Burbles under the mask: A personal essay

Photo of individuals wearing masks
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Wearing masks is a normal practice in my homeland of Japan. Long before this pandemic hit, masks were familiar objects to me, things that I wore to suit my purposes.

As a longtime face mask user myself, I’ve observed with interest the transformation of the mask in the United States from rare observance to politicized subject. To me, the wearing of a mask has been, historically, something personal, filled with memories that I still look back on.

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Vocabulary book in my hands, studying for an entrance exam while commuting on the train was part of my morning ritual back in 2019. For an entire year, I spent every waking moment studying, hurriedly memorizing math formulas and high-level kanji letters. I also spent that entire year wearing a face mask.

Getting sick on the exam day was the last thing my parents wanted, so the mask became part of my daily fashion. I remember forgetting it one day and rushing into a nearby convenience store trying to find a substitute, five masks for about $3. Although it was never comfortable — moist, sweat, breakouts — wearing a mask was at the same time a somewhat comforting practice in one of the most stressful periods of my life. It was a security blanket, a constant presence, and with it I felt normal, even on the exam day in Tokyo surrounded by unfamiliar competitors. Besides, my mask had another perk: I was able to talk to myself quietly — complaining about my parents’ pressure, repeating an English word to memorize or calming myself saying everything’s going to be okay — without people noticing. 

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On the ice, sweating, I felt the heat from the top of my head through my black leotards to the tiptoes of my skates. But I felt it most on the lower half of my face covered by my mask. Wearing my face mask while I skated was not just about protection from disease, but also about training. My coach ordered me to wear a mask during practices to increase my breathing stamina. Not being able to breath in all the oxygen available in the air, I was forced to struggle with what was left in a tiny space inside the mask. Until I would be able to complete the jumps and spins in my program consistently without fail, my mask stayed on. The first time I finished my four-minute program with a mask, I could barely breathe. But after millions of those heavy breaths I let out, I was making my finishing pose, smiling, thinking that I still had room for a program once more. 

I was in a corner of a classroom. It was during recess, and everyone else was chatting with friends, playing basketball outside or reading. I was alone just daydreaming, and I was so zoned out that all I heard were my slow breaths, which felt somewhat soothing for my tired soul. Breathing in and out through a face mask, I was able to hear what my breathing timing was and how it sounded. My mask was protecting me in yet another sense. I was feeling extreme fatigue from my packed schedule. My to-do list was so long that I didn’t even want to think about it. Doing homework, studying for exams, running three kilometers before training, skating practices for four hours and stretching afterwards were not enough. I had to do everything better. My parents and coaches were watching me. There were also rivals that I had to compete with, friends that I had to ask favors from and brothers to quarrel with. Worse, I was in a deep slump, figure skating-wise. It was too much for 14-year-old me to handle, and that week I just wanted to find a way to shut out the rest of the world and be alone with myself. The only way to do that while also maintaining my attendance points at school was to wear a mask. 

It was feeble protection in a physical sense — it didn’t protect me from rain or fire. But it was a strong emotional shield, and I loved the feeling of being removed and present at the same time with everyone else. I could rest and be tired (or at least half of my face could). I didn’t have to worry about presenting my best self for everyone all day. 

But it was a strong emotional shield, and I loved the feeling of being removed and present at the same time with everyone else.

These fractures of my memories come back to me everytime I hear news about face masks, or read stories of people refusing to wear them, or have heated discussions about mask effectiveness with my friends. People argue that it’s their right not to wear them. Others argue that it is not effective enough to wear them. Maybe these reasons are deeply rooted in American beliefs or a culture that I do not yet understand. 

Whatever the reasons may be, though, we might want to think about them more casually, especially now that the word “masks” comes with loaded meanings and ideologies. Rather than thinking of it as an obligation and lamenting about having to wear it, we can look at its potential. You might get surprised at the many different doors it can open when a new normal is built after the pandemic.

Although it was never comfortable — moist, sweat, breakouts — wearing a mask was at the same time a somewhat comforting practice in one of the most stressful periods of my life.

People can use them as part of their fashion style like Lady Gaga. You can also perform activism sending important messages through face masks like Naomi Osaka did. Using it as a security blanket, for training purposes and for emotional refuge like I did might also be a good idea. 

Whatever the face mask means to you, for me, it is like a friend who was always there on my face, through both the good times and the bad. Now, I find myself weirdly proud that my “friend” is saving people’s lives. I hope that your mask can be something that’s close to you — a coat that you wear on a winter morning, a security blanket to comfort you or a cloak of invisibility to protect you. Besides, it can also be your friendly neighbor you can always murmur to.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].