The Coronavirus Effect Pt. 2: Face Masks

Given what we’re going through and everything else I selfishly could be dealing with, I debated with myself if I should write this or not – but I honestly think sharing related experiences and helping to spread knowledge can only help us to get through this together.  So these Doses may come out a bit less frequently, but you can trust that they’ll keep coming!

Ok. So my 13 year old daughter Ally is sick. I don’t know if it’s Coronavirus because they won’t test (not at high enough risk / not meeting CDC requirements given there aren’t enough tests available). She has a persistent fever, is lethargic (definitely not like her) and has a sore throat – but tested negative for the flu and strep so they sent her home saying she has a common cold. She’s been in bed for 4 days straight, but is doing much better today – resting a lot, drinking fluids, and seems to be on the mend as she sat up and read in bed for a while and has ventured out of her bedroom. It may just be a bad bad cold… some other nasty bug going around. But to be safe we are all staying home, washing hands a LOT, and when she has recently come out of her room to be around us, Ally wears a face mask.

And that is what brings me to today’s topic. When my wife brought Ally to the doctor, she had her wear a face mask. Even though there were over a dozen people waiting in the lobby, she was the only one with a mask on – and everyone looked at her as if she was bearing the plague. A couple months ago when I needed to travel for business, my wife at first told me that I should wear a face mask to help stay safe… I was game. But soon after speaking with some of her friends, changed her mind and said I should NOT wear one or she feared, given what she’d heard, they may not even let me on the plane.

That was quite a sudden shift in advise!

So what’s going on here? There’s a very clear cultural divide when it comes to face masks. Let me go back a bit further to help bring some more perspective…

I moved to Taiwan in 1996 to teach English (and learn Chinese). While living there, I wore a face mask every day. Why? Because I owned a scooter and rode that 125cc moped all over the metropolis of Taipei, navigating the busy streets along with a swarm of other mopeds, cars, taxis, busses and trucks. And everyone told me that to help filter the exhaust-filled air, I should wear a face mask. Something to help clean out the smog-choked air sounded reasonable to me, so I found some sporty masks and joined the crowd. And this insight about breathing clean air is an important one as it’s actually related to Traditional Chinese Medicine and the concept of “Qi” (pronounced “Chee“, and a topic for a future Dose), which has to do with the energy that flows and circulates through your body. If you’re unhealthy, it’s because there’s a problem with your Qi and it’s not coursing smoothly through your body – and proper breathing is very important for maintaining your Qi. So for many years, face masks have been used to help facilitate clean breathing – keeping your good Qi in and filtering out the bad stuff.

That said, I did not normally see people walking down the street with surgical masks on when I lived there from ’96-’00. It was not until after the SARS outbreak of 2002 and then the bird flu panic of 2006 where wearing masks around the city (in the subway, on the bus etc.) became more common. Now, when we bring our kids back to Taiwan every other winter break, they would wear a mask on public transit even though there’d been no lurking pandemic. It has simply become a normal part of everyday caution nowadays in Asia, much like washing your hands.

Fast forward to today and these cultures are colliding – an Asian American culture that has connections to family and friends that  have been through multiple scares and is ready to adopt the practices (like wearing a face mask) that have become a way to defend against such dangers, and a Western culture that sees face masks as something to be feared. Who wears them anyways? Surgeons and dentists (not a positive association) or perhaps someone that’s very sick. In fact, unfortunately there have recently been an increase in cases of Asian Americans being yelled at, ridiculed or even beaten for wearing them. I know many Asian Americans that have gone against their mother’s insistence that they wear a mask and are NOT wearing them (yet) as it’s just not culturally acceptable here. Shouldn’t we encourage anything that may help relieve this situation that we now find ourselves in?

… And while we’re at it, how about in the future we move away from handshakes and globally move to the bow?

I say all of this in order to bring some perspective on why you might see Asian Americans wearing face masks. The thing is, there’s another troubling reason besides the fear of backlash that is keeping many from wearing them – it’s the fact that they are now so hard to find. Even hospitals don’t have enough – I have a very close friend who works in an ER and does not have access to proper masks so is wearing what he describes as a tissue paper with two strings that go around his ears. Not a good situation for the people were depend upon to manage the front lines on this as they’re the ones that will be exposed the most to this virus as they’re asked to care for the sick.

These are challenging times my friends. Be careful, keep your Qi flowing, stay safe and take care of those around you.

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