I’m ashamed of myself. I did a terrible thing today. I did the very thing I try to teach my children not to do. I let peer pressure get to me. I gave in. And I regret it.
There is a funny little cultural thing that the Chinese do. It’s something that an American, in America would literally not be caught dead doing. That is: wearing a hospital mask out in public. You know the kind, doctors and nurses wear them. In the U.S. sometimes people who are very ill, like those in current rounds of chemo, might consider wearing them in a hospital, but nowhere else. Because frankly, people look ridiculous wearing them.
In Taiwan, the Chinese wear them like American’s wear sunglasses. They’re everywhere. I’m not sure when it started; maybe with the avian flu outbreak in the early 2000’s, maybe earlier. Some Chinese won’t leave their houses without one on. And they don’t just wear the standard, hospital issued, disposable type. Here in Taiwan, you can buy them everywhere, and not just disposable ones, but also wash-and-wear ones. They come in designer prints: leopard print, zebra print, florals. They are a fashion statement. But trust me, even with a cool, funky print–they look just a ridiculous out in public as the standard Marcus Welby, MD type.
But just cough or sneeze in public one time without one on here, and you will get death glares like you’ve never seen before.
Notwithstanding the Chinese affinity for them, for the most part, westerners shun them. And if a westerner so much as clears his throat in public, the Chinese will immediately start inching away; creating space between themselves and the horrible western killer germs. If a westerner actually goes so far as to cough or sneeze in public, the Chinese don’t even try to hide their horror and will actually get up and move across the room, likely pulling masks out of their bags and immediately putting them on.
I’ve heard of westerners getting on a crowded, standing-room-only subway, letting out an exaggerated, fake cough because they know that suddenly the seat right in front of them will be vacated, leaving them a pre-warmed comfy place to sit. One more loud cough and suddenly the seats on both sides will become available for elbow room and a place to put their bags.
So back to my shame. My 7 year-old Elizabeth has been home from school sick all week. She had standard flu symptoms: cough, fever, throwing up. She seemed to be doing a little better this morning, with just a lingering cough, so I decided to send her to school. Normally she rides the bus, but this morning I took her to school because her class was having a book sharing reading activity with parents. We walked in the door of the school and Elizabeth immediately let out a loud cough. I looked over and the Chinese lady at the information desk was giving us the death glare. That’s when my resolve started to waver. Elizabeth coughed again as we walked down the hall toward her classroom and a parent that was walking toward us took a step to the side, creating more distance between us as she passed. I felt self-conscious. Then Elizabeth did a tiny sniff, and that was all it took. To our left was the nurses’ office. I grabbed Elizabeth and pulled her through the doors. Before I knew it, the words were coming out of my mouth, words I never thought I would utter. “My daughter has a cold. Do you have a mask she could wear in school today?” I immediately hated myself and wished I could take the words back. The Chinese nurse smiled and said, “Of course!” and stepped into her office. I should have turned and walked out right then, but instead I stood there, with my head hung low like a 5 year-old that was just caught pulling the cat’s tail. The nurse emerged from her office a few seconds later and covered my daughter’s beautiful face with a horrible mask. Only Elizabeth’s blue eyes remained uncovered–revealing the fact that this was not an Asian child behind the mask, it was an American. My heart sunk!
As we walked back out into the hall, I said a silent prayer that we wouldn’t pass another westerner. When we arrived at Ms. Paradis’ 2nd grade classroom and Elizabeth started to hang up her backpack on her hook out in the hallway, I bent down to her level and said quietly, “Why don’t you take that mask off and put it in your pocket?” I fully expected her to yank the thing off and say, “Thank you Mother!” But instead she said, “No, I like it. I want to keep it on.” The words were like daggers piercing my American heart!
So there is my shame–in black and white for all the world to read. Even now as I write, my beautiful blue-eyed daughter is probably wearing a mask out on the playground, or in the cafeteria, or maybe the library. Today, because of me, she lost some of her American Yankee pride. I’m a little heart-sick.