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.