What It Means To Wear A Face Mask In America
If you wear one here, you are gullible, selfish, foreign, sick, and asking for attention. But in Asia, face masks mean something else altogether.
I do not enjoy wearing face masks. They leave red indents on my nose and eczema rashes all over my cheeks. I have to continuously chew mint gum in order to withstand the sensation that I’m breathing in my own old breath, caught in what feels like a closed loop of respiration. Face masks make me acutely aware of the mechanics of every inhale and exhale — which is distracting if I’m trying to do anything else, as I’m pretty much breathing all the time.
And yet, over my 30-some years of traveling to China for work and to see family, I’ve worn face masks each time: small ones that fit child-sized faces, paper ones and cloth ones, surgical masks and cheap drugstore versions, the ones that come with a button-sized air filter, and the ones I bought in a subway kiosk that came with a bootleg set of Comme des Garcons eyes. (If you want a genuine designer face mask, there are many to choose from.) I tell my American friends that I wear them because of the pollution, or that I can’t afford to get sick during business trips and marathon family reunions. But the truth is that I wear face masks because it’s just the thing to do.
In China, as in many countries in East Asia, face masks are as common a sight in public as a pair of headphones. You might never see a single person with a paper coffee cup during an entire commute, but at least one in four people — even in non-epidemic times! — will certainly be wearing a mask. A Japanese colleague once explained it to an American coworker, who was confused about whether or not there was some kind of outbreak in Tokyo (there was not): You wear a face mask if you’re sick, and you also wear one if you’re trying not to get sick.
That’s … all the time then? The two of us Asians shrugged while nodding.
So when the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, first hit China in early January, the most identifiable indication that something was different in public wasn’t that people were wearing face masks: It was that there were significantly more people wearing them. As it made its way to Japan and South Korea where face masks are also a normal and expected commuter accessory, the same thing happened. But, while more people now wear them, the meaning of the masks hasn’t changed; it remains a gesture toward good hygiene. A person who wears a mask isn’t admitting that they are sick or paranoid: They’re acknowledging that they are aware of their civic duty regarding public health. In fact, those who refused to wear them during the outbreak — or wore them incorrectly — drew criticism. In these countries, a mask is a symbol of reassurance. It represents communal trust, a pact that we’re all in this together.
Contrast that with what the sight of people in face masks elicit in the United States: fear, uncertainty, xenophobia. In most of America, it is common only for certain professionals — surgeons, painters, factory workers — to wear masks on the job. Seeing a civilian in a mask in public is rare, and implies an extreme situation. Sometimes it’s a condition that draws pity (the person in the face mask has a compromised immune system), other times, it might inspire a morbid curiosity (it’s become a garment popular among post-apocalyptic-fetishistic communities including preppers and burners who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about society’s collapse). But most often, seeing a person wearing a face mask in America serves as a reminder that they’re not from here. In the ten years I regularly took the subway in NYC, the only times I saw someone in a face mask were on tourists who were visiting from East Asia, confused about why their very normal etiquette was getting them vibed from locals.
The idea that it would be common for most Americans to wear masks is a new one, arriving hand-in-hand with COVID-19. While medical professionals and government officials have advised that face masks are generally ineffective (about as helpful at preventing the public spread of illnesses as a pillow in a car crash), at the same time, what is being advised — washing our hands, staying home if we feel ill, not touching our face — feels almost magical, more like performing an incantation than taking any concrete action, though the science more than supports its efficacy. Face masks, on the other hand, are extremely tangible: You can hold one in your hand, pay for one at the store, and admire the stack of them under your bed, next to cans of Hormel Chili.
That’s what many Americans did, stockpiling them despite warnings that doing so might lead to a shortage. Certainly, Asian-Americans were among early mask-buyers, who understood face masks to be a hygienic accessory and polite thing to do — but that’s not how everyone else saw it. Since then, a rush on masks has led to price-gouging and reduced inventory, leaving actually sick patients, their families, and the public at risk, and medical institutions scrambling to contend with log-jammed supplies.
In the coronavirus economy where 8 ounces of Purell now cost $75, masks have become the ultimate luxury product in that they are both unnecessary and very expensive. You look both foolish to be wearing one, and yet privileged to be able to. Celebrities and influencers take selfies in masks from the vantage points of their first-class airline seats. What's more, these masks are indicative of something more significant: They are a reminder that there will always be people who will have access to the most expensive, hard-to-find healthcare treatments. And there will always be those who won’t. Hand-washing and no-touching are weak weapons against disease when compared to money, especially in a country where millions of people are un- and under-insured. It’s turned out that face masks have the unique ability to expose our toxic class divisions, how much we distrust outsiders, how unjust and underprepared our institutions are, and how frail our civil society is and has always been.
The sight of face masks can be agitating and anxiety-inducing. Under these conditions, they can trigger people to think the worst about their neighbors, and even inspire them to act on their most odious prejudices and impulses. There’s been a rise of violent anti-Asian discrimination, oftentimes targeting those wearing masks, all made worse by establishment publications like the New York Times who irresponsibly choose to use images of Asian people wearing masks in Asian-majority communities to illustrate articles about the coronavirus that include neither Asian patients nor locales. With each instance, all the most hyperbolically misanthropic associations that Americans have about face masks — an admission of disease, selfishness, stupidity, paranoia, gullibility, and greed — becomes further correlated with Asians, unfairly stigmatizing us as the culprits of a problem we didn’t create.
Face masks, to Asians, used to feel like a necessary nuisance, but also a small act of civic duty, public responsibility, and kindness to our neighbor. They are a signal that society is stronger when we consider the vulnerabilities of the strangers who surround us. But now, and here, they feel like a scarlet letter, a sudden swerve in meaning that’s been forced upon us. Without a cure or a vaccine, this kind of prejudice is its own type of disease. The stigma itself, rampant and quickly spreading, is dangerous all on its own.