Literature

Image Of Korea 2020: Wary, Weary Eyes Only

As we embark on the first months of 2021, we can begin to look back at a full year of large pieces of cloth covering noses, mouths and cheeks, leaving only two anxious eyes peering out of each face. What initially felt like part of a nightmare has become another routine aspect of our daily lives – so much so that it is chilling, this example of humanity’s capacity to adapt to misfortune.

Before, the word “mask” may have evoked the classic novel “The Man in the Iron Mask,” or a painted wooden mask used in traditional theater, or even the feathered eye-masks of a masquerade ball. Pressed to think of something more unusual, I might have pictured masked student protestors flooding a college campus or marching in the streets.

© Yonhap News

Industrial pollution, yellow dust and global wind patterns have conspired for years to force Koreans to wear facemasks and curtail their outdoor exposure. I myself began regularly using a KF94 mask on my outings around town. Indeed, it seems Korea’s preventative measures to defend against airborne threats have been a factor in our relative success against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surely, years from now we will recall the spring of 2020 with a pang: an anxious period when people waited in endless lines at every pharmacy door, showing their ID to receive their designated mask allotment.

Meanwhile, masks have become a social norm of sorts. They are now widely understood to be the most effective means of protecting healthy individuals from the asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic carriers that characterize the new coronavirus specifically. Masks are now something more than a personal choice: they have become a necessity for the greater “public good.”

“Look at My Eyes!” There has been a sudden increase in “women with intense eyes” recently. When it comes to products for parts of the face hidden by one’s mask, makeup sales have plummeted, but they say eyeliner, eyeshadow and mascara are flying off the shelves. Eyes aside, what about the liberation of the nose and mouth? When will they be able to return to be readily seen again, allowing us to take in our neighbors’ whole and brightly smiling faces once more?

Kim Hwa-young Literary Critic; Member of the National Academy of Arts
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