In China, I have a collection of masks.
There’s a fancy plastic mask that came with its own carrying pouch and spare filters, a few N95 masks with built-in air vents, and a thin cloth mask that happens to fold up very nicely but is virtually useless at protecting me from anything.
Life is different in China. Sometimes the air is so visibly toxic that people stay indoors for days on end with air purifiers blasting in every room. If it’s essential for us to leave our apartment, we do so wearing a mask. The masks are uncomfortable and inconvenient but they are the reality of living in one of the most polluted countries on earth.
One of the things I love about coming home to the suburbs of London is being able to open the windows whenever I want to. Even in the middle of winter, I like to fling the windows wide open because I know what it is to have to keep the windows firmly shut for fear of the “bad air” permeating our home.
Mask wearing is part and parcel of life in China. England was different.
The other day I saw a man walking down the street wearing what looked like a gas mask. I was in North London! Other passersby donned surgical masks and a variety of homemade interpretations. One woman was sporting a mask made of colourful Ankara material that matched her head wrap. Mask wearing is now commonplace in England. It feels so surreal.
And I’m struggling to reconcile the ideal I hold in my mind with this new reality. England is the place I’m granted respite from poisonous air. People don’t need to wear masks in England. Except now they do.
And when I left China in January, before the Covid-19 pandemic exploded, it did not occur to me to pack any of my masks. These are what we wear in China when the air is harmful and we wish to protect our lungs. These masks can now be seen all over London.
I cannot square the masked shoppers queuing for groceries in Tesco with the fact that I am in a land where I never thought I’d see people going about their daily lives with their faces covered.
It’s not supposed to be this way.