This essay is part of “Survive. Thrive. Evolve: How Two Years of the Pandemic Impacted Us Around the World,” a global HuffPost project featuring individuals writing about how their lives were affected after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following piece originally appeared on HuffPost Korea. It has been translated into English and lightly edited for clarity.
Two years have passed since COVID-19 brought upheaval to our lives in South Korea. So many people have lost something that, before the pandemic, was a fun and meaningful part of their lives.
If you ask me, a huge fan of the K-pop group NCT 127, what I lost to COVID-19, I would immediately say “face-to-face concerts.” Concerts and overseas music tours were canceled, and face-to-face events were replaced by virtual events, so we have only been able to see our favorite K-pop groups on a screen.
Fans like me have been longing for in-person performances. In November 2021, our government implemented a process intended to bring some normalcy back via the “With Corona” policy. Face-to-face events and concerts, which had been prohibited up until that point, were now allowed to take place with fewer than 500 fully vaccinated people in attendance. Large-scale performances could be held if they were approved by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
The entertainment industry did not want to miss this opportunity to begin staging live shows again, so many promoters hurriedly began to organize concerts. My prayers for an NCT 127 performance were answered with the news that a three-day concert series was going to take place at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. This venue usually accommodates about 20,000 concertgoers, but due to the COVID protocol, the number of tickets for each show was limited to 5,000. The fans were overjoyed, especially since these concerts were NCT 127’s first in-person performances in Korea since January 2019.
As soon as the concerts were announced, many fans said they would be willing to do anything ― even hang from the Sky Dome’s ceiling ― for the chance to see the shows. We all wanted K-pop back, but now that it was returning, fans were stressed out because they knew how much competition there would be to get tickets ― and because no one knew how long it would be before more concerts would take place.
I was barely able to purchase a ticket for the first concert. As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases skyrocketed to the same level as my excitement, I became really worried that the concerts would be canceled. I decided to stay home from the moment I got my ticket up until the concert because I didn’t want to risk coming into contact with someone who had COVID and lose my chance to see the show.
Finally, December 17, 2021 ― the first day of NCT 127’s face-to-face concert series ― arrived. The government’s “vaccine pass” rule applied to any performances with more than 500 attendees, so concert staff had to check for proof of vaccination and negative PCR test results from all audience members as we entered the dome. We were each assigned to a seat with one empty seat between us, and masks were mandatory for the duration of the event.
I nervously made my way into the concert hall after my identity and vaccination certificate had been checked. Fans were told to keep in mind the “three major mayos” (a Korean meme that combines the words “mayonnaise” and ”mayo,” from the expression ”hajimayo,” or “don’t”): “Don’t scream. Don’t stand up. Don’t walk around.” I was worried that I might subconsciously start doing any one of these things because I, like most people, was so used to singing and screaming and shouting at concerts.
Instead of singing along and screaming, the only sound we were allowed to make was clapping. When the members of NCT 127 finally appeared on stage, I was so happy to see that they really do exist. I immediately had the urge to make my presence known by screaming, so I had to place my hand over my mask to stop myself. When they asked the crowd, “Are you guys ready?” all I could do was vigorously wave my light stick. Although there were about 5,000 ecstatic fans there, the arena was stunningly quiet.
Because we couldn’t scream or chant or sing, I gauged the volume of the applause to determine which performances were the most popular with the fans. The moment Johnny began his shirtless dance routine, the clapping went off the charts. I could hear some fans letting out whimpers, as if trying to get out their emotions any way they could. They also hit their thighs or pulled their hair, but there was no yelling. Not being able to yell was a new kind of torture for us. Even after the thrilling dance numbers, all I could hear were fans clapping. It felt as if I were at a classical music concert, not a K-pop show.
At the end of the show, I felt tears in my eyes when Haechan said, “We were all so happy meeting all of you in our dreams. Let’s dream a happier dream next time.” I’m not joking ― I really did practically cry. There had been so many moments when I wasn’t sure whether this face-to-face concert was really going to happen. Of course, the fans weren’t the only ones who missed these events ― performers have also been longing to get back onstage to connect with audiences.
Another band member, Mark, said, “If I think about it, preparing for a concert like this and having our fans come to see the performance are such normal things. But not being able to do such normal things has made me realize how precious normalcy is. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to feel such joy again.”
The number of COVID-19 cases reached 7,000 per day during the week of the concert series. On December 18, the second day of the series, the government started implementing stricter quarantine measures, including shortened operating hours for temporary concert venues and a reduced number of attendees for events. Fortunately, NCT 127’s concerts proceeded as planned without any changes because the band had been granted approval from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
After the series was over, I felt like I had woken up from a short but sweet dream. Next time, I hope I can scream and shout until I lose my voice instead of just clapping until my hands are raw. That will truly be the day when K-pop fans and artists can dream happier dreams. But until then, even if I’m only allowed to clap, I say, “Let’s go, in-person concerts!”
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