April 29, 2022 | LIFE | By Hannah Van Zandt | Illustration by Iris Guo

Masks have quickly become a necessity in everyday life around the world. However, in the U.S., this may no longer be the case, as the emphasis on getting things “back to normal” is decreasing mask-wearing.

As someone who has come to Colorado College from another country, one of the biggest culture shocks I have experienced was the U.S.’s view of mask usage. Living in an Asian country, specifically in Japan for my entire life, I quickly noticed how mask culture varies depending on the country.

At a time where there are many debates around wearing masks daily, it is interesting to see the multiple ways people view masks and how this can affect the way we see others.

Japan, to begin with, is a society where wearing masks is well integrated into its culture. Even before the spread of COVID-19, masks were used on many occasions. Some people would wear masks because they were sick and didn’t want others to catch their sickness, especially since public transportation is a big part of Japan. There are also those who don’t want to get sick and therefore wear masks, and some women tend to wear masks when they don’t have any makeup on.

Because of the prevalence of masks in Japan, there were no significant changes when COVID-19 hit its peak. With the already normalized mask usage, you would see everyone wearing masks even to this day. No one would take off their masks at all. In fact, you would be significantly judged by society if you were not seen wearing one. Masks were never seen as a nuisance, which is a stark contrast to the U.S. It is also important to mention that Japan is overall a very homogeneous society, so it makes sense that masks are generally accepted by the entire community.

In the U.S., however, the perception is a bit different, as masks weren’t widely used or prevalent until the pandemic began. There is a mindset to mask-wearing, and you’d often see videos of people refusing to wear masks when they were mandated to, with masks being seen as a nuisance to some people.

One thing that I was shocked to see was that masks were no longer mandated in the U.S., and that people would not wear masks outside. Though this may seem normal to other people, it was quite a big change for me and those who were in similar situations to grow accustomed to.

Of course, there is nothing wrong about deciding not to wear a mask when you are no longer required to. Now with many universities becoming mask-optional, which is seen as extremely taboo in Japan and other countries, it puts me, and I’m sure others, in interesting positions.

All these changes from Japan to the U.S. resulted in masks being a source of stress for me as it became harder for me to separate what is important in my country and what is important in the country I am currently in. The vastly different cultures around wearing masks between Japan and the U.S. does create a shift.

It calls to question where your loyalties lie and what you are comfortable with. It puts you in an awkward position. On one hand, I feel like it’s just better to blend in with the society I am in and go with that. But on the other hand, I feel like I’m betraying my own opinions and my own country for not just following the crowd.

With all of this in mind, it is important to realize that mask-culture differences are a big thing between countries such as the U.S. and Japan, and in many other countries as well. It can take quite a bit of effort to adapt to new surroundings and vice versa. It creates a complicated relationship between the culture you feel the most connected and where you are now.

I frequently find myself trying to figure out what I should be doing because of a different culture I am accustomed to, and how others will perceive me because of it. Though it’s a small thing to worry about, it does affect how I should go about my day.

Living in two different countries puts you in the middle of a lot of things, and this is just one example. I found that when I put on a mask in the U.S., people would point out that it was no longer necessary, but when I didn’t, it felt wrong because this is not normal for me.

Going back between two countries in the midst of mask-wearing is difficult, since no two are the same. This is just one perspective on why people may tend to wear masks more frequently than others, and that there are many different cultures ingrained in us because of what we are used to. We need to remain conscious of the fact that there is more than one ideology behind wearing masks, and it varies from person to person.

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