Somewhere back in my subconscious I stored images of Asian eyes peeking out over surgical face masks long before I even first came to China or Taiwan. I, like many Americans, did not really understand anything about this practice. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that it had to do with containing the spread of contamination, probably from SARS. Or avian bird flu. Or maybe it’s just because there are a lot of Asian doctors and they are so meticulous about their hygiene that they actually always wear surgical masks.

Because in the US, surgeons, dentists and dental hygienists are the only people who bother wearing face masks. I am having difficulty remembering a time when I ever wore a face mask as a child. I think we had a few in with the family tool chest on the rare occasion that someone might work with fumes or sanding, but I can’t even recall if I had ever worn them for either of those activities (which I definitely did).

Then I arrived in Asia and confronted East Asian face masks for myself. I saw a post on a forum for expats in Taiwan that I think can sum up a lot of my initial impressions of face mask culture. It said something along the lines of: “lulz Taiwanese people don’t make any sense, they all wear face masks but then are willing to eat food from 7-11 that sits in the open air for hours”. I was actually struck by nearly the same thought when I first saw the popularity of 7-11’s 關東煮. Cloth face masks are also extremely common here, which also seemed to make little logical sense to me from a hygienic perspective. But I accepted it as simply a social peculiarity in perceived hygiene (I think human perception of hygiene is often wildly incorrect anyway).

These days, I don’t find a conundrum in the act of wearing a face mask and eating food of questionable sanitary standards. Like many small aspects of daily life, I never investigated this practice specifically, but gradually my understanding of face masks has grown such that I realized recently that sharing some collected thoughts might be worthwhile. Hell, as I mentioned before, I’ve even worn some face masks myself.

People in Taiwan wear facemasks for many reasons, but I am confident to say that the most prominent reason is because of mopeds. They are not a population of hypochondriac- germ-freaks who live in extremely tight quarters and are therefore forced to wear surgical masks all time. Well actually, that high population density leads to face masks for a different reason: intensity of the traffic in cities, and some areas with high industry creating high air pollution. Specifically, facemask wearers are commonly moped riders and not pedestrians: many mopeds manage to kick up a surprising amount of exhaust that reaches their own rider, not to mention the close proximity to other mopeds on the road. Thus a facemask is just another piece of a moped commuter’s get up – along with the helmet and windbreaker. Making a mask out of cloth to increase durability is the next logical step in the face of this daily usage.

To be realistic, these masks don’t provide air filtration that is effective against traffic pollution. The average surgical mask does not create an airtight seal around the nasal-oral region of the face, nor is the filtration of fabric that doesn’t include a layer of carbon filter going to be fine enough to stop PM2.5. Yet over the alternative of spending more money for a respirator that is much hotter and more uncomfortable (this is what I described wearing) or admitting defeat and doing nothing at all, I think most folks have settled on this as a comfortable illusion. So it’s still a skewed perception of effectiveness, just not against germs but actually against pollution.

But mask wearing is only partially for this illusion: I can’t imagine that it was never brought up that these masks are actually providing poor protection, and as I’ve said, people wear masks for many reasons. Masks also trap heat, which is again why moped riders favor masks. I’ve even seen riders with multiple layers of masks during the winter to help stay warm. Despite my mockery of the exaggerated fear of cold that Taiwanese may have, I admit that 20+ mph is a formidable wind chill that may commonly confront a moped rider. The heat trapping is also helps explain why, by comparison, so few pedestrians are wear masks, unless they want to show up at their destination even sweatier (if there is even such a thing during a Taiwanese summer).

Bonus: face masks concurrently block UV rays! Thus, I think there is a population of women in particular who keep up this habit in the name of beauty: blocking the sun to preserving a nice pale face. And then you can turn it into a cute fashion accessory that can be personalized in infinite ways while you’re at it. Masks can save the day for other appearance-related issues as well: a day when you are looking particularly bedraggled, you don’t feel like putting on makeup or you’re breaking out or you just don’t want to be recognized – all times when you can just put on a mask to effectively cover up most of your face.



What about hygiene, though? Well, okay, that impression is not entirely misguided. People wear masks for hygienic reasons as well. It’s pretty common to see someone don a surgical mask on a day that they are feeling particularly sick, yet still out and about in society. This is what the masks were originally designed for: keeping the mask wearer from spraying out potentially infection-spreading fluid droplets into the area around them.  And all I can say about this is that it makes sense and one day I hope that we adopt this habit in the Western world.

Highly Scientific Cultural Studies via YouTube

Does looking at a region’s top-watched internet videos count as cultural research?


Here are my brief summaries and commentary on Taiwan’s top 2013 Youtube videos, followed by some concluding thoughts.


