There’s a controversy brewing here in Thailand. In a nutshell, Thais are becoming increasingly upset about farang (Caucasian foreigners) who refuse to wear a face mask during the COVID-19 outbreak. For Thais, the decision to wear a mask is easy. Thai culture (and that of most Asian cultures), places the good of society above the good of the individual. As a result, it’s common to see people across Asia wearing a mask when they are sick; they take extra precautions because they don’t want to infect others.
Farang are less likely to wear a face mask. Western culture is more individualistic in nature, with less regard for the good of the whole. We tend to regard masks as a means of self-protection rather than a measure to protect others. Not only has wearing masks never been common in western culture, doing anything that covers up our faces makes many westerners uncomfortable.
Conflicting information coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. and the World Health Organization has further confused the issue. The WHO website currently advises that if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection. They recommend wearing a mask only if you are coughing or sneezing. The CDC website states, “CDC does not recommend the routine use of respirators (face masks) outside of workplace settings (in the community).” Scientists, medical professionals, and researchers have all said that masks do not protect against getting COVID-19 and, in some cases, may increase the risk because people tend to touch their faces more when wearing an ill-fitting mask.
Conversely, most Asian governments are currently either requesting or requiring everyone to wear a face mask. This clash of cultures has shown signs of creating problems between foreigners and Thais. Last month, Thailand’s Public Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, held a media event at Bangkok’s busiest Skytrain station where he handed out free paper face masks. He became incensed when foreigners refused to accept or wear the masks. During a subsequent press conference he stated the following:
“All farang, those tourists… that’s something the embassies should be notified about and the public as well that are not wearing masks. We’re handing them out and they still refuse. They need to be kicked out of Thailand!”
During a subsequent visit to Chiang Mai (where I live), he tweeted:
“Today I visited Chiang Mai and noticed that there are almost no Chinese tourists. All you see are ‘farang,’ Not only that, but 90% of Thais are wearing masks. However, none of the farang are wearing masks. This is the reason our country is being infected all around. We should be more careful of the farang than Asians.”
But that wasn’t enough. He continued:
“At the moment it is winter in Europe and farang come to Thailand to hide from the disease. Many farang dress dirty and don’t shower. As hosts we have to be very careful.”
His posts caused such a social media uproar that he was forced to close his Twitter account. Thai people in general are very accepting of westerners and they saw his comments as demeaning and unacceptable. Since then, Anutin has insisted that he never posted the tweets. He claims that many people had access to the account and that it was closed down because the the incident is under investigation.
Unfortunately, I see evidence that the mask issue is starting to cause a rift. A good friend of mine, a fellow expat from England, was walking down the street a few days ago. She was not wearing a mask but was practicing social distancing. The streets were virtually empty; she met only one person on her walk, an elderly Thai woman. My friend moved out into the street to maintain a two-meter distance between them but the Thai woman walked right up to my friend and began screaming at her about not wearing a mask.
Last week, a day before the national state of emergency was implemented, I walked to our local fresh market to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables. I was wearing a mask. Most vendors in the market know me. I shop there all the time and speak to them in Thai, and they didn’t treat me any different than usual. But when I stopped at a store that I don’t usually frequent the atmosphere shifted. Two Thai men walked up at the same time I did. The owner had no problem helping them, but when it was my turn to shop he walked away to retrieve a bottle of hand sanitizer. He pumped a dollop of gel into my hands before he would assist me. It wasn’t a problem for me. I just accepted the gel and cleansed my hands without taking affront.
Believe me, I get it. It’s so easy to become fearful of the “other,” especially when cultural differences become a factor. It’s natural for a bare-faced foreigner, surrounded by mask-wearing locals, to be viewed with suspicion. As an American living in Thailand, I am here at the pleasure of the Thai government and I feel strongly that I should be respectful of Thai cultural norms. Despite recommendations on the WHO and CDC websites, I wear a face mask out of respect and I strongly encourage all farang in Thailand to do the same.
If you enjoyed this article, you may find my story about what it’s like to live in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic interesting