Minh Le

Growing Up: March on, mask on


After a turbulent week, as we lay emotionally drained on my couch, I asked my housemates if I was losing my mind. Following the second week of classes, COVID-19 cases had reached 207, and I found myself clinging to rational fears — the kind of armor I slowly grew comfortable displaying.

I had subjected the same housemates to painful conversations and many meltdowns during which I would protest against the absence of masks outdoors – like the Fetty Wap concert and MoCos, to name a couple events.  

It seemed to me that everyone had moved on, and the community was emerging from months of isolation with a false sense of security. At the time, I only knew I had not moved on. 

I kept my mask on at all times. I kept my distance so as not to accidentally bump into strangers. I kept myself close. I don’t think I was ready to embrace my freedom, just as no number could have made some of my friends surrender theirs. There’s no right or wrong, only choices made in the absence of rules and regulations. 

You see, I’m aware the risk of outdoor transmission is low. Although my mind accepted this reasoning, my conscience rebelled. I reprised all the ideas I had of myself — fearless, carefree, open-minded. I had known any changes made in relation to this pandemic were going to take some adjustment. Being on my own was what stung the most. 

Every time I left the classroom, more often than not, I would be the only one who kept my mask on. I wish I could say I kept it on with pride. But self-assurance is on the other side of a bridge that I, at 22 years old, had yet to cross.  

Insecurity filled the weak and worst moments in between. I took my mask off when a special someone went in for a hug. Joining a class outdoors, I quickly realized how eager my professor and my friends were to see each other barefaced. Feeling the pressure, I took my mask off, a lapse in judgment that brought me sudden guilt. 

I was signaling that I, too, belonged. I was signaling that I understood their desire to be free, rather than wary, and how that was important to their well-being, as my own caution has been to me. My action might have put them at ease, but that only means we were not honest with each other. I was not honest with myself. 

Growing up, sometimes, means ceding who you are in pursuit of who you want to be.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was repeating a familiar pattern. I grew up chasing acceptance, which held me back from living my truth. When conservative relatives would ask if I was interested in any girl, I would laugh it off, repressing my sexual orientation to spare them the discomfort. I retook the SAT, just so a meaningless score would place me in the top 98th percentile. Two decades worth of comparisons had convinced me that having a twin brother meant I would never be special, even though he, more than anything and anyone, made me who I am today. I got high off living up to people’s expectations, then felt distraught when I didn’t meet my own. 

Be that as it may, I haven’t given up. 

In a crowd, I would be overcome with thoughts of my mother. It has been over five months without her. But still, like clockwork, she reminds me to pull my mask back up and, perhaps more importantly, think for myself. I thought of what it would mean to her, to me, if I would do what makes me feel safe – an effort that, even if temporary, would put her at ease from 8,171 miles away. 

And so, I marched on. I marched on hoping that a lightning bolt would at some point strike in me a sense of self-assurance. But no such wonder came. Once in a while, I still walk with a bit of self-doubt in my steps, but as long as my mask hugs my cheeks, I feel comfortable in my own skin. 

Perhaps for those of us who are not ready to unmask outdoors, the defining reason for continuing our effort is simply to believe in it. Know that whatever you choose is valid, even when you’re the one invalidating it. 

I am too excited to get rid of the mask. I also want to feel everyone’s excitement about going back to normal, barefaced and barely bothered. 

I just need to get there at my own pace. 

Hi, I’m Minh! I’m a grown-up on paper and a child at heart. Welcome to Growing Up, my outpost for reclaiming weak moments that, in hindsight, allow me to be vulnerable and unrestricted in ways I couldn’t be through what I thought was “proper adulthood.” 

In my next column, I’d love to hear your journey towards this scary thing called adulthood. The question for this week is: What’s something that you haven’t moved on from, but seems like everyone else has?

You can tell me here. The form will be anonymous, but you have the option to fill out your name if you want to.

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