Why I Wear a Mask: How Culture Influences our Actions

History shows that the West once used masks as ardently as the East. Today the lessons of the past are forgotten and the Western world waffles about the efficacy of masks amidst a pandemic. It is crystal clear that wearing a mask has zero harmful side effects and it could help, even in the slightest way in stopping the spread of infection, which at this point every little bit counts, so why is there even a debate?

I struggle, sometimes on a daily, with the clash between Eastern and Western values, raised and living with Korean and Japanese ideals in the home but surrounded by American and western cultures outside my home. A perfect example of this is my attitude towards the concept of wearing a mask.

If you think it looks weird and it's silly, then I was with you. In fact, I can one-up you probably, in that I also found it utterly embarrassing. Seeing Asian people in masks made me actually physically cringe.

And then I spent 6 months in Asia. It changed my thinking. Here is what I learned.

You must have heard by now about the global flu pandemic in the early 19th century, H1N1 virus aka the Spanish Flu. Exactly like our current situation, the virus was an unseen enemy. It was during this time that countries like Japan, Korea, and China began the practice of wearing masks as protection as well as prevention for contagion. Shortly after the pandemic, Japan suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 1923. The quake caused a 40-foot tsunami which then subsided to fires around the country, thickening the air with ash. It became impossible to breathe and the only way to go outside was with a mask and so it became a necessity for survival. From those early times, the mask becomes a basic health utility.

So the number one reason to wear a mask is for health, which I get, but then why do Asians wear it when there's not a pandemic or a natural disaster?

Again, it's simple. Throughout Asian societies, you will find a sense of collectivism. In countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and so on, you grow up placing great value on the group even if that might mean sacrificing the comfort of the individual. Most people wear masks not to ward off disease but more so to prevent their illness from infecting those around them. If a child is sick but must still go to school, a parent puts a mask on them so that classmates don't fall ill. If an employee has to go to work, he must protect his co-workers' health and the company's productivity.

Modern-day viruses keep Asians alert and are constant reminders to protect oneself and society. The lessons from 1918 are not forgotten and resonate into life today. Even without disease, the importance of protecting against dust and pollutants make wearing masks a simple act that feels normal in everyday life.

An average day in Kathmandu, Nepal

My first time to ever really need a mask was when I was in Nepal. I had arrived in the capital ill-equipped to deal with the dust and emissions. Whether walking, just standing in the city, and most especially on a motorbike, it was evident, that wearing a mask was imperative. I went from sceptic to believer pretty quickly. I also learned to be grateful for clean air and the precious act of breathing. The gift of being able to inhale and exhale should not be taken lightly, my friends. You should do whatever you need to do to protect and honour your ability to breathe freely.

And so for me, these days, there's really no debate as to whether I should or shouldn't wear a mask. It protects me and those around me. It hurts absolutely no one and however small, it could make a difference and these days every little bit counts.

As I did the research, I learned that the proclivity to wear masks is not an Asian only phenomenon. In 1918 as the pandemic turned the world upside down and a small piece of cloth protected the world. From the US to Canada to the UK and throughout Europe down to Australia, the western world had no hesitations to wear protective masks.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, scientific research around mask use was still largely anecdotal --and the compelling story of one ocean liner caught people's attention. In early December 1918, the Times newspaper in London reported that it had been established, by doctors in the United States, that the influenza was "contact-borne and consequently preventable."

The Times noted that in one London hospital all staff and patients had been issued with, and instructed to constantly wear, face masks. The newspaper cited the successes of face masks on one ship. The ocean liner sailing between the United States and England had suffered a terrible infection rate coming from New York, the Times reported. When returning to the United States, the captain instituted a face-mask order for crew and passengers, after having read about their use in San Francisco. No infections were reported on the return trip, despite high infection rates at the time in both Manhattan and Southampton, from where the ship departed. It was impossible to know if the rules on masks on the return voyage were responsible for the lack of infections, but that was how the press interpreted it.

Read the full CNN article here

History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.


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