Some things to keep in mind:

  • I have not done anything to look up the back story for these videos, so this exercise of watching them and pondering them is all based on my current general understanding of happenings and culture in Taiwan.
  • To give the viewcount some perspective: my totally rough estimate of the Taiwanese population under the age of 40 that might be watching Youtube videos ~12 million people.
  • And related to that comment above, as far as I know, Youtube is one of the most widely-used video sharing websites in Taiwan (although if someone has thoughts on how/where to look up and compare Taiwanese Youtube traffic to other websites, let me know – I’m quite curious. More on this in my conclusion)
  • Of course, all the videos are in Chinese/Taiwanese, so awkward translations to English and interpretation errors are my fault
  • But actually a some of them are relatively light on language so feel free to watch them even if you don’t understand Chinese…


1. “Sorry, students – that promotion…”
Recording of some students singing and dancing in trying to get a discount at McDonald’s only to be told that the promotional activity is over [~2.3 million views]
My guess is that this is one of those clips that’s popular because it manages to capture the absolute normality of sometimes doing something really embarrassing. Also, it’s super short and a little difficult to figure out what’s going on, so most people probably watched it at least 2-3 times.


2. “In the south, use dentures”
News broadcast about someone who posted on the internet attempting to find out the name of a Korean song [~2 million views]
The transliteration into Chinese characters that this person provides is memorably silly: “in the south, use dentures”, but actually sounds similar to the Korean lyrics to the song that they want to know the name of. The news story features clips asking people on the street if they know the song, an interview with a Korean language teacher to ask about the meaning of the words, and the reveal of the song name and artist. Impressively enough, the original poster also received a helpful reply on the forum within the span of 8 minutes. Taiwanese news is a spectacle of ridiculous stories; a fact known and acknowledged by locals and foreigners alike. I really don’t know what makes this story stand out, but it does reflect that Korean music is popular in Taiwan…?


3. “If only I had known earlier: Men can also be victims of sexual assault”
Short educational film from the Bureau of Education [~1.8 million views]
The storyline follows a student who is probably supposed to be 14-18 who fights with his grandmother and therefore storms out of the house. He and a friend end up going home with a creepy older man that they meet at an internet cafe who promises that they can stay with him and buys them food and alcohol to further lure them. The main character’s friend passes out from the alcohol and the protagonist is violently assaulted by the older man. Yet he feels isolated and like no one will believe his story, so he doesn’t tell anyone until a kindly teacher gets him to confess why he’s so upset. At a stunningly long 17 and half minutes, extremely stiff acting, and obviously awkward premise, I am impressed that it has gotten so many views. I kept waiting for something about the video to be too over the top into the land of hilarity, but it managed to stay in the zone of just an awkward PSA. Perhaps it was actually being shown in classrooms via Youtube? I note that it also expounds some other good Confucian values at the same time such as: not fighting with your grandmother, and studying hard instead of playing computer games.


4. “The Emperor Eats”
Dramatic clip from the end of a wildly popular mainland China drama juxtaposed with subtitles in Taiwanese [~1.6 million views]
The clip mocks the main character’s exceptionally dramatic pronouncement of the death of the emperor in the last episode of the Legend of Zhen Huan. An emperor’s death is referred to with the special terminology 駕崩 jia4beng1. This clip points out that i sounds like Taiwanese for “to eat” (especially with the extremely emotional, clippy way that the actress is proclaiming it). It’s pretty obvious to me how this clip got is so popular: not only is the TV series really popular in Taiwan, but also every episode is available on Youtube, leading to the ease of clicking over to this clip after binging on the series itself. It also has the extra bonuses of being short, and of course the joke revolves around knowing Taiwanese. It’s one of the two clips that I had seen before watching this top 10 list.


5. “Classic Quotes from Student Life”
Comedy skit reflecting the stereotypical scenarios of junior high / high school classrooms [~1.5 million views] 
Produced by an online sketch comedy group, this 3 minute video is a fast-paced series of scenes depicting life as a student stitched together in a non-stop montage. Of course this includes everything from rumors about who likes whom, trying to cheat on tests, the student who claimed they didn’t study getting the highest exam grade, asking to borrow classmate’s writing utensils, failed attempts at flirting, girls asking the boys to do everything, boys running to go play ball and being pushed aside by girls going to the bathroom (???), worrying about being late, ghost stories about the bathroom, etc etc… and finally ending with everyone giving the proper polite “thank you” to the teacher. Well, there it is – the Taiwanese cultural obsession with secondary school education summed up in 3 minutes. By which I mean to say, I get a feeling that the experience is mildly traumatizing, creating of a sense of unified camaraderie that all Taiwanese have passed through the same ordeal; as such, there are too many romanticized references to life as a Taiwanese school kid for me to even begin expanding upon. Anyway, the editing of this video sketch is suave which probably also helps with its popularity.


