Masks: Ex-pat-splained

I wore a surgical mask every day of my professional career. (Limited as it was.) I always hated them, especially when I was pregnant. It felt claustrophobic and stuffy. So I absolutely came into a mask-wearing culture with preconceived attitudes. As with all confirmation bias I was on the prowl for research and evidence that wearing masks was neither helpful or necessary. 

During our look-see visit last February I asked our relocation agent if Chinese people wore masks as a precaution against pollution or illness and she said “Both.” When we first moved to Shanghai and there were days of bad air quality, I made a small effort to get my kids to wear them on their walk to the bus stop, but they didn’t want to and I didn’t force them. 

Masks are a way of life in China and other Asian countries. It’s just something you do, like washing your hands after you use the bathroom, and covering your mouth when you cough. It’s a courtesy, you do it to protect yourself and you do it for the good of the whole. 

But I was not convinced that wearing a mask was protecting me from anything. From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak I began seeing experts comment on the ineffectiveness of masks as a preventive measure. I felt so vindicated. Article after article, quote after quote talked about how there was little research to support the practice of mask wearing for people who were not already sick. Being absolutely sure that I was not a sick person, I felt completely justified in not wearing a mask. And at first I stubbornly refused to do so. Whenever the subject of masks came up, or panic regarding the shortage of masks, or well-meaning people making sure I had some- my thought was always

“I believe in science. I don’t wear a mask.” 

Ethnocentrism at its finest. 

Then, as it happens, I was enlightened by a (local) friend. 

No one thinks they are the sick person. So we all wear a mask as a demonstration that we are willing to take precautions for the public good. 

Especially with this coronavirus, when people can be sick but not exhibiting any symptoms. There is tremendous social pressure to wear masks, people will literally point at my face with disapproval, and chastise me in words I don’t understand. At this point in the outbreak many places will not permit entry without one. At the airport in Manila we were nearly the only people who weren’t wearing masks. And on the flight into China from Manila we were literally the only people not wearing them. For all intents and purposes they are now mandatory in Shanghai.  People, ALL people, walking their dog, shopping at the grocery store, playing games in the park; all wearing masks. 

The trouble is, masks are being rationed. Our first weekday back in Shanghai I had to go to the neighborhood management office and register with my passport, phone number and address for the opportunity to purchase *five* masks when they become available. (It has been a week and I’ve had no word.) Thankfully, a friend from our church branch brought me a few to use so I can go shopping, etc. 

I still think that mask-wearing is excessive and misunderstood. But I’m willing to make space for cultural practice and for simple practicality, so now I wear a mask.  

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