David Mancao wears a mask while lining up for groceries at Costco in Lincolnwood, Illinois. Credit: Pat Nabong

Last week, I walked around my neighborhood looking to photograph other people who were still working amid the pandemic. I spotted a U.S. Postal Service carrier almost half a block away and waved to get her attention. I smiled, but she probably couldn’t see it behind the face mask I was wearing. It was a surgical mask, which was sent from my roommate’s mother in the Philippines.

“Hi!” I said. I took a step closer, but remained more than six feet away. As soon as I did that, she raised her hand to signal for me to stop.

“You can say what you need to say from where you are!” she shouted.

Taken aback, I paused. Even though I’m used to rejections from people I try to interview, this level of aggression was new. Then I realized she probably thought I was sick.

As a visual journalist, I don’t have the luxury of always working from home. My editor was adamant that I wear a mask in the field, and I knew it was my responsibility to minimize the risk of unknowingly transmitting the disease to others in case I was an asymptomatic carrier. While working on assignment over two weeks ago without a mask, I realized that even though I try my best to maintain six feet between myself and the person I’m talking to, old habits die hard; many people still naturally gravitate towards me. In uncertain times like this, it’s good to have that extra layer of protection for them and for myself. The best way to flatten the curve is to behave like you’re sick.

When I told the mail carrier that I didn’t have the virus, that my face mask was only a precautionary measure, she lightened up. I tried to interview and photograph more people throughout the day and many declined, seemingly intimidated by me. I felt eyes on me as I entered a convenience store. I felt eyes on me as I stood outside a McDonald’s. And I felt eyes on me as I walked around the dollar store. It was the same feeling of awareness I had while wearing a mask on the Red Line about a month ago—when there were only two COVID-19 cases in Illinois—because I wasn’t feeling well. So the next day, I still worked with a mask on, but I used a scarf to cover it up. Almost everyone I talked to was receptive.

There have been over 650 incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans in the U.S. since March 18, according to Stop AAPI Hate, which shared that data with NBC Asian America. Tiffany Chen was wearing a face mask in a parking lot in Irvine, California, on March 20. A person on the phone, who was two cars away from her, saw her and said, “Oh my God, this Asian lady has a face mask on.” Chen was appalled, especially since there’s nothing scandalous about wearing face masks in Taiwan.

“For Asians, it’s kind of like Public Health 101 to have a box of face masks in your house,” Chen, who lived in Taiwan for roughly 15 years before moving to Chicago, told me. “My mom always told me that if you’re sick wear a face mask so that you don’t give it to someone else.
. . . I wear a face mask to protect others more than protecting myself.”

Culture dictates how people react to those wearing face masks, according to experts and those I talked to.

“It’s a little freaky still,” said Charlie Grant, who isn’t Asian American. He replied via direct message to a question I asked about wearing masks on Twitter. “It’s not something I’m used to seeing out in public, so it’s taken some adjustment. I think they are probably doing the right thing by protecting themselves and others by wearing one.”

Emma Francis, a photojournalist who is also not Asian American and is based in Paris, told me her natural reaction is to “move away from [people wearing masks].” Francis doesn’t wear a mask in public partly because she doesn’t want to take away resources that are already in short supply from medical professionals, she said.

Many people I know, including myself, have to ration the meager number of face masks we have from several months ago.

But Jiayan Shi, my former roommate, said she feels more unsafe when she interacts with someone who isn’t wearing a mask. Shi started wearing a mask in Chicago in early February, when COVID-19 cases were increasing in her hometown, Shanghai.

The impression that those who wear masks are sick is partly due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that only people who are ill should wear them. The scientific community has mixed views on the effectiveness of masks in protecting people from COVID-19. But in some cities, wearing a face mask is now mandatory, especially since people can be asymptomatic carriers. In many Asian countries, masks are not only encouraged during a pandemic, they’re commonplace.

“No one will really pay extra attention to you [if you are wearing a mask] because it is very common in China,” said Shi. “We don’t have a concept that, you know, anyone wearing a mask is sick.”

People in China and Taiwan wear masks to filter out air pollution, to protect themselves from the cold, and to hide their faces when they don’t have makeup on, Shi and Chen both told me. In Japan, a mask can be a fashion statement. My mother, who lives in Metro Manila, a dense cluster of cities in the Philippines, wears a mask to protect herself from smokers.

“I feel like a lot of people are sort of stigmatized wearing masks,” said Yiwen Lu, an international student at the University of Chicago. Lu said she’s debated wearing a mask on the bus. “I have heard a lot of horrible things about people discriminating against Asian people who wear masks, so I chose not to.” Shi, however, told me she would rather endure discrimination than get infected or infect others.

A week after my encounter with the mail carrier, my roommate found out that she was exposed to three people who were in contact with a possible COVID-19 patient. The next day, I saw a sign on my next-door neighbor’s apartment door warning that she was exposed to someone with COVID-19.

I had no way of knowing that then. But I do know that a world where Asian Americans have to choose between protecting themselves from a virus and minimizing the risk of being discriminated against is unimaginably dangerous.   v