Breathe free – As I’ve mentioned before, my daily walk to school takes me up and over a hill. The first part of the walk is relatively flat, but the road soon begins to rise. It is a busy and heavily populated area from the subway station to shortly after the district office on the right; on the left, the side of the road that I walk on, the buildings suddenly cease after a gas station, and from that point on until I reach the point where I turn into campus, there is nothing but the wooded hill next to me.
I make this walk just about every day (except most weekends), and after a few months of doing this I have become quite accustomed to it. I’ve found my pace, and I know that I can make it from our apartment to my office in twenty-five minutes (not the thirty minutes I originally suspect it would take). So there’s nothing really special about the walk itself, except that last Tuesday morning there was. On that day, when I passed the gas station and left civilization behind... I took off my mask.
Let me back up here, because this might need a little explanation. In fact, let’s go back to February 2020, when we first realized that there was a pandemic on and everyone was invited. For the longest time that spring, I did not wear my mask on my walk to or from school. Granted, it was a different walk back then, and in the mornings at least I would be lucky if I saw more than two people along the way. Still, the point is that I saw no reason to wear a mask outside, particularly when I wasn’t going to be in any large crowds. I don’t remember exactly how long this lasted, but at some point society as a whole decided that everyone was now supposed to wear masks outside for no good reason. I resisted at first, but eventually I grew tired of the stares and glares and occasional Corona Karen, and I fell in line.
Mind you, I fell in line despite knowing that the measure was not only pointless, it wasn’t even official government policy. South Korea did have quite a few regulations as part of its social distancing policy, but “wearing masks outside no matter what” was not one of them. I originally assumed that everyone knew this, but that nobody wanted to buck the trend of erring on the side of caution. After some discussing this with Kevin, though, I realized that I had been mistaken—in fact, a significant number of people did not know what the government policy was and simply assumed that you had to wear a mask everywhere.
I suppose you can’t really blame people, though. Very few people are actually going to go through the trouble of looking up government policies just to see what the letter of the regulations say. Instead, they will take their cues from their environment. This includes the actions of those around them, but it also includes the signs and banners posted everywhere reminding people to mask up. If I were to be generous, I would say that most of these were ambiguously worded, and given the absence of clarifying context could easily be misconstrued as urging people to mask up at all times, even outside in non-crowded areas. Just a few weeks ago, though, HJ and I went on an outing to an area by the Han River, and when we entered a little park we saw a sign that said: “Maintaining a safe distance and masking up are basic etiquette.” The italics are mine, because what that sign should say is: “Maintaining a safe distance or masking up are basic etiquette.” Instead, it is deliberately misleading, telling people that they should wear their masks even if there is no one else around—and if they don’t, they are crude barbarians who have no place in polite society.
So my thinking has changed over time. Originally I thought that it was all a simple misunderstanding, at best collective ignorance. But the more I started to pay attention to what people were saying, the more I realized that there seemed to be a concerted effort to spread disinformation and encourage people to follow a practice that has never been the official government policy. The obvious question is, of course: Why? I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that, but I have my suspicions, and they involve ideas like “hygiene theater.” Masks are a very visible preventative measure, and it is possible that seeing everyone walk around with masks on makes people feel safer, regardless of whether they actually are safer.
Now, you may be thinking: Isn’t it indeed better to err on the side of caution, though? If we had to choose between everyone wearing masks everywhere and no one wearing masks anywhere, isn’t the former preferable? Perhaps. I do believe that masks are effective, and they are more effective the more people wear them. That is, what they are really good at, if worn properly, is preventing you from spreading your germs to other people; if you are the only person wearing a mask, though, the mask may be better at keeping out germs than no mask at all, but it’s not going to be nearly as effective on a personal level. Given that, it would seem that the absolute safest policy would be to just have everyone wear masks all the time, no matter where they might be.
But this is not what has been happening. People don’t wear masks at home, for example, which is why we had a lot of transmission between family members. But that is to be expected. What I find truly mind-boggling is behavior in bars and restaurants (and, again, bars were never closed in Korea, no matter what you might have read in the Western media). You’ve got people wearing their masks on their way to the restaurant, but then once they get inside they sit down and take their masks off. Somebody please explain to me how this makes any sort of sense. Yes, I get it: It’s very hard to eat and drink with a mask on. But it seems not a little backward to me to wear a mask outside on the way to the restaurant and then take it off once you are sitting in an enclosed space with a bunch of other unmasked people.
There are other activities that people engage in outside that also apparently make it OK not to wear a mask, namely drinking something and smoking. On my walk home I pass by an area on campus that is a popular hangout for smokers, and every day there are invariably a handful of people there, puffing away without a mask in sight. Perhaps the smoke drives the virus away? And if you want to get away with walking around without a mask—or at least with your mask pulled down around your chin—just carry a cup or a tumbler in your hand. You don’t even have to be drinking from it, as long as you theoretically could drink from it at any moment. (On one of the many days in the past when I grumbled about having to wear a mask outside, HJ actually suggested that I carry around an empty tumbler and wear the mask on a lanyard around my neck.)
Last Friday, on my walk home from school, I passed by a group of about a dozen students sitting around and drinking, all with no masks on. And yet I’ve also been walking along a wooded trail and passed people wearing their masks despite the fact that there was no one else around. I have to wonder who stands the higher chance of infection: the person walking through the woods all by themselves, or a group of students sitting in a tight circle and shouting, laughing, and drinking.
