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[Kim Seong-kon] Donning a mask in the pandemic era

Recently, most US states finally lifted the year-long requirement of wearing a facial mask indoors. As a result, you can now freely shop groceries, clothes or miscellanies in a store without donning a mask. It is like “Back to normal again.” Still, however, some people, especially those who have to work indoors all day long, dealing with customers, are still wearing a mask as a precautionary measure.

Face-covering masks have changed our lives significantly in many respects, especially in terms of communication. In a society where everybody is wearing a mask, you cannot see other people’s facial expressions. Thus, you can hardly know if they are angry or smiling. The only part you can see in their faces are their eyes. They say that your eyes are a window to your soul. If so, what would happen if a person had little beady eyes or slit eyes? Then, he or she will have tremendous disadvantages.

In American movies, when American heroes want to hide their identity, they put on a mask that covers around their eyes only. Indeed, Americans seems to think that your eyes reveal who you are. The masks of Lone Ranger, Zorro or Batman are a good example. As for Superman, his alter ego Clark Kent just takes off his glasses, not wearing a mask at all when he turns into Superman. Amazingly, even his colleagues at the Daily Planet do not recognize him.

On the contrary, in Korean culture you cover below your eyes when you want to hide your identity. Presumably, Koreans think that your nose and mouth, not eyes, reveal who you are. Indeed, in Korean movies, therefore, Korean bandits who want to hide their identity wear a mask that covers the lower part of their face.

In American movies, we see bank robbers don a ski mask or a clown mask that covers the whole face. Sometimes, they humorously wear a mask portraying their former presidents. The KKK members also wear a hood that covers the whole face. Thus, we may assume that unlike superheroes, villains or secret society members in America want to hide their faces completely.

In traditional Korean “tal choom” or masked dances, which were popular during the Joseon Dynasty, dancing actors wore a face-covering mask in order to hide their identity. The reason was that through “tal choom,” they satirized the hypocrisy of “yangban” or the privileged upper class people, which was a taboo at that time. It was customary that “yangban” just winked at the masked dance that derided them, and yet dancers had to be careful, just in case. Western psychologists find traditional Korean masks highly intriguing because the wooden masks bear sneering faces, as if they were mocking “yangban.”

Not knowing the seriousness of the pandemic, children tend to think of a mask as a stylish item, just like a pair of sunglasses. Thus, they enjoy wearing a colorful mask. According to psychologists, however, mask wearing could seriously impair children’s development of facial expressions. Indeed, children learn facial expressions through imitating adults’ and if they could not see adults’ faces, how could they learn? Even if children could develop facial expressions by themselves, they would discard them eventually because no one could see their faces anyway.

Another problem of mask wearing is that you cannot speak or hear clearly with a mask on. If you have a high-pitched voice, you may have little problems. If you have a deep low voice, however, you may have difficulty communicating with others because it may sound like you are mumbling. It would be frustrating if you could not understand what someone is saying or read another’s facial expressions.

When we see politicians appearing on TV, wearing a mask, we cannot help but think that a mask becomes politicians. Their masked faces seem to reveal the truth that they should have their mouth shut, while their eyes and ears remain wide open. In reality, however, it is quite the opposite. Sasaki Yasuo, a Japanese intellectual, recently wrote, “We have two ears to hear more, two eyes to see more, but only one mouth to talk less than others. Yet we often see many of them equipped with two mouths, one eye, and one ear. I’m tired to see a lot of them among politicians.”

For ordinary people, wearing a mask looks like a symbolic gesture of silent protest for the current stifling situation. By donning a mask, they seem to protest politicians’ incompetence in containing the pandemic and failure to secure enough vaccines. They also seem to protest the government’s surveillance of people under the excuse of controlling the contagious disease. Masked ordinary people seem to warn their politicians, “We won’t say much, but we’re watching you.” In that sense, ordinary people’s masks remind us of the Guy Fawkes masks in “V for Vendetta.”

We are eagerly waiting for the day when the pandemic is finally over and we can take off our masks at last.


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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