Will Collins' No Jacket Required - Covid Culture Shock
Let’s go back to March 2002. I was a university grad with horrendous student debt, and I had recently arrived in Tokyo, Japan, to begin my new job as an English teacher.
I started with orientation in Shibuya, one of the most densely populated areas of Tokyo. It’s also where you can find two of the busiest train stations in the world: Shibuya and Shinjuku. Think of West Edmonton Mall – one mall for each station.
Fortunately, I had a train map. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in English and looked more like a bowl of spaghetti done by Andy Warhol. Google that too: Tokyo Train Map.
Before landing in Japan, I had only made a handful of visits to the United States. Now, I was in a completely new world. And with only a little knowledge of Katakana (a minor component of the Japanese writing system), I was ridiculously unprepared.
At first, it was intense and exciting. The Government of Canada calls this stage of culture shock the ‘honeymoon.’ But soon the honeymoon was over, and I began to feel dislocated, withdrawn, uneasy, depressed, and at times, very pissed off. Little did I know, I was feeling culture shock.
Soon I began to notice an odd detail: masks. Not Kabuki theatre masks or samurai masks. They were medical masks, and in Japan, they were as normal as an umbrella or baseball cap.
In my culturally shocked state, I couldn’t help but wonder: “What the hell is this? Don’t they feel embarrassed to wear masks in public? Why would they wear such a ridiculous thing?”
Eventually, I learned that they wear medical masks as a courtesy to protect one another from colds or flu bugs. They also wear masks to avoid breathing pollen, hide physical imperfections like zits or scars, help with social anxiety, and even as a fashion statement.
Now let’s dig a little deeper. Think about how much personal space we have in Canada. Statistics show there are about four people for every square kilometre.
In Japan, there are about 350 people per square kilometre, but in the Greater Tokyo Area (where I first experienced culture shock), there are over 2,600 people per square kilometre.
For Japanese people, wearing masks is a way of protecting themselves and one another. In Canada, where we have a ridiculous amount of space, this is something we have never been forced to consider – until COVID-19 changed the culture of our entire planet.
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Fast forward 19 years and masks are nearly everywhere. The world has changed. Our culture has changed, and some of us are pissed off. Frankly, it’s not surprising. When something about our normal everyday life is taken from us, it’s shocking.
When people protest or complain about masks, I wonder if it’s really about the masks, or if it’s about losing our culture.
Just before Christmas, five people in Calgary were charged following an anti-mask protest. What did it accomplish?
Have you heard about the Freedom Rallies in Aylmer, Ontario? Last year, a state of emergency was declared in the town of 7,500 people due to anti-mask rallies. It escalated to absurdity as mask-wearing residents protested against anti-mask protesters in front of the Church of God.
It feels a little too much like a Stephen King novel.
So, what can we learn from all of this? If the Japanese can wear masks to protect one another, why can’t we?
And if you do feel dislocated, withdrawn, uneasy, depressed, and at times, very pissed off, you may be experiencing culture shock. Thankfully, there are ways to manage it. Look it up, speak to a professional, and take care of yourself. You’re not alone.
No jacket is required for this article, but apparently masks are required. And if I do say so myself, you look pretty darn good wearing a mask.
Photo: A map of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station in Japan. Supplied photo