Anyway, I think I’ve made my point, namely that people aren’t wearing their masks everywhere and all the time. They are only wearing them at those times and in those places that everyone somehow collectively agreed are the times and places to wear them. In other words, people are not wearing masks primarily as a preventative measure taken against the pandemic, they are wearing them because that is what society has decided should be done, regardless of whether it makes any epidemiological sense.
You may be wondering why, then, if wearing masks while walking around outside makes no epidemiological sense, I did it for so long. The answer is simple, really: It may not make any epidemiological sense, but it does make sociological sense. That is, I decided that it was worth some discomfort and annoyance to do what everyone had deemed was the proper thing to do. It’s not that I necessarily wanted to “blend in”—I realized a long, long time ago that I was never going to blend into Korean society—but more that I didn’t want to stick out any more than necessary. I already stick out enough as it is (although somewhat less than I used to, especially on a campus with a significant number of foreign faculty and students), so I do my best to not draw attention to myself. Well, let me qualify that a bit: I do my best to not draw negative attention to myself. I definitely do not have an attention-seeking personality, but given what I do I invariably do draw attention to myself. I just try to make sure that as much of that attention as possible is positive. This often means doing what is expected of me, not rocking the boat, following the crowd, etc.
I am of course aware that this sort of behavior can have extremely negative consequences when taken to the extreme. The Sewol Ferry tragedy, which took place almost exactly eight years ago, is a perfect example of that. Even as the ship was sinking, the students were told to stay put, and that it would be dangerous to move. Most of them listened, and most of them died—only those who disobeyed and went against the crowd survived. So, yes, there are limits to the benefits of this sort of tragedy. But I calculated that the relatively mild annoyance of having to wear a mask outside was a sacrifice that I could make.
I imagine another question has entered your mind now: If I had decided that it was worth it to suffer the annoyance of wearing a mask outside for nearly two years, what made me change my mind? Well, it wasn’t any one thing. And it wasn’t like an on-off switch, with me being OK with outdoor masking one day and done with it the next day. It was more an accumulation of factors that finally pushed me over a tipping point that I had long been teetering on the edge of. I’m just fed up at this point, and now the calculation gives me a different result: I don’t care enough anymore about possibly being seen as a rebel. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suddenly going to stop wearing a mask outside entirely. I’m still masking up when there are a lot of people around, even though I honestly don’t think it is necessary. But the decision to take my mask off for the second half of my walk to school is the first step toward my eventual liberation, which will hopefully come sooner rather than later.
So, back to the present day. Tuesday was the big day for me. Why Tuesday? Well, it was actually going to be Monday, as I was planning on starting the week off with a bang, but when I stepped out of our building that morning the air looked like pea soup. I checked the AQI (Air Quality Index), and it was nearly 150 (which is bad). And I was suddenly reminded that, yes, there were days before the pandemic when I did wear a mask outside. So I abandoned my plan and wore my mask all the way to school. Tuesday, though, dawned bright and clear, so when I passed the gas station I took my mask off. Now, it’s not like I haven’t been outside without a mask in the past two years. If I am somewhere where there is no one else around, like a wooded trail, I will take my mask off. But this was the first time I had taken off my mask on the walk to school since I reached that first tipping point back in 2020.
The air was cool and fresh, and breathing in felt like taking a cool drink of water. When I reached the turn-off into campus, I briefly wondered if I should put my mask on, but I quickly decided against it. I rarely encounter more than a handful of people on campus in the morning, and I figured that if I was going to do this I should do it right. So I walked all the way to my building before putting my mask back on. The air was bad again on Wednesday, so I reluctantly kept my mask on, but on Thursday and Friday the air was clean again, so it was mask off. I am pleased to report that so far I have yet to run into any Corona Karens. In fact, no one has even spared me a second glance, let alone a judgmental glare. If I didn’t know any better, I would be tempted to say that people don’t really care anymore, and that they only continue to wear their masks out of force of habit.
HJ and I decided to test this theory on Saturday, when we made the relatively tame hike up Mt. Inwang to enjoy the forsythias and cherry blossoms. Once we left the city streets and got onto the trail, we both took our masks off, leaving them hanging on the lanyards around our necks. Mind you, this was not a deserted woodland trail—there were quite a few people out that had the same idea as we did. But it was warm enough as it was, and we didn’t feel like sweating beneath out masks, so off they went. We passed by hundreds of people on the trail—a few with no masks on, either—and once again no one even gave us a second glance.
So I am feeling somewhat positive about what the future holds. I was feeling quite a bit more positive prior to today, actually, as the government had announced that they would drop all restrictions except indoor masking if the decrease in case numbers continued. Just today, though, we saw a news article saying that the government had changed their tune, and that it was going to be difficult to drop outdoor masking—this despite the fact that case numbers have indeed been decreasing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we were lied to. Now we’re being told that the government might think about dropping outdoor masking by summer. We’ll have to see how things develop—I’m hoping there will be a backlash that causes the government to change its tune again—but this actually emboldens me even. Now that I know the government cannot be trusted to keep its promises, it is time to take matters into my own hands. As time goes on, I will increase the distance I walk unmasked, and eventually I will get to the point where I only where a mask in situations mandated by the government: areas where social distancing is not possible.
This probably sounds like a silly, petty rebellion, but given the collective insanity surrounding masking up outdoors here, it’s a bigger deal than it might sound like, at least to me. It’s long past time to breathe free again.