The Anxiety and Burden of Accepting Face Masks Sent From Home

The box sat on my dining table for days with the neat rows of 200 disposable surgical masks tucked away, unused. They had survived the 6,890-mile trip from Hong Kong to my apartment in San Francisco, where I had holed up since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Going downstairs to pick up the package was the first time I had left my apartment in two weeks.

My face mask anxiety had rendered me housebound for most of March. I had a steadfast belief in the efficacy of masks, entrenched since SARS swept through my hometown when I was six years old. Like many others, I diligently masked up every flu season, graduating from pastel pink masks for children to baby blue adult-sized ones. But wading through a deadly pandemic as an Asian woman living in the United States complicated my feelings toward something so familiar and culturally intimate. The escalating number of racially motivated attacks against Asians terrorized my imagination. It seemed like only a matter of time before a face mask would out me as other, marking me as a target for the screams: “Take the corona back, you chink!”

My resolve wavered only after I began seeing white faces covered in public. It was exhausting trying to monitor the slow turn as mask-wearing became de-racialized; then suddenly, everyone was clamoring to cover their faces. I finally conceded and contacted my family on WhatsApp, asking if they had any masks to spare. However, by the time they arrived, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had revised its recommendations. While everyone should wear face coverings in public, experts said, homemade cloth masks were preferred. The rest should be reserved for medical professionals.

Suddenly, instead of providing assurances of safety and promised freedom, the masks felt like a crippling burden. Dramatic images invaded my thoughts, depicting health care workers wearing trash bags in lieu of personal protective equipment (PPE) and homemade signs begging for face mask donations in hospital windows. Within a few days, I had dissolved into tears.

At a Zoom happy hour with friends that weekend, my white partner casually brought up the box of masks I received. “You need to donate all of them,” a friend who worked as a pediatrician immediately declared, her tone slightly accusatory. Our other friends quickly agreed.

“But these aren’t N95s,” I replied meekly.

“Doesn’t matter,” they said. Then the subject finally changed.

My box of 200 face masks manifested into sleepless nights that stretched into days.

Since early February, the same friend group had dismissed my cautions that the pandemic brewing in China could easily cross the Pacific. They had patiently listened as I relayed stories of my grandparents scouring for bleach in empty supermarkets while trying to assure me that the coronavirus was just another “seasonal flu.” My partner humored my desperation by stopping at a pharmacy on a ski trip in rural Idaho to search for masks I could mail home to Hong Kong. He later casually informed me that stores were out of stock while I marinated with worry.

My box of 200 face masks manifested into sleepless nights that stretched into days. It was the first and only care package my father has ever sent me. Mailing it required him to line up at his local post office for over an hour alongside dozens of scattered Hong Kongers nervously filling out shipping labels addressed to relatives overseas. I knew my family had been counting, saving, and rationing supplies for months. The carefully taped package was a token of love, a family’s way of protecting a far-flung daughter as she forged a future abroad alone, with reckless abandonment and determination. Although I was my family’s pride and hope for escaping Hong Kong and its bleak future, our bittersweet reality was etched upon their faces during every video call.

As an immigrant, I am constantly bombarded by messages that this country doesn’t want me here. People may clarify that as a legal, “high skilled” immigrant, I am an exception to the narrative. But the arduous immigration bureaucracy tells me otherwise.

The immigrant experience is one that seeds your existence with a wary instinct for self-preservation, the trauma quietly and unsuspectingly hardening you over the years. Though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services clarified in mid-March that immigrants will not be penalized for undergoing medical testing or treatment for Covid-19, the system has repeatedly reminded me that this is a “citizens first” country.

On April 1, the same day the box of surgical masks arrived at my doorstep, Andrew Yang published an op-ed advocating for Asian Americans to amp up their displays of patriotism. Per Yang’s call to action, should I donate my masks, proving my worth to this country? “But I’m not American,” I thought, “I can’t vote. I don’t own red, white, and blue apparel.” Though this country has been my home for the past seven years, Americanness — and the protection against anti-Asian hostility that comes with it — isn’t accessible to me.

I’m not going to pretend I would have donated my face masks without hesitation if my immigration experience to the U.S. wasn’t so rife with suffering.

The other day, someone smashed the windows of a Japanese restaurant in our neighborhood. A thread about the incident in our community Facebook group garnered dozens of comments from my white neighbors discussing the increased frequency of commercial burglary and whether businesses should board up. Nobody questioned why, on a street with almost a dozen popular restaurants, only the Asian one was targeted.

After spending time sobbing and wrestling over the face masks, I told my partner I regretted ever obtaining them. Both choices — donating or keeping the masks — were gut-wrenching. Still, keeping ourselves healthy was not a morally objectionable decision. I decided to offer a portion of the masks to friends with at-risk family members and donated to a crowdfunding campaign organized by Hong Kongers to mass-procure surgical masks.

On the few occasions I’ve masked up and visited the grocery store or dog park, I’ve found myself lowering my head to avoid eye contact. I’m worried about catching glares from people wearing colorfully patterned homemade masks and hearing snarls about hoarding PPE or worse. Then again, it’s hard to suppress my own disdainful thoughts of race and privilege when I see young white couples wearing N95 masks. I try to remind myself they could be suffering from invisible illnesses.

I’m not going to pretend that I would have donated my face masks without hesitation if my immigration experience to the U.S. as a minority weren’t so rife with suffering that now seems senseless. But I do know it would have been an easier choice to make.

Every time I loop a face mask behind my ears, I’ve noticed that my jaw is clenched. I struggle to breathe, but not only because of the barrier. It’s ironic that a face mask — what I once considered a lifeline in this pandemic — has unexpectedly become my source of guilt, resentment, and anxiety.

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