fb pixel

Wearing Covid

Banner image featuring a graffiti painted mask and the title "COVID-19 and Cultural Studies: Articulating the Pandemic."

Jenny Heijun Wills

June 16, 2020

        It took me a minute to locate the misunderstanding. I recognized disapproval, familiar by then with the tightness behind my ears, noticed I was chewing the inside of my left cheek. Pulling at cuticles.
        “If they don’t like it here they can just leave,” was followed by “Canadians don’t wear face masks because it’s rude.”
        Back in 2002, without the arsenal of knowledge that’s since made me braver (though still not always heard), I could only mutter something about the mask being a way to keep germs in, to protect others from illness.
        It was one of the earliest times I defended Asian people to members of my Canadian family. Tried to navigate that cultural disconnect. All sorts of loyalties were tested that day.

        I heard the things you said about me in that Zoom meeting on the first day of class. With earbuds in, those words came through real clear. Right into my head. What I imagine you say under breath in class, that time, right into my head. I heard you. That word you called me. Your bravery emboldened by online anonymity. By a digital classroom that hides from me all but four of your faces at any given moment.
        I’m learning day-by-day how to exhibit myself online. But you came right into my head where I am and said that word. And then I had to sit away from the screen for a moment, on the piano bench one room over, and try to smooth my skin down so I’d stop shaking.
                     Later that week, by phone, I tried to explain once more to someone I thought
                     might understand. I tried to say how deep that word goes in. But the reply was
                     the same as it’s always been. “Do they know you’re not even Chinese?”

        There are two kinds of people. Those who wear them to keep themselves in and those who wear them to keep others out.

        At first I thought that social distancing would curb sexual harassment.

        Maybe it is because they want me to know they’re not racist. But every now and then a white person will put their hand on me at the grocery store as if to prove something. To me? To themselves?
        I still don’t like to be touched. That hasn’t changed.

        I notice they complain an awful lot about the state of their cuticles these days. There is some mention that the manicurists already wear masks to block toxic dust and other poisons, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like they don’t have the equipment. And technically, “essential service” is subjective. Besides, they want to work.

        We also notice that being all dolled up means I need not be tethered to my partner when we go to buy food. It humiliates me, needing his adjacent whiteness like this. I feel like I’m a little girl again.

        I started to do this thing. Every day, I did it. Some people say it’s an anti-feminist act. But for me, politics and beauty are the same thing. I did this thing starting around the time when my face felt ugly again. Is it prideful to admit it’s been a while since those thoughts even crossed my mind? Maybe, but sometimes politics and pride are the same as well.
        Anyhow, this thing I did, it was so I’d feel stronger in my face again. Hidden, sure. But hidden in spotlight and so curiously stronger. I’d tell myself I was in charge of how and why people were looking. I made believe I was in charge.

        This has always been the narrow balance, hasn’t it? It’s just more palpable these days than it has been for a while.
        To be hated or to be loved and nothing in between. I’m afraid to be hated. My body is small so I’m afraid. But I’m sometimes afraid to be loved for the same reason. Anyhow, of course that love is conditional and it can be a monster so if you aren’t grateful or even willing to accept, then it flips sideways so fast it’ll knock you over.

        I watch a video of a Black man being torn from a city bus in Philadelphia. Four white cops, each clutching one of his limbs, do it while their “backup” waits on the street. Reporters say the man’s treatment was triggered by his refusal to wear a mask. Predictably, news stories try to veil the race of the man, but they expose themselves when they cite witness accounts that he was “unruly” and that he was resisting police.
        In Canada they still refuse to collect race-based data. They expose themselves, too. I wonder if, in Quebec, but also elsewhere, people are now angry because it is impossible to know if someone is wearing a medical mask if their face is already covered.
                     In the corner of my computer screen an overseas e-commerce company
                     advertises “designer” facemasks in “ethnic prints.” The model’s face is mostly
                     covered, but her blue eyes are laughing.


Jenny Heijun Wills is associate professor of English. Her book, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related (Penguin Random House) won the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust  award for the non-fiction and the 2020 Eileen McTavish Sykes First Book Award (Manitoba Book Awards).

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

Return to the series's main page.                                                < Previous       |        Next >