I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no. But opon further reflection, there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell! That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA) so there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. So this has been literally, an eye-opening experience. Click on the hashtag for all the posts so far.
I have only worn a “surgical mask” once in my life. That was last week when I had a minor cold and was sneezing all over the place. I felt like a doctor ready to perform surgery. Move over everyone, enter Dr. Savvy.
(Stretches left hand out): scissors *cuts something*
(Stretches left hand out again): scalpel *cuts something, again*
(Stretches left hand out again): needle. Dammit, we’re losing the patient. Apply the defibrillator, 100 cc, stat. Stand back everyone, stand back! 1, 2, 3..
Back to reality.
In Kenya, only doctors performing surgery wear surgical masks. I have never seen anyone in Kenya put on a mask and walk about freely. If I were to do that, people would assume I have some deadly disease (like SARS or Ebola – never mind Ebola is not a respiratory disease and is not spread through the airborne route). Matatu conductors wouldn’t want me in their vehicles and no one will want to touch me with a ten-foot pole! At least that’s what I imagine would happen.
In Japan, eeeeeveryone wears masks.
I was worried at first that maybe there is some deadly in the air and perhaps I should rush to get one. So I asked my Japanese and Chinese friends why they wear masks.
The most common reason why Japanese people wear masks is because they have a cold and they don’t want to pass it to others. It is a culture where it is important to maintain harmony with others, where “it will disturb others” is reason enough to do/not do something. It is considered polite to get a mask to stop spraying your germs around whenever you cough, sneeze or blow your nose. You would then think that infection rates are near 0 and no one gets a cold but the business of new cold infections goes on as usual, masks or no masks!
If you are wearing a mask to stop yourself from getting infected by those around you, it doesn’t work really as it is not a disinfecting mask. There is no germ filter.
If you have a cold though, there is another reason you should wear a mask apart from infecting those around you. My tutor (who’s Japanese) told me that it helps with keeping the air your breathe moist and warm so it reduces your coughing. This made sense and when I got a cold last week (actually the first time I was getting a cold since coming to Japan), I put on the mask.
It was totally uncomfortable. I am one of those people who never cover their heads with blankets when I sleep because I feel like I am suffocating. The mask made me feel the same if not worse, and it also fogged my glasses. I spent the day with the mask hanging from my ears but leaving my mouth uncovered which was totally pointless. To help my cold heal faster, I resorted to the classic Kenyan treatment: dawa. A potent brew of lemon, ginger, garlic and honey. I discarded the mask the next day. I must add though, that my 2 year old son J, has taken a liking to the mask and has no problem putting one on the whole day.
I was talking with an Egyptian friend whose kids spent several years in Japan and are now back in Egypt. His son had a cold and went to school in a mask to stop spreading it to his classmates. The teacher however, was having none of that. It was too disruptive and he (the teacher) would rather have the kid infect all others but he was not allowing a surgical mask in his class.
Perhaps different masks designs, not the typical white surgical mask, might help sell the appeal of the mask outside of East Asia?
In China too, they wear masks because the air pollution in some cities is just too much. However, I don’t know if they are scientifically effective as they are just pieces of fabric with no chemical filters included. It would perhaps work on dust but not for much else.
Some people in Japan wear masks as an accessory, even if they aren’t sick. Perhaps if you have allergies to pollen, cat fur etc, a mask would come in handy.
In Japan, people are polite enough and care about others/society to not spread a cold when they get sick so they will definitely wear a mask. In Kenya, it seems sometimes that people GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to disrupt others/society so I think a mask will be a hard sell! As a Kenyan reading this, would you wear a mask? (Where would you even buy one?!)