‘Not Wearing Masks’ – A Cultural Observation

Having done cross-cultural studies at postgrad level, please allow me to be nerdy once in a while… 

What’s the fuss about wearing masks? Why do people wear masks in China and Japan and many parts of the world? There are many reasons. People in Japan have worn masks in public ever since masks were invented (this is an exaggeration, please don’t quote me). It’s a normal part of life, just as you would wear gloves when it’s cold outside.

OK, Chinese people might be a bit obsessed with wearing masks at the moment. There were ridiculous photos of all sorts. I laughed and frowned just as you did. But they’re not allowed to go into supermarkets, metros or most public places without a mask now. (Their temperature is also taken multiple times a day, logged and filed meticulously like wedding certificates. Watch the video at the end.) That’s a government decision. The government says this is a battle that depends on the public. If you watch the video at the end of this post, you can see it on banners hanging in the streets. It’s a battle that everyone has to fight together. And now in China, there are cities reported with zero new COVID-19 cases. That’s a reality.

But why are some people so obsessed with NOT wearing masks? I live in the UK so I’ll speak from my experience.

The UK in my previous experience is such a laid-back place. No one cares if lovely local Geordies go out in January completely naked (maybe except the police?). The society has been proclaiming and waving flags of ‘freedom’, such as ‘let people believe whatever they want to believe’, and ‘you shouldn’t hurt other people’s feelings’, and ‘if you think other people’s feelings are hurt, you can even feel offended and protest on their behalf’. But why when it comes to mask-wearing, is this suddenly not true anymore? Some people don’t want to wear masks and some do, for different reasons. I expected the British public would just let people get on with whatever they prefer and not bat an eyelid, after all, ‘Who am I to judge them?’

But no. This is not how I sense the atmosphere at the moment. I do not feel I have the freedom to wear a mask. If I  choose to wear a mask out in public, I will need to be prepared to be laughed at or verbally abused. In reality, I don’t wear a mask, partly because of the cultural pressure, partly because I can’t get hold of them. That’s another thing that puzzles me: masks are sold out in the UK. So by logic, locals must have been clearing them off the shelves. Yes, we’ll stock up. But no, we will not wear them: ‘I will not wear masks because I believe it’s not right to wear one … and I will not see others wear them either.’ Can someone please explain? I find this cultural phenomenon fascinating. 

But, I’ve increasingly heard people challenge the discrimination and criticism that’s mainly coming from the West, here are two examples. One is a social media post from an American friend living in Beijing, China. The other is a short documentary film by a Japanese person living in Nanjing, China. Both with some reflection on this ‘to wear or not to wear’ issue. (Plus the video is truly jaw-dropping in terms of what’s happening now in China.) Yes, I understand and absolutely agree that masks are in great need globally and medical staff should be prioritised. Yes, I understand and reluctantly agree that masks could spread fear (but even that is a cultural perception). But please don’t discriminate against people wearing masks. Just leave them alone. They know it’s not a fool-proof way to prevent them from getting the virus and they are not more cowardly than you are. Stop criticising and discriminating against people because of a flipping mask.

As this Japanese YouTuber says at the end, no way I would expect the UK government or British people to do what the Chinese government or Chinese people do. Of course not. Political systems, medical systems, cultures and situations are different from country to country. And I love both places. But seeing some extreme and violent reactions recently towards people wearing masks and even towards people just sneezing or coughing is shocking.

Stay safe people, and be kind.

Coronavirus: From 93 Infected to 0, What Did This Chinese City Do To Contain the Virus?



Feature photo by Jérémy Stenuit on Unsplash.

Categories I SEE I THINK, LIFETags , , , ,

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