I covered to live, you lived to breathe
December 10, 2020 / Camille Bao
We hold our breaths under the vast blue sky. There’s something in the air ...
When my mom proactively mailed me boxes of face masks on the eve of March, I rolled my eyes and stuffed them to the back of my closet. I can’t wear these in public — imagine the reactions. Only keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer with me, I continued my daily commute to campus mask-free.
The world went on pause two weeks after, and my mom turned out to be right. Face masks seeped into our society as sudden as the sky darkens at sunset. From the dirty masks discarded along the streets to the, “I forgot my mask, I’m running late,” texts — this is America now with no end in sight.
I think back to another time, another place, where all of this is strangely reminiscent.
The sky brightens to a dull gray hue as I walk to the subway station. I checked the air quality index before I left my home and today’s purple signaled another day of wearing masks to breathe. Along the sidewalk, aunties are beginning to set up all kinds of mini shops — cute keychains, handmade bracelets, embroidered face masks. I rush past them; I don’t have time to chat today. Beijing’s subway rush hour is notorious for a reason — the crowd can, and will, swallow you up.
Barely catching the 7:40 a.m., I head to the end of the train where there’s usually the least amount of people. Standing next to the window and away from my fellow mask-wearers, I recognize the eyes of some familiar strangers, but there’s no need for small talk on our daily commute.
Through the elevated train’s window speckled with dust, I witness the hazy city awaken. Soft sunlight above glows through the mist, but the sun herself hides behind the blanket of smog. If I really squint, I can see a faint outline of the hills that border the outskirts of Beijing, the factories that cough up smoke into the already muddled sky. My heart breaks at each vignette, longing for a blue sky that can only be seen in the mountains.
When the subway arrives at my stop, I push through the now crowded train. There is no concept of personal space in an ocean of people, so we all keep our masks on. Even inside, masks are both a protective barrier and a consideration for others — it’s public transportation’s unspoken rule. I savor the last moments of fresh air-conditioning before stepping back out into the dusty world.
During my middle school’s lunch break, teachers let us go outside because the air quality today isn’t that bad (at least, compared to a day with a darker purple color on the index.) Still, we wear our masks while playing at the playground. We run around the field and jump on the swings even though we can’t feel the air rushing through our lungs. Our laughter fills the outside; we almost don’t notice the ashen atmosphere around us.
If we’re lucky, the air pollution will disappear for a day. We call these days “blue sky holidays,” for we celebrate an unpolluted sky. I linger a little longer on my way to the subway station, stopping to say hi to the aunties. On these days, us city folk walk with a bounce in our step, heads held high to receive the long-awaited kiss of sunshine. Abroad the subway, we still keep our masks on because they have already become a part of us, protecting others and the distance between us. I stand at my usual spot in awe of how the light gushes into the concrete jungle.
Even teachers take classes outside for us to soak in every second of the crystal clear sky. We revel in our newfound ability to see each other’s smiles and breathe in the warm Beijing breeze without suffocating.
With the sun’s rise and fall each day, life goes on.
In the land of sunny Texas — halfway across the world — almost every day is a blue sky holiday. The pollution is hidden, seeping through the heart of our society and quite literally into our lungs. The capital city empties with the impending pandemic, and the luminous blue sky paints a backdrop for the silent killer that is COVID-19.
As my daily commute now consists of me going from my bed to my desk, I find myself missing public transportation and the strangers on the Beijing subway. Whether the view outside looked apocalyptic or picturesque, we always had an unspoken connection.
The only consistent “public transportation” here are the elevators I take to my apartment’s fifth-floor parking lot. On most elevators pre-pandemic, we would nod and say, “how are you,” to fill the air of awkwardness that marks a confined space. I’ve always thought people didn’t actually want to know how you are, and in a way, I was right. Now with masks, and some even without masks, we stand at our respective corners — barely six feet apart — holding our breaths and looking at the ceiling until we arrive at our floors after the longest minute of our lives.
We see masks as a nuisance, an obligation. And I feel it too. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought in Beijing, but here, I rolled my eyes when my mom sent me a box of masks back in March and again when she sent protective gloves, alcohol wipes, and more masks a week later when things got worse. Much worse. As the pandemic escalated, so did our attitude towards masks — wearing them in March was akin to coughing in public. We see them now as less of a taboo, but they remain a controversy. If the stigma against masks taught me anything, I learned that freedom and individuality are essential to our lives in the U.S. that we deem anything preventing it as suffocating. But slowly, I’m learning to unlearn the stigma and remember my time half the world away: how I used to wear masks every day and actually liked the way it connected me with my fellow commuters.
Against Beijing’s dreadful sky, we wore a mask to live and breathe well. Here in warm Austin, the skies are the bluest I’ve ever seen — everything that I’ve wished for and more. But there’s something in the air. People live for convenience, for freedom, even at the expense of safety. Life is different, and we don’t know when, if ever, we can return to the same toil under the sun. ■
by: Camille Bao
layout: Michelle Collins & Juleanna Culilap
layout: Michelle Collins & Juleanna Culilap