Brooklyn, NY — To My Anti-Masker Coworker,
I can imagine what you’re thinking: not wearing a mask in a shared office space is well within your rights. Working full, eight-hour workdays in this office for years means the office is a home away from home for you. Because of your private car, you don’t take public transportation. And if you don’t interact with anyone besides close family members anyway, take care of yourself routinely, how is it even possible to ever contract coronavirus?
You’re probably thinking the people trying to get you to wear a mask in the office have been brainwashed by social media. A mask is just another seasonal trend that’ll come and go — you know this because you have kids with Instagram. Maybe you are tired of being automatically labeled a Trump supporter by the younger people in your social circle just for asking a few too many questions on Facebook about the real truth about coronavirus. People are too easily offended these days.
Does wearing a mask make it harder to talk? Yes, I agree it sucks when something gets in our way of expressing ourselves. I like words and verbal expressions as much as you do. Does the mask make you feel less at home in every public environment? I want to feel relaxed and at home as well. I bet you have a loving family with a spouse and/or children whom you dedicate your life and work to. Maybe the mask represents to you all the things you enjoyed that COVID-19 has taken away.
But here’s what wearing a mask means to me. The last time I wore a mask in an office, I was working in China three years ago. For those few hours, I did not feel ashamed nor peer-pressured for being the only one in the office wearing a mask. That day, we had a fresh layer of paint on the walls. While my coworkers were distracted by the smell and moved to the other side of the room, I put on the 3M mask I regularly carried and kept working. Living in China, I carried face masks regularly to protect myself from smog and construction pollution while walking on the street.
Masks helped me breathe noticeably easier in Nanjing’s smoggy fall, and I had never worn a face mask before in New York, where I’d spent all of my life before China. It’s completely normal to see people wearing masks in public in big East Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the few times I’d visited before COVID-19, people didn’t really bat an eye at masks on public transportation. History of airborne illness and conceptions of the air and the human body in Eastern philosophy could be reasons masks were socially acceptable even before the pandemic.
The day I put on a face mask in the office, a coworker complimented my mask and asked where I bought it. The next day, I gave her a brand new one from my huge box of face masks. She was pleasantly surprised and it made me happy to help her.
I wonder what my coworker was thinking if and when she finally used the mask. Did she remember me — the summer intern who looked Chinese, but acted American, getting KFC together across the street before meetings while answering my curious questions about the latest Chinese internet jokes? The same mask that represents sickness, sadness, and pain to you, was to me a rare entryway to friendship beyond work acquaintance in the limited time I had to spend in China. It was a way of showing someone I was listening and I could be kind, even across thin language and cultural barriers.
Did she end up storing the mask somewhere, and dig it out only at the beginning of the COVID crisis, like what happened to the rest of the box I left deep in the closets of my close to 80-year-old grandma’s apartment in China? I called my grandma right away to check the dusty closets at the beginning of the pandemic when masks were quickly disappearing off the shelves. My grandparents live in Guangzhou, which is not close to the Wuhan epicenter at all. During the call, my grandma was quieter than usual and told me they were under lockdown. It made me wonder if things were worse than she wanted to share. But having those masks available to her shows me I can care for people from a thousand miles away.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy wearing a mask. I would never do it unless I absolutely had to. Just because I’m not complaining about wearing a mask every day doesn’t mean COVID-19 hasn’t changed my life for the worse. If you’re skeptical of the health institutions and government we’re supposed to trust but have continually failed us, I’m with you. We are tasked with critically sifting through immense amounts of information and misinformation, and adapting to changing times and news with nuance. Can you adapt to this challenge for the greater good?
Your irresponsibility taught me a lesson that I’ll never forget. I can think beyond myself and even beyond my family, how even small actions can touch those on the other side of the globe. Caring about other people will never be too much for me and I hope that it would be the same for you.