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Eldin Milak: (Un)masking Seoul

(Un)masking Seoul: The mask as a static and dynamic semiotic device for reconfiguring public space and redefining civic responsibility

"While most of the protestors still wear face masks, the government is increasing its efforts to remind the public to stay calm and persevere a bit longer, aware that the public patience is running out. As the accompanying presentation shows, this is primarily done through signage and audiovisual guidance in public spaces, alongside strict regulations and fees for violators."

In February of 2020, I landed at Incheon airport after a month-long break in Europe, expecting the usual tedium of queuing and waiting in the limbo that is the arrival terminal. Instead, I was welcomed by teams of people in hazmat suits, with signs instructing passengers from Wuhan to join a separate line, while the rest of us were ushered through temperature checkpoints and decontamination areas. While I did not revel in being repeatedly sprayed down and prodded by thermometers, there was nothing to suggest that we were nearing a global pandemic. I ascribed the excessive caution to the Korean government’s preventive practices, honed through years of small-scale virus outbreaks, most recently in 2015 with the MERS coronavirus. I put on a facemask more out of courtesy than fear of infection and made my way home on the crowded Seoul subway.

Within days, however, the mask went from being a choice, to a necessity, to a mandatory practice. Given the harsh winds of early spring in Korea, and the gusts of yellow dust that come with it, the mask was a welcome accessory. The fact that it was now mandatory in most closed spaces, and that posters detailing masking guidelines started popping up all over Seoul, clued me in that we might be in this for the long run, particularly once COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11.

For the majority of Koreans, wearing a mask at all times did not pose much of challenge. Alongside being the first line of defense against viral outbreaks, the facemask also developed a more practical and aesthetic purpose in the country over the years. I myself gladly picked up the trend of wearing a facemask whenever I did not feel like shaving in the morning, or pairing it with some headphones to signal that I was feeling particularly antisocial that day. Given the variety and choice in colors, shapes, and even cute designs you could choose from, the mask served as a viable fashion statement, not the least because it was the favorite accessory of local idols and celebrities. In fact, the initial response to the masking regulations was somewhat too eager, so that the country faced a brief shortage in masks, requiring a mask sale limit, and a weekly purchase schedule for citizens. This was in many ways Korea’s version of the toilet paper frenzy, although thankfully I did not have to fight anyone for the last box on the shelf.

At the same time, an ocean and a continent away, the mask was dividing nations. I had watched in disbelief as a certain president casually derided the practice of masking as a ploy of the liberals, my horror exponentially growing as I heard the same thing echoed across European countries, and even among my friends and acquaintances. To be fair, the vague guidelines on masking initially outlined by WHO and the CDC played a major part in the initial revolt, but once the numbers became clear, and countries which instituted masking alongside social distancing showed increased success in suppressing the virus, non-masking became little more than a practice of obstinance.

Photo credit: Jeiciane Torres

The global discourse that evolved as part of the response to masking drew on that old and dependable East-West binary, and all that it entails. In popular media, news reports, and even in respected academic publications, people talked about Asian collectivism and how it helped suppress the virus. Asians – and here the reports mainly meant Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese people – apparently had no interest in personal gains, and in their pursuit of the greater good they were willing to meekly submit to the government, displaying their obedience through the act of masking. Rather than personal responsibility, self-care, or medical knowhow, it was the mythical collective unconscious of Asia that saved the citizens from the virus, albeit at the cost of their civil freedom. In the West (wherever that may be), on the other hand, individualism became the main hurdle to suppressing the virus, with critiques of egocentrism taking on the form of veiled compliments of exceptionalism. Westerners were condemned to freedom, as Sartre would say, and they fiercely defended their sentence.

Of course, beyond anecdotes and poorly researched articles, there was no evidence that such a divide held true, nor that the Asian response was any less egocentric than in other countries – if that is anything to brag about. While Koreans might have accepted masking without much controversy, the gathering ban, which restricted the number of people within a particular space, received considerable backlash. Particularly among Christian communities in Korea, the ban on gathering for religious practices was met with wide disapproval, and the government was forced to repeatedly crack down on illegal meetings and secret masses, culminating in public protests in Central Seoul. The overall dissatisfaction with the closing of private businesses, poor work environments, and the reduction in operating hours, led to further protests across the country, with the most recent one happening right now, as I am writing this in July of 2021. While most of the protestors still wear face masks, the government is increasing its efforts to remind the public to stay calm and persevere a bit longer, aware that the public patience is running out. As the accompanying presentation shows, this is primarily done through signage and audiovisual guidance in public spaces, alongside strict regulations and fees for violators. However, as we move into the hot and humid days of the Korean monsoon season, it is unlikely that these measures will be effective for much longer.

For better or worse, the facemask has come to symbolize the COVID-19 pandemic. For anti-maskers, it serves as tangible evidence of government overreach, or more specifically, as a symbol of governmental control over human bodies. Zhang (2021:7)[1] draws interesting parallels between the backlash against masks in the West, and the discourses surrounding religious head coverings, pointing out that “different forms of face-covering are often stereotypically considered as submission to certain forms of domination”. For pro-maskers, on the other hand, the mask is a symbol of global consciousness, consideration, and awareness, rather than a practice stemming out of self-interest and preservation, which would not get you a pat on the back.

And for the rest of us, the mask is just one more of those things we put on our mental checklist before we leave home.

Keys, check.

Wallet, check.

Phone, check.

Mask, check.

However, unlike the others, there will come a time when the mask will be left at home, and “the new normal” will simply be “the normal”. Until then, enjoy the added mystery and attractiveness awarded by the mask a bit longer.

[1] Zhang, M. (2021). “Writing against ‘Mask Culture’: Orientalism and COVID-19 Responses in the West”. Anthropologica, 63(1): 1-14.

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