Being Asian and wearing masks in places others aren't

A woman with a protective face mask walks on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, October 26, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Last Saturday marked the beginning of spring break for many primary schools and some colleges in Texas. It was also the first weekend after Texas' 100 percent reopening beginning on March 10 by Governor Greg Abbott's executive order, which also removed the mask mandate.

With some young children in our extended family, we, the five of us, decided to take a trip to the local destination Old Town Spring located north of Houston.

Old Town Spring became a small booming town when the International and Great Northern Railroad was built through it in 1871. The town was rumored to have been robbed by Bonnie and Clyde, the infamous American bank robbery team. It declined after the railroad was closed. When the oil boom came to Texas, the downtown area was transformed into a commercial district with more than 150 unique shops, restaurants and art galleries.

Main Street was all hustle and bustle when we arrived in the late morning. Both sides of the street were full with parked cars, and we had to drive around to find a parking spot in a small alley.

The first shop we went into was an antique store. We were greeted with a warm "hello" from a woman in her 30s, wearing no mask. 

We wandered through the store browsing. The shop was converted from a small house just like many other stores in the town, so we basically had to rub shoulders with other customers. Slowly it dawned on us that, other than us, the rest of the customers, just like the store clerk who said hello, were all white without masks. Some customers like us also had young children with them.

We suddenly became aware of how different we must look to the others: Asians with masks. That awareness immediately brought on a very uncomfortable feeling: We stood out and might not belong.

We left the store, stood on the sidewalk and had a good look around: old folks and young folks, couples with young children, young parents pushing strollers, they were pretty much all white. The first few groups passing by had no masks.

My teenage niece began to panic a little. She has read news of Asians being verbally or physically attacked because COVID-19 originated from that region. She has been dreading the day when she will be required to go back to school for in-person learning because she fears she will be targeted due to her race. 

I, myself, felt a little fearful. I am very aware of attacks on Asian Americans in the US throughout the pandemic. Across the country, Asian Americans have been spat on, pushed around, yelled at "go back to your own country" and worse. 

A report by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council has documented 3,795 such incidents between March 19, 2020, and Feb 28, 2021. Physical assaults accounted for 11 percent of the incidents. 

The media reported that an 89-year-old Chinese woman was slapped by two men and then lit on fire in New York. An Asian-American family of four was attacked by a young man with a knife in Midland, Texas. The injured victims included a 6-year-old and a 2-year old. Our fears weren't unwarranted. 

We continued to watch people in the street. A couple in their 40s came out of a shop wearing with black cloth masks. A little while later, another family walked by with masks dangling from their ears. We relaxed somewhat; we were not alone wearing masks.

The next store had a "Mask Required" sign on the door and we felt better. Everyone inside wore masks. 

For the rest of the trip, mask or no mask, all stores welcomed us with a warm "hello". That feeling of not belonging and fear gradually disappeared. The trip ended without incident. 

I am not a stranger to this part of town. Some in-laws live in the area, and I was a regular visitor before the pandemic. 

However, that Saturday, for a few moments, for the first time, I had a sense of not belonging and feared others around me. 

On the way back, I couldn't help but reflect on how the past year of divisive politics and the pandemic have poisoned our perception and, consequently, how we feel about others taking a different stand on masks.





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