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Coronavirus fears expose cultural divide over masks in California's San Gabriel Valley

Andrew J. Campa, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Marta Ayala and Chong Taing, both residents of Rosemead, Calif., couldn't see the threat of the coronavirus more differently. You can see it on their faces.

While walking out of Superior Grocers supermarket in El Monte, Ayala's face scrunched in annoyance as she spotted an Asian customer wearing a white medical mask coming from the opposite direction. Despite hearing about the fast-spreading illness, to the 64-year-old Mexican immigrant, the mask is an overreaction that just stokes alarm.

"I don't believe in using masks and I don't understand the need," she said. "I know there's a serious disease out there, but who has time to think about that?"

For the 39-year-old Taing, who wears a mask, the item makes as much sense as wearing long-sleeve shirts or sunglasses to protect from the sun. The masks aren't just designed to protect the person wearing them from illness, but to protect others as well. It's a common courtesy in a place he calls "the 626" -- the area code-based nickname for the San Gabriel Valley.

"People wearing masks are being considerate," Taing said. "Yes, we're going to wash our hands, but we're going to take extra precautions when we pick up our kids, do our shopping and go outside. We want to avoid getting sick as much as anyone, and at least we're taking steps to do that."

The virus, officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, has seen cases worldwide rise to more than 60,000 while the death toll stood at nearly 1,500 Friday. In the U.S., there have been 15 confirmed cases.

 

Few places illustrate the parallel reactions to the illness the way the diverse San Gabriel Valley does. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Latinos and Asians make up 46% and 28%, respectively, of the area's 1.85 million residents. The two largest groups frequently shop, eat and send their children to the same schools. But how they have responded to the virus couldn't be more different.

It is among the Asian population that concern over the disease manifests itself most visibly, with changing eating and shopping habits, the cancellation of large public events like Lunar New Year celebrations, avoidance of large family gatherings and the masks.

While the majority of people in the San Gabriel Valley do not wear the masks, those who do wear them -- whether as protection against illnesses or pollution -- are almost always of Asian descent. That can provoke misunderstanding and prejudice.

"Asking why people wear face masks ... it's a little bit like asking why do people wear hats in the U.S.," said Emma Teng, a professor of Asian Civilizations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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