Removing the Mask

Removing the Mask

I arrived at my gym for an appointment with my trainer.  “Are you going to Lan Kwai Fong tonight?” he asked enthusiastically.  As a busy (and middle-aged) professional who’d been up since 5 am and still had several work obligations after this gym session, I figured the probability of hanging out in LKF on a school night was pretty low.  “Why on Earth would I do that?” I asked.  He responded, “Everyone’s going there at midnight to burn all their masks!  Can’t wait to see the bonfire!”.  While the thought of such a sight was pretty attractive after 945 days of mask-wearing, I immediately thought of the toxic fumes that would soon travel through central Hong Kong – fumes we could avoid breathing through a mask.  The irony was not lost on me.

I do not know if the LKF mask-burning event occurred, but the sentiment resonated.  It also prompted me to wonder how the people of Hong Kong would feel as they prepared for this change.  No doubt everyone considered what it meant for them and their loved ones.  And as I’ve been listening to friends and colleagues over the last 48 hours, I’ve come to the view that regardless of whether removing the mask mandate is “good” or ‘bad”,  it allows for personal choice, which empowers us all.

Let’s consider kids, for example.  As of Wednesday, millions of five-to-eight-year-olds will (strangely, after showing a negative RAT test to attend school in the first place) be seeing their teachers’ full faces, perhaps for the first time.  Children three years old or under do not know the world without masks.  It will be interesting to see how they interact with their friends now that they can see their whole faces.  It’s difficult enough as an adult to recognize people when they see them without a mask for the first time.  How we look at people and recognize their faces is different with masks on than with masks off.  Also, these little children have learned to read people’s emotions just by looking at their eyes.  What will it be like for them to see a full facial expression?  How will they interpret what they see? Ongoing research at places like the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London links facial expression to healthy social interactions. Within a social context decoding facial expressions is an essential foundation for stable emotional relationships. It is a skill that helps to reduce anxiety.

And just as kids are not used to seeing their teachers’ full faces, the same is valid for teachers with their students.  One teacher shared a story of playing “guess the child” with her peers:  When the kids took their masks off to eat, the teachers tried to figure out who they were.  It wasn’t easy to recognize them, as the teachers had a mental image of the children’s faces, which was inaccurate.  They almost had to re-learn who Nancy, Tom, Millie, or James were, as they were unrecognizable without the masks.  Imagine the child who bounds up to her teacher with a big “HELLO!” and the teacher isn’t sure who she is.  This experience could result in children losing identity or sense of place, as the teachers they’ve become comfortable with don’t seem to know who they are anymore. How disempowering would that appear to the child that a person who is essential in their lives fails to recognize them?

And what about vulnerable people or those in hospital environments?  Most medical clinics allow their staff to choose whether or not to wear masks at work.  Patients with respiratory illness symptoms are still requested to wear masks. 

The mask mandate may have been removed, but does this mean we should no longer consider the needs of others?  A diverse city of 7.6 million people like ours does not thrive without the goodwill and tolerance of its people.  It’s worth remembering that Hong Kong people commonly wore masks when sick – well before any mandate and well before the rest of the world – out of consideration for others.  Perhaps there’s no need to burn all our masks, and we might instead choose to keep a few around for the greater good. As mentioned earlier, it is a choice, and being able to make choices is positive for our mental health.

Today, I also heard another example of two brothers – the younger one thrilled to see his friends’ faces, and the older one worried about his facial acne.   Female colleagues are talking about needing to spend money on makeup now that their whole faces are “on display” again.  Jokes about teeth whitening products selling like hotcakes and dentists being completely booked out.  For the last three years, the beauty ‘playing field’ was somewhat even, and the eyes were all that mattered.  Now our whole faces are back in the limelight. Face masks eased the anxiety of people with body dysmorphia or those anxious about their appearance. This anxiety will have to be dealt with by many people.

And another friend told me she was thrilled to see the mandate go for the simple reason that she’d be able toread lips again – a helpful skill when seeking assistance at various customer service counters around the city.  It was hard enough before trying to understand what the customer service agent was saying behind the plate glass window with tiny holes and poor quality intercom – add mask-wearing into the equation. This friend has said, “sorry, can you please repeat that?” about 17,000 times over the last three years. These are six words that she’s delighted to remove from her vocabulary.

There are so many stories about the effect of mask-wearing, but that is enough for now. Hong Kong is finally free from HAVING to wear a mask, now is the time for people to appreciate they have choices, and it is up to them what they choose to do.

Perhaps the take-home point is that we in HK must celebrate our adaptability and resilience – we kept masks on for 945 days, the most extended period of mask-wearing in the world.   Now they are no longer mandatory, and we can decide for ourselves.  I can choose to wear it or not, just as I can decide to go to Lan Kwai Fong on a Tuesday at midnight or go home to bed.  Free will and choice are empowering, and as you read this, make a choice for yourself and be empowered in the process of having that choice.

By the Team at AMindset

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Other Articles by AMindset Counsellors:

The Mental Health Impact of Hong Kong’s Mask-Free Policy on Children, Anoush Davies

Re-entering the Outside World, Kelly Hutchison

Christmas Alone, Elise Phillipson 

Talking About Eating Disorders, Megan Chang