During the Covid-19 pandemic, face masks became the ultimate care package item for overseas South Koreans like me. Centrally produced, distributed, and tightly rationed by the Korean government, eight KF94 respirators arrived on my doorstep in California on May 5, 2020.
As the pandemic spread around the world, borders were closed not only to people but also to masks, with export strictly prohibited. In Korea, the internal circulation of masks was controlled with equal gravity. People were allowed to purchase two masks each week on a designated day of the week based on the last digit of their birth year. My parents lined up in front of a local pharmacy every Tuesday, with their government issued IDs in hand.
Soon, a new narrative began to spread: parents unable to send masks to children living abroad challenged the state’s strict prohibition against circulating masks beyond national borders. The figure of the overseas citizen was reimagined from a legal entity to a family member in need of care.
In April, the government permitted overseas citizens to receive up to eight masks a month sent by a parent, child, sibling, or spouse. My parents rushed to the post office with masks saved from their personal allotment and official documentation of legal kinship. Accumulating rationed masks to ship overseas became the ultimate act of caring, governed by state control over who was entitled to receive the gift.
Jiyea Hong is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. She studies field-scientific knowledge production and circulation of knowledge practices.
Hei-won Byun is a Ph.D. Candidate in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also an illustrator who loves visual art, craft, performance, and story writing. Her dissertation project is on the training of Japanese voice actors and semiotic formulation of Japanese popular culture.