I’ll be the first to admit: I never really considered the idea that Asians were forward-thinking in wearing masks in public spaces. A bit embarrassingly, after several years living in Indonesia, I never really did totally understand what the masks were for exactly. I always wondered, are they paranoid about getting sick or are they already sick and just extremely unselfish in their efforts to protect others from getting sick? If it’s the former, “Haha!” I’d think, that’s so silly to think that a little mask will help anything. Or, if they’re wearing the mask for MY protection, I’d feel a bit humbled by the fact that they would be so unselfish as to worry about my health. I, in return, would bury my cough in my sleeve and never gave a thought to wearing a mask. I might be selfish, but I’m not paranoid!
Now, as much of the western world fights between the maskers and the anti-maskers, I start to reflect more on how this custom came about and what it means to our long-term health as a community. In the US, masks have become so highly politicized that they’re almost a political symbol. The covid mask vs the MAGA hat. It’s a ridiculous notion in Asia. Why bring ideology into an issue of public health?
The answer to my first question, “Why do Asians wear masks?” is simple. They wear them primarily out of a sense of duty, of responsibility to their community. They are, in fact, generally protecting others against what they have come down with. Anything from a simple cold, a flu… you name it. At the first sign of illness, they’ll just put on a mask and go about their business.
Now, I feel like I’m doing an awful lot of broad generalizing about “Asians”. I’m sorry if it comes off crudely. But the point that I’m trying to make here is that if a culture places the health of the whole over the pride of one person… that’s pretty impressive, no? It’s an act of love and selflessness. It generally acknowledges the value of all people, while minimizing one’s own importance and ego.
I guess I never really thought about that before. Even here in Indonesia, if I was feeling sick, I would just pound some cold meds and head out to work. Never once did I even consider wearing a mask to protect others. Why? They look silly. Especially before Covid, when all the masks were medical style. Definitely not a cool look!
Plain old pride, that’s all it was. I didn’t care as much about others’ health as much as I cared about being labeled as “sick” and wearing a silly looking mask. That’s pretty messed up when you really think about it.
Of course, you’ll hear the argument that masks don’t work. To me, the argument in favor is clear. If they reduce the spread to ANY measurable degree, then, objectively, they work. However, that’s beside the point of what I’m talking about here. My point is this:
This simple act of wearing a mask shows your love, concern and consideration for your community. For people you don’t know and will never meet. For their friends, their families. It’s a powerful message, no? The mask simply says, “I value you. I want to protect you.”
It’s too bad that it took a global pandemic to teach me that, but I’m happy that I learned. I wonder how many lessons from this pandemic will stick? I wonder if the world will adopt the thoughtful custom of wearing a mask when you’re sick, long after this virus has left.
As the world moves forward from this terrible virus, let’s keep reminding ourselves what this pandemic fashion trend is really about and let’s keep it alive. I’ll do it for you. And you do it for me. Let’s take care of each other.
Thanks for the lesson in humility, Asia. 😀