6. “101 Flash Mob Chorus in Taipei 101, Taiwan”
(the title says it all) [~1.8 million views]
Probably popular because of it’s heart-warmingly “I love Taiwan” feel, being that it takes place in Taipei 101 and the songs are traditional, or about Taiwan. It’s impressive that they whip out a collection of instruments, and one also wonders about the performers in the service gear (are they actually servers from the 101 food court who can also sing, or did they just borrow the get up and do a bit of service work to blend in for a few minutes before singing?) It’s just a fact of modern life that the way that most people watch a flashmob performance also includes simultaneously recording the event with their cell phones.


7. “What you can do under a coat: MRT Dragon Cavalry Edition”
Comedy skit about doing weird things under a jacket on the Taipei MRT [~1.7 million views]
This sketch taps the double prong of ridiculous juvenile antics and “wow I guess they actually did these things in public to film this” as it is undeniably on the real Taipei MRT. Ostensibly, one person is up to sketchy business under a coat in the lap of another person on the subway, but then the coat is pulled off several times to reveal some comedically non-sexual behavior. Of course it also includes cross-dressing, good-old Taiwanese “playful” girl on boy violence, references to milk tea, and people who take selfies while on public transportation. At least it’s not even a full minute and a half.


8. “First on scene of Keelung Badouzi landslide”
Dashboard camera footage of a pretty terrifying landslide [~8.9 million views]
This is one of those disasters-caught-on-camera videos that’s entrancing because it easily could have happened to anyone given how often landslides occur in Taiwan. The clip is a “winner” for a few reasons: it captures a falling boulder that comes hair-raisingly close to crushing a car, but in the end, the car seems ok – so it’s not actually tragic; furthermore, the slow reveal of the huge boulder as the other debris settles, and the teetering of the boulder on the edge of totally crunching the car are dramatically perfect; and finally, if you rewatch the video a few times, the dislodgement of the boulder from above is actually captured clearly in the first few seconds of the video (but you don’t notice it upon the first viewing). I had also seen this video previously, and given the number of comments in non-Chinese, it seems like it got posted around on a few other places outside of Taiwan, leading to its particularly high viewcount.


9. “Support nuclear! Oppose nuclear!” (that’s a super awkward translation, sorry)
A speed rant about the ongoing debate on the construction of a nuclear power plant in northern Taiwan [~1.3 million views]
(Also, given the fast pace and generous inclusion of Taiwanese phrases, please pardon me if my understanding/translations are kind of poor; even though the video is black with vaguely subtitle-ish text and graphics…) Who doesn’t love a home-brew, rapid-fire rant that third-sources a wide collection of information to make a point? Throw in all the local references the video makes, the fervor of this debate in Taiwan now, an explanation of both sides, yet clear stand that the video-maker takes on the issue, and you have a video that gets watched a lot. Also, the ranter emphasizes that regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his arguments and his presentation, the key is thinking about the issue and not just going along with the flow of other people. I agree with this point and hope that this at least has had some influence.


10. “Dedicated to the Taiwan Team: PROUD OF TAIWAN”
A tribute video to the Taiwanese baseball team for the 2013 Classic [~1.2 million views]
The video is a lot of clips of baseball stitched together. Looks like they played against Japan. I think I remember this happening and it was deal at the time. I watched the whole ~6 minutes of this video, but I don’t know enough about sports to make any commentary beyond this: I guess some 1.2 million people like and care about Taiwanese baseball.



Concluding thoughts:
After writing this up, I feel strongly that this collection of videos is a sliver-thin, yet interesting reflection of a slice of Taiwanese society. I’m actually surprisingly glad that I took the time to do this. I definitely would not have understood why these videos were popular, or many of the references that these videos make if I had not been living in Taiwan for much of the past year: ubiquitous pieces of life in Taiwan such as the milk tea shaker, landslides, or romantic references to life in high school would have all been totally lost on me.


I was impressed by how long it took me to write this. Largely, it took a while because I revised my descriptions for most videos several times, trying to ensure that my explanations are accessible to people who aren’t so in tune with Taiwan. Along the way, I kept noticing assumptions about prior knowledge that I was making. So let this be a piece of anecdotal support for how culture seeps into one’s conscience through time.


On another note, it’s kind of impressive how few of these videos have more than 2 million views. Compared to my estimate of 12 million watchers, that’s not particularly viral. Thus, my suspicion that there may be some other popular video hosting site that I should also check out. Still, I feel like I would have stumbled across said Youtube competitor by now via postings on Facebook.


Ok, enough ponderings for now. Also, too many Youtube videos is probably bad for one’s brain, so I’m definitely ready to call it quits.