germany and Taiwan experienced some discrimination due to the fear of the “other”. As a reason why Taiwanese have stayed in Berlin, a liberal attitude in the city was cited and also the economic aid from the city of Berlin and Germany, which was granted regardless of the – legal – residence status, was viewed positively – in Taiwan, however, there was little financial aid, and only for Taiwanese citizens and APCR holders. Furthermore, all interviewees mentioned a different mentality: Taiwanese being more collective and sticking to rules, while Germans, and especially people in Berlin, tend to ignore rules. Thus, the Taiwanese policy was seen as a positive at the beginning of the pandemic, but the more flexible approach in Germany seemed to have helped to relax measures faster, and the interviewees expressed their desire that Taiwan should now open up like Germany.
 The interviews were carried out in German, English and Mandarin; all interviewees agreed to be cited anonymously.
Dr Phil. Jens Damm is an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen. His research interests include the new media and the Internet, the Taiwanese and Chinese diasporas, and gender studies. He can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org