Looking at Mask Culture
It’s spring in Korea! Finally!
While I know our winter was nothing like back in Canada, it still felt like a cold, long, miserable winter filled with snow, cold, and no colours anywhere. Now, the trees are starting to bloom, and the brown and grays of winter are being replaced with greens and yellow as the Gingko trees bloom.
Spring is definitely in the air. And so is the pollen.
When I first moved to Japan, I couldn’t understand why people were using repertory masks as if there had been a SARS breakout in downtown Tokyo. For the longest time, I was confused and annoyed at how misinformed the Japanese were – didn’t they know those little cloth bits over their faces would do nothing to stop germs from getting in, and would just be a breeding ground for their own germs? I was opposed to the idea, to say the least.
Finally, after nearing my third spring in Asia, I’m starting to understand why they wear them. And it’s not always because they don’t want to get sick.
In Japan, hay fever can affect over 40% of the population. The culprit behind this is the Japanese cedars that were planted after the destruction from World War II. Chosen for how quickly they grow, nobody considered the high levels of pollen they give off, with one of the most densely populated cities just downwind. For the most part, the masks that we see in the news when showing a germ-fearing Japan are used to protect from pollen. Of course, those who are sick do wear the masks as well, more to protect the people around them, rather than protect themselves.
In Korea, our situation is a little different. We don’t have giant forests of cedars, but we have yellow sand. This sand is super fine dust that comes from the deserts of Mongolia and China, and crosses eastbound, spreading over the Koreas and some parts of Japan. This may not seem like a problem, but this dust passes over one of the most industrialized areas on earth. As this dust travels over China’s factories and industries, it picks up a cocktail of pollutants, viruses and toxins, including sulphur, asbestos, and pesticides. This giant yellow cloud of dust, allergies and other fun things then descends upon South Korea. Much like how we watch pollen reports, people follow the yellow dust reports. Most keep masks with them, and during bad storms, people are often asked to stay inside if possible.
The one advantage Korea has with their yellow dust storms is that you can see them coming. With pollen, you know it’s everywhere, and just keep the mask on all the time. A yellow dust storm looks like the smoggiest day you can imagine, except the weather isn’t nearly as hot and humid as it looks it should. A quick check out the window is enough to know if you should have a mask with you.
It took me a while, but I finally understand the Asian love of masks. Today, the sky looks a more like cement than blue sky, so I have my mask for my commute. At least they know how to have fun in this situation – my mask is a puppy face!