I am inspired to write this after yesterday’s post about whether or not it’s right to wear masks during this coronavirus outbreak. But yeah this is a common question tourists ask while they were sightseeing throughout their tours of Korea even before the outbreak existed: Why do people wear masks in Korea? It is a legitimate question as it is one of the many head scratching observations you’ll see on any trip here. As I see it, there are 5 different reasons why people would wear masks in South Korea.
1. You’re sick! Again, we talked about this in a lot more detail yesterday. Because we live in this group based society in Korea, we try to consider other people before we think about ourselves. Even before the Coronavirus even existed, Koreans would put masks on in public if they themselves were sick with something. Colds and the flu are somewhat contagious, so you don’t want to be spreading germs to others when you cough or sneeze. Covering your mouth with your hand or sleeve can only do so much. Wearing a mask takes care of the rest.
2. We have serious pollution problems in Korea, so people sensitive to that should wear masks. The pollution is a concoction of converging events that all take place from mainland Asia: you have fine particulate dust coming from Chinese factories and the deforestation increasing the amount of yellow dust coming from the Gobi Desert. All of this flows over us and then gets trapped in the valleys of Korea because over 70% of our land is mountainous. And sure, we contribute to it with the use of fossil fuels, but it’s nothing compared to the massive scale of global production coming from China. Simply because their factories are located on their east coast of China and are they are the manufacturers for most of the world’s products, we are the unfortunate inhaler of all that.
3. You just got plastic surgery! And when you get your nose done, bruises form on your face temporarily. This is when you have to cover your face with a mask. Korea is the plastic surgery capital of Asia. Chinese and Japanese girls like to come to Korea because of the craftsmanship some of these doctors are known to have. One of my customers told me the doctor she had was the most gentle she’s ever had. And also because Korean dramas and K-pop are so popular here, people actually want to look like their favorite celebrities! Did you know it is a compliment in Korea to say you look like a famous celebrity? Did anyone ever tell you, “You look like Lady Gaga”?
4. To avoid harsh weather. Whether the weather is hot or cold, Koreans like to protect their face from the harsh conditions. In the winter time, cold stress can take a toll on your skin. A mask acts as a physical barrier to that. It also warms your skin as you breath out warm air, it spreads to your entire face. As for the summer time, we like to avoid the sun. In fact, you will never see Koreans wearing bikinis at the beach because tanning is not thought of as a fashion. So in the summer time, you may not see people wearing the typical N95 masks, but at least some cover to shield them from the sun.
5. Is that you are actually a famous celebrity here. A dead giveaway is that you are not only just wearing a mask, but sunglasses and a baseball cap to boot! It’s not like in the west where you see a famous celebrity and you try to act all cool in front of them. Here in Korea, if you are a celebrity, you will get mobbed. I’m talking fans ripping of pieces of clothes, whatever they can get for memorabilia. Best to not be out in the open because as soon as one person asks for an autograph, all hell breaks loose!
Let me know if I’ve missed anything in the comments below and happy to give you full credit!