Thursday, October 01, 2009

Confessions of a Mask

So where are all the Koreans who were supposedly panicking about Swine Flu? If anything, there seem to be even fewer people roaming the streets wearing masks than I recall there being in normal times. I fully expected everyone to be wearing them at the stations - because that's what we had been led to believe - but I only saw one person in total. There were heat cameras at Incheon Airport like the ones they had during the Bird Flu scare, but otherwise there were few visible signs that anything had changed. Korean Brother, whose odd schedule finally intersected with ours in the early hours of one morning, clearly was concerned enough to talk to us about it and ask about life in the UK under the pandemic, and some other friends have discussed the subject with us in somewhat hushed tones over meals which are often shared from central dishes.

I must admit, when I was back in the UK I began to feel a certain nervousness about coughing in public, feeling as though the moment I did a dozen sets of eyes would immediately fixate on me with suspicion - but when I came through Incheon Airport last week that nervousness had escalated into the outright fear that the mere clearing of my throat might trigger an audio alarm and my immediate burial beneath a pile of Korean biomedical experts in hazmat suits. That fear never receded too far from the surface once I'd entered into the country proper, and I felt if I walked around the streets with a mask on I'd be given a particularly wide berth. Maybe the Koreans feel the same way.

Which is not to say everything is exactly the same. When Korean Mother went shopping for a new TV two years ago I noted most stores would have drinks and snacks laid out for their customers, presumably in an attempt to weaken their resolve to haggle. Now my wife and I are out shopping for a TV, the food and drinks are still there, but often alongside a bottle of hand gel of some description, and when I was in the Nampodong area of Busan a few days ago, there was a woman in the street brandishing liquid soap, offering to clean the hands of people passing by. But in the five minutes I happened to be stood there, only one person took up the offer. So it looks as though life here goes on as normal, with a few additional features.

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