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At my first ever Harvard lecture, my first ever time attending class in college, the professor walked in front of the room, peered across the hall, and declared with frustration that he hated this unspecified “thing.” As the echo of my professor’s disdain rang through the room, a few of my classmates nodded in understanding. Others chuckled in agreement. I, on the other hand, sat blankly, puzzled.
It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he was referencing. As an international student from a country that has worn masks long before the Covid-19 pandemic, I didn’t realize that face coverings could be so upsetting.
Let me backtrack. Hi, my name is Eric. I’m a Korean American freshman who has spent the past five years living in Korea. For context, masks were a part of Korean society long before the days of Covid-19. Particularly in the capital city of Seoul, harmful microparticles can concentrate in such high levels that your throat and lungs hurt when breathing in deeply. On particularly bad nights, I’ve seen car headlights cut across air pollution so thick it looks like there is snow or fog in the atmosphere. As such, the first time I remember wearing a mask is years ago, when my ever health-conscious dad shoved a N95 mask into my hands and told me to avoid going outside that day. Perhaps the N95 was overkill, but the idea of a mask itself was not. Even before the pandemic, the streets of Seoul were flooded with face coverings on days with bad pollution, and my school’s nurse would always keep some extra on hand in case a student requested one mid-day.
Air pollution might have been the most common reason for wearing a mask in pre-pandemic Korea, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Korean celebrities wore them when going out without makeup or to avoid being conspicuous in public (although they were sometimes recognized anyways). Even outside the world of K-pop, Koreans threw on masks when they felt bloated in public or could not be bothered to look nice for a run to the local convenience store. At one point, wearing a mask was even a teenage fashion trend. Even before the pandemic, it was common courtesy to wear a mask when in public while sick.
So when Covid-19 hit Korea last year, masks were not a new, alien concept like they were in the U.S., and accordingly, there wasn’t substantial resistance to nationwide mask mandates. In fact, wearing masks quickly became the public standard. Not donning a mask in public — even outdoors — attracted disdainful glares and astonished double takes from people walking by. Thanks to Korea’s normative mask culture prior to the pandemic, face coverings were never a political issue; they were merely common sense, and this attitude saved lives when Covid-19 arrived. It will again if, knock on wood, another airborne pathogen spirals into a pandemic in the future.
This is not to say that Koreans don’t find masks annoying; trust me, we do. I, myself, am not immune to the joyous relief of slipping my mask down as I walk along the Yard between classes, and I can still remember ignoring my dad’s first few attempts to get me to wear the aforementioned N95. I’ve had conversations with friends from both Korea and the U.S. about the obnoxious way that breathing into a mask can fog up glasses.
Koreans do believe masks are cumbersome, just as Americans do. The difference is that masks are normalized in Korean society, and they have been for a long time. That’s why I’m surprised by how many Americans seem to look for every excuse to slip off their face covering. My professor’s eagerness to throw away his mask and forget about it forever as soon as possible was just unfathomable to me.
In accordance with this antipathy for masks, it seems like a large number of Americans believe that masks will be completely erased from society when the pandemic is over. As someone who came from a country that normalized masks: I urge you to reconsider. I promise, having masks around without a pandemic will not cause the sky to fall down. It was not the end of the world for us, and it will not be for you either.
Whether you live in an area with bad air quality, want to protect your friends from your cold while studying together, or have the same fashion sense as a Korean middle schooler and just want to look cool, there are legitimate reasons to wear masks besides Covid-19. A normalized masking culture would prepare the U.S. for potential public health emergencies in the future, just as Korea’s past experience with face coverings braced it for Covid-19. So, I’m sorry, professor. I agree that masks are annoying, but they deserve a place in life even after the pandemic.
Eric D. Hwang ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Stoughton Hall.
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