Masks will be around for a while, sew I’ll keep making them

An Asian American woman poses for a profile photo wearing a colorful green mask.
Wearing one of the sewn masks. Photo courtesy of Momo Chang.

Oakland Voices asked our correspondents about their experiences since being forced to wear face masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Momo Chang is the Oakland Voices Alumni Coordinator.

During the early days of COVID-19 in the world, before there was shelter-in-place in CA, I remember hearing news about the coronavirus from my mom. She follows news from China and reads Chinese language press, and was texting me almost daily with coronavirus news. Besides her and one or two Facebook friends who were sharing news about the pandemic, everyone else seemed calm.

However, in Oakland Chinatown, some people on the street were already wearing masks. I also recall workers at a cafe I frequent began wearing masks in February. I was initially shocked and worried to see the cashier and workers at the bakery wearing them while I was ordering boba tea and picking up a pineapple bun. My immediate thought was, are they sick?

The mask mandate in Oakland didn’t begin until mid-April, and in the early days, the CDC sent the message that everyday people don’t need to wear masks. Now, looking back, I am grateful the workers took the precaution to wear masks even though they didn’t have to.

While I don’t like wearing masks, I also decided to start wearing them before the mandate. Despite the conflicting messages from the government about wearing masks, my family and I were adamant about wearing them. We already had some fabric masks stocked up, plus a few N-95 masks from the previous fire seasons.

I remember shopping in Chinatown the Friday before OUSD schools closed in March. My daughter and I went to a small market in Chinatown, where everyone inside was wearing a mask. Even though it was a small shop, I felt safe because no one was socializing or taking their sweet time shopping. Everyone was focused on getting what they needed, and getting out.

We then drove a short distance to the Target in Alameda to stock up on frozen pizza and other items we couldn’t get in Chinatown. That’s when I realized the stark cultural difference: we were the only ones wearing masks in the crowded store, and everyone was staring at us.

Like many people here in the U.S., the reality of the pandemic had not set in. Mask-wearing in Asian countries is commonplace; you’ll find the reasons vary from pollution to this practice stemming from SARS outbreaks, and to current COVID-19 times. In Taiwan, you can buy fabric masks at convenience stores and at the popular night markets, year-round. Local Oakland creatives have been making masks since the early days, but now, you can get fabric masks at big box stores, too (ironically, at places like Target).

I would have never thought that wearing this small piece of fabric or a mask would become so politicized. I also never imagined I’d take out my old sewing machine, which I hadn’t used for at least six years, to sew masks for family and friends.

It looks like mask-wearing will continue for a while. Until then, I’m going to keep wearing my mask, and keep sewing them.

Author Profile

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Oakland Voices Co-Director. Her work focuses on healthcare, immigration, education, Asian American communities, food and culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Momo has received journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting and the Asian American Journalists Association, among others. Her work has appeared in the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and The New York Times. Momo is primarily a print journalist who also produces audio and visual stories for documentary film and radio. She is a Senior Contributing Editor for Hyphen and formerly the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).

1 Comment

  1. Long before SARS, I saw people in Japan wearing masks when they were sick. I was initially confused when I saw someone pull down a mask to smoke, but my friend Owa explained they were wearing the mask to protect others, not themselves.

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