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If both the deepest and shallowest repercussions of walking around with a surgical mask in a time of coronavirus can be experienced by one single person, Jeannie Ding, a Boston University junior with an It girl vibe, is that person.

It was a Friday afternoon in early February and she’d recently returned to BU from her native province in China, Jiangxi. It’s about a four-hour drive from Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, and because she had the sniffles, and was worried about the disease, she’s been wearing one of those cheap surgical face masks, sometimes covering her mouth and nose, sometimes, admittedly, looped behind her ears and resting under her chin (but more on this in a moment).


First, the serious incident: Dingwas on the B Line, she said, when a Chinese-American man began yelling at her in Chinese, screaming that she shouldn’t wear a mask because it would spread the ugly stereotype of Asian people spreading disease. “He said I was bringing shame to all the Chinese people,” Ding said.

Now the more frivolous side, which explains why her mask was not currently covering her nose and mouth. “I feel like it’s not polite when I’m wearing my mask and talking to people,” she said. And: “If I put on makeup but no one can see my face it doesn’t make sense.” Her lipstick was covet-worthy MAC.

More than a month into the coronavirus scare, our relationship with masks is complicated. Unsure if they actually work at keeping us safe, we’re nonetheless hoarding them and at the same time suspicious of anyone who actually wears one. Not so many people are wearing masks that it’s common, but at the same time, enough people are wearing them that it’s become a thing around Boston.

When a mask appears, in a packed T car — or even just passing by on the sidewalk — you can almost hear the unasked questions: Are you sick? Or trying not to get sick?


The masks and fear of the coronavirus are fueling anti-Chinese racism, and also increasing suspicion of people with compromised immune systems whose mask use predates the outbreak.

Nicki Kattouf, a colon cancer survivor, is in the latter category. She wore a mask when undergoing treatment, and although she’s a confident person, the looks from strangers didn’t make her feel great.

“I didn’t want people to think I had the plague,” said Kattouf, a field marketing manager for a staffing agency in Boston, “but I couldn’t go person to person saying, 'I’m going through chemo, you will not catch what I have.’ ”

Molly Kruko, an administrative assistant at MIT who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, wears a mask because medication she takes suppresses her immune system.

Unwilling to jeopardize her health “for the judgment of others,” she nonetheless chooses masks intended to look nonthreatening.

She’s got one decorated with unicorns, another with dogs, a third with a floral print. All come from a San Francisco firm called Vogmask, where the emphasis is on serious protection from airborne particles — but in an Instagram-friendly style. “Vogmask speaks unpretentious Californian,” the mission statement reads, “and always strives to be a positive voice for the environment and humanity.”

Kruko worked for years in Japan, she said, where people regularly wear masks to filter out germs and pollutants. And as someone susceptible to chest infections even before taking medicine for MS, she loved the trend.


“I was always a little jealous,” Kruko said. “Here it’s not socially acceptable.”

A face mask just made the red carpet at the Grammy Awards when the teenage singing star Billie Eilish rocked a sheer black Gucci number. But it’s safe to say that craze-wise, in this country, masks will not be the next athleisure.

That’s in contrast to countries such as China, according to a medical anthropologist, where masks are much more than simply a way to protect yourself from infection.

“In the West, the image of Asian people with masks is sometimes wielded, deliberately or not, as a signifier of otherness,” Christos Lynteris, a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, wrote in The New York Times. “But in East Asia, the act of wearing a mask is a gesture that communicates solidarity during an epidemic — a time when a community is vulnerable to being divided by fear, between the healthy and the sick.”

The Centers for Disease Control is not recommending that the general public in the United States wear masks to protect themselves from respiratory viruses. But with the director of the World Health Organization calling the coronavirus a “very grave threat to the world,” people nonetheless are on heightened germ alert.

On a recent day in Coolidge Corner, for example, Trader Joe’s beloved food-sample station was sampling hand sanitizer, and it was “going like hot cakes,” according to the employee at the station.


Back at BU, where the Chinese Students Association recently handed out masks, Kaiwen Qian, a junior from Shanghai, was decidedly not wearing a mask. Why not? Didn’t his parents back home want him to wear one? “Yes,” he said, before making a confession: to make them happy, he bought a box, and, to prove it, showed it to them on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app.

Alas, filial concern did not extend to actually wearing the mask. “I don’t think I’ll get sick,” he said. “But I want my parents to feel safe.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.