This mask will not protect me.
Spend any amount of time in Thailand, China, or lots of countries in Southeast Asia, and you’ll inevitably see people out in public, wearing surgical masks.
Coming from the west, my first thought was, “wow, there must be a bunch of paranoid people here, or maybe they’re asthmatics and the air quality gets bad.”
This is the danger of cultural lenses. We often, maybe even usually, miss what’s really happening. After a few weeks here, during my own run-in with the health-care system, a light bulb went off.
People aren’t wearing the masks to protect themselves. They’re wearing the masks to protect everyone else.
Right. Of course they are. This is a culture where your value, your status as a person is largely determined by how well you treat everyone else. Respect and concern for the greater good is woven all through the language and ritual of life. Of course you’re going to put on a mask if you’re sick. What are you, some kind of germ-spreading hateful barbarian?
Looking from a Thai perspective, it’s really hard to see why people in places like the U.S. don’t wear masks when they’re sick. But as an American, I also know that getting people to wear masks would be a near impossibility. We’d have arguments about it, a 24-hour CNN special, and Congress, yelling. Even after the argument, despite the common sense and tremendous fashion opportunities, it’d never happen.
Why? It’s a cultural clash. In America, we value freedom and independence above everything else. You can hear the line now. “Nobody’s gonna tell me I have to wear a mask.” But even if you liked the idea, it still wouldn’t be that easy. Here, even with my newfound understanding and support for wearing them, it’s still tough for me to do. I fight the yelling of my own brain every time I walk out the door.
Why? Even more culture, ingrained. In America, we celebrate competition in every arena we can: business, leisure, sports. There’s an undercurrent to every facet of our society: someone is out there, ready to take your spot if you can’t cut it. In that environment, weakness is a dangerous thing - so we just avoid showing it, anytime we can.
Putting on a mask feels weak. It broadcasts to strangers and coworkers, “Hey, I’m sick.” Sick animals get picked off by predators. Not me. I’m strong. I’m brave. I’m fine.
But I’m not fine. I’m sick, and I really could get other people sick.
So, when I walk out the door, I try think of it the way Thais do - as a show of generosity. To put on my mask, and say, “Hey, I’m sick. Let me protect you from getting sick, too.”
To remember a truth that they've never forgotten: we’re all in this together.