What may have hindered the integration abroad for a long time | Opinion

This is an Expat Diary about my experiences abroad, and I generally try to stay out of any kind of political discussions and avoid sharing my opinion entirely. I usually focus on the good things and on those who reflect our daily life abroad–in Singapore and now the US. However, the topic I am gonna share now has been such a substantial part of our experience abroad that I feel that it’s legit to share it, although it might create dispute.

Today, 11 Bay Area counties have finally committed to an end of the indoor mask mandate for most settings, including restaurants, bars, offices, gyms, grocery stores, museums… Basically everything, except for public transport. I am firmly saying “finally”, because I admit, I am beyond relieved and happy about this news.

I am obviously aware of all the benefits that masks have brought us during the pandemic, and I know following the local guidelines and rules has potentially saved a million lives. To wear a mask is considered a small burden that everyone worldwide has or had to take for a better future for all of us.

Thus, I don’t want to come off any mindless or egoistic. Especially since I know that masks have the subject of a crazy debate, particularly in the US.

However, this is an expat blog and I share my opinions (if any) from a foreigner’s point of view who’s trying to make a life abroad, and with that comes integration into a foreign society. And, frankly, we failed on that in Singapore, and I do blame masks for it, to a certain level anyway.

Since April 2020, my birthday, to be exact, we had to wear masks in Singapore anytime we left our house. So, basically at all times. It was enforced strictly, with people fearing to end in jail if they wouldn’t obey.

When we moved to San Francisco, we hoped for the better, but we hadn’t factored in that the masks meanwhile had become a political expression. Hence, with the Bay Area being one of the bluest parts of the country (read: democratic), the masks were more visual than ever. And with the masks came exclusion.

I might be very frank, but being relatively new in both cities, Singapore and San Francisco, I can claim that the strict masks mandates have literally dampen a great part of the experience abroad. I am aware that there are many who might respond that “the sacrifices to ensure the safety of one’s neighbor or prevention of a deadly mutation are relatively painless”. And here’s my argument: It may be a minor inconvenience for you, but it is a major inconvenience for many. Including me, granted a minority. Being in a foreign country, trying to adapt to cultural habits (ironically including masks), but also integrating into a society that speaks a fairly different language (Singlish and English) than what we’re used to is not painless. It’s actually painful. Many of us use lip-reading to navigate the world, and we develop non-verbal communication skills from looking someone in the face.

With that not possible, we, for instance, progressively felt cut off from public life once universal masking began: How were we supposed to get to know people, let alone meet them (#stayhome), integrate into other social groups (especially since those were drastically limited too), roam around independently and get to see the city we were supposed to call home, and, last but not least, really learn and adapt to emotional, physical, and societal behavior?

Speaking of which, not wearing a mask, or being hesistant for given reasons nowadays makes people assume about your standpoint about society (are you a social person, or are you selfish?) and your political standpoint. That quickly results in a cascade of assumptions that are hard to neglect (no masks = republican = anti-democratic = anti-science), even if you are just casually walking on the streets. So much for inclusion.

There was a point when we didn’t know what our co-workers actually looked like, let alone have seen them at all. Yet, physical interaction and communication are crucial for learning from each other exchanging points of view and emotions.That, however, was all muted by the strict mask mandate, and let me say this once and for all, I found it extremely hard to adapt.

With all these feelings of exclusion, failed integration and rules and assumptions we don’t understand (or, find it hard to follow) you begin to change your behavior. The way you communicate with people and the choice of people you want to interact with at all. And the anger, against the lack of empathy for foreigners, and those who try to navigate through a foreign world. This might be selfish, but it’s simply how I felt.

In Singapore, eventually, given all the surcumstances and the angst of landing in jail for somehow unintentionally showing my political attitude or not complying accordingly, I tried to avoid leaving the house entirely. And I wouldn’t bother interacting with Singaporeans, since they were the “rout of all evil”, methaphorically. So much for integration. You know how that ended.

So, keeping in mind that we have left one city before, I was very relieved that the masks mandates now seem to be over in the Bay Area (w/o being political on that matter!). Hopefully, we can finally integrate into this society as we wish.


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