I’ve actually been masking long before the Covid pandemic.
Over the years, my constant poker face hardened to such a point that it could cut diamonds and became so natural that it took little effort to maintain. People often told me—unsolicited, of course—that I looked unhappy, or bored, or even contemptuous. Before Covid, before face masking in public, I was certain that these tedious reminders, all from solicitous strangers and acquaintances, would follow me for the rest of my life.
When we all started masking at the beginning of 2020, I found a certain solace to the act. But I did not immediately distinguish it from the straightforward safety measures it provided. At first, the comfort of being protected was rooted in the physical presence of the barrier on my face, a warm little tent that gently puffed and contracted with each breath I drew. This flimsy armor somehow kept death at bay, like a magical artifact that warded off demons of sickness, the God Mode video game cheat code that renders you impervious.
For a while, when my life was largely reduced to trying not to contract Covid, wearing an N95 mask really did make me feel invincible. I pushed shopping carts down grocery aisles while grabbing bags of pasta and toilet paper with a sense of security, the feeling that I was doing something right, even righteous.
But then I’d read about yet another ruthless, racist attack on an Asian person, often in broad daylight, and I’d be reminded that all the usual menaces plaguing us had not gone on hiatus while the virus took the whole world hostage, with no regard for race or ethnicity. In fact, Asians had become more vulnerable than we’ve been in a long time, since the last of many times we were made scapegoats for trouble we didn’t cause.
I grew increasingly apprehensive about leaving the safe confines of my house. I even repeatedly warned my father, a chronic insomniac who took long walks before dawn every day, to find some other way to get his steps in, preferably indoors.
He wasn’t too concerned. “New York is much less racist than other places we’ve lived,” he replied. “Besides, with my coat and hat on, nobody can even tell I’m Asian.”
I prayed that he was right, on both counts.
This defensive position was obviously a temporary solution I couldn’t hold forever. I wasn’t immunocompromised; I wasn’t on the run from the law; and even though I prefer the company of my cat to most people, I had no excuse for living in perpetual self-imposed house arrest.
Irrationally, I wished that the protection my N95 gave me against Covid could extend beyond keeping invisible enemies at bay. I wished it could stop fists, deflect bullets, steel us against shoves toward an oncoming train. Still, slipping on my mask before walking into an enclosed space had a distinct, calming effect on me, even though I knew full well it was just a slip of plastic that kept out viral particles, nothing more.
When I was in college, over a decade ago, I subscribed to a more Second Wave feminist mentality, one that decreed I needed to be brave, to physically insert myself into spaces in order to occupy them. Looking back, I was so naive to believe that if I drew attention to myself, if I wore more revealing clothing and was more seen, people would cede space to me, that my obstacle to empowerment was simply incidental invisibility, a passive error of allocation rather than active and malicious exclusion.
Irrationally, I wished that the protection my N95 gave me against Covid could extend beyond keeping invisible enemies at bay.
Here is the implicit bargain Asians are offered to play the model minority: Make no waves, voice no complaints, have no discernable agency, and you’ll never be seen as a threat, or indeed be seen as fully human at all. I didn’t just end up invisible somehow; I was made so along with all the other Asian Americans.
To think that I once drew a connection between an exposed belly button and social justice speaks to the strength of the early days of proto-girl-boss marketing, bolstered by my youthful hubris that systemic change would be easy. I’ve long since discovered the dehumanizing nature of existing as an Asian woman in this country, people’s casual expectation for me to be like one of several familiar dishes off of a takeout menu. A sweet-lotus dumpling perhaps, or a spicy-dragon fried rice. And when you’re seen as a commodity, everyone is a potential angry customer. With this level of objectification, we regularly face the entitled wrath of self-styled customers who make it our business to deliver their satisfaction. Negotiating the risk and opportunity of every instance of exposure to another person has become second nature. Fear persists like a mild case of tinnitus, an almost-imperceptible ringing from somewhere behind the top of my scalp.
In the second year of the pandemic, my hunger for human interaction began to buckle against my fear of being murdered in the street. So I negotiated with myself, always wore shoes I could sprint away in, and never put on headphones in a public space so it would be harder for someone to sneak up on me. By then a significant portion of people in the US had stopped wearing face masks in public spaces, and my relationship with my N95 mask shifted once again.
I continue to wear my mask without fail in spaces where I am among strangers, when I ride the subway, in line at the deli, even at a semi-outdoors professional networking event that would have benefited from giving people a whole face to remember with my name. In addition to serving its primary purpose, my mask has become a kind of dam, a way for me to regulate people’s access to me. Yes, it is minor, a veil that only obfuscates the lower half of my face while the rest of me remains on full display. But having the choice to wear a mask and hide half of my face means I also get to choose who gets to see my whole face; it signals whether I feel safe enough to literally lower my defenses.
Nine-year-old me who bled all over my shirt after getting bit in the hand by the class-pet gerbil in front of her classmates would have loved an excuse to wear a mask, so that she could just focus on keeping the tears from spilling and not worry about her trembling lower lip. Present-day adult me would like nothing better than to keep my mask on during awkward forced social interactions, to obscure the resting bitch face I’m rocking, to smirk without having to answer for it.
Recently, during an afternoon with a frenemy I couldn’t get rid of, I forced a few grins to go with the small talk I scraped together and watched his mouth smile while his eyes sat like ice cubes on his face. It would have been so easy to reach into my purse and fish out my trusty N95, folded neatly between my wallet and car keys, ready to shield me at a moment’s notice. Alas, we were on a Zoom call.
Just as my mask keeps out viral particles, it also stops gazes that may seek a polite, shy smile that befits an Asian woman. When so many spaces I enter feel unfriendly on account of my unmistakable East Asian features, there’s real joy in being able to strategically hide in plain sight. I feel even more in control of people’s perception of me, an upgrade from rendering my face expressionless. As long as masking remains a public health measure, I can keep enjoying this secret protection it affords me.
Maybe some will find it sad, the way I scrabble for a sense of security in a scrap of paper and plastic. Yet it is my pleasure to put my mask on, and it is my pleasure to take it off. I have no illusions about the source of this joy. There’s no question about how it finds its shape in pain, in disillusion. But that doesn’t make it less real; this joy is just exclusive to those who sometimes need to hide, who find the world a treacherous place. For us, there’s much pleasure in finding ways to navigate and remain in spaces that would push us out, on our own terms, clad in whatever armor we can find.