Facemasks

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.

Health

I have spent no small amount of time contemplating the habits of what might be considered an “average” Taiwanese person and trying to compare them to that of an “average” American. (Of course, this immediately comes with the problem of generalizing many people to one average, which is unfair. Please allow me the following reflections in the realm of generalization).

 

Along with eating and working, I find that how people maintain their health especially interesting. Taiwan, like the US, is a first-world, highly-developed society where many people have to make choices about lifestyle which will impact whether they have good health or bad. Good nutrition and bad nutrition is not out of the average person’s control (relatively few people suffer malnutrition due to inability to afford food) so much as choices that they make: Do they eat fried chicken for dinner or at a vegetarian buffet? Do they cook for themselves? Also like the US, many people work jobs where they are not doing manual labor, so instead it is a question of choice to avoid the problems that may arise due to a sedentary lifestyle (as opposed to suffering due to an overload of physical labor). Do many people regularly seek exercise to maintain their health? What kind?

 

This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!
This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!

In my mental catalog of observations, I have vaguely phrased all of these questions as the overall comparison of “healthiness”, (which is a grand leap of generalization, so again, please forgive my best attempt at an accurate representation). What follows are some things that I have filed away in this category.

 

Many things are actually quite similar between the two countries. Taiwanese, like Americans, are all aware of their health as a topic of concern. They know that they generally need to guard against eating too much, and being too lazy. Again, this doesn’t seem to have much of a different feel than in the States, where awareness of the so-called obesity epidemic does not mean action against it – the habits of Taiwanese people are highly variable in how healthy they seem overall.

 

Multiple times, Taiwanese people have complained to me that Taiwanese food is unhealthy but I will quickly and outright disagree with them. When it comes to home-cooked food, I am confident that the average Taiwanese meal is actually fairly healthy, including a reasonable spread of vegetables along with the rice and meats. What I think these people may have been getting at is the shift away from home-cooked meals in the younger generation, which has been a recent enough trend that I think there is still much concern about it: many younger Taiwanese don’t know how to cook, and if they live away from home than this means that they are going to be treading unhealthier options that are widely available and well-presented. The average restaurant-served meal in both countries is probably contains too much of things that humans find delicious (fats and carbs), so lack of conscious consumption is likely leading to a rise of unhealthy eating.

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Taiwanese bakeries are really popular, and a personal favorite of mine. Of course, if I ate only amazing baked goods all the time, I would be unhealthy. As much as I want to, I don’t do this, nor does any Taiwanese person that I know.

When it comes down to it, I find that the differences between the two countries are more telling than the similarities. One of the differences I have already touched upon when I talked about how I am quite overtly athletic compared to the average Taiwanese girl. Both cultures embrace healthiness as an aspect of beauty and a balanced lifestyle. But mainstream American culture emphasizes apparent athletic ability. Got muscles? Show ‘em, please. Thinness without muscle tone is hardly desirable. And what is the point of exercise if you can’t compete with it – hence the prevalence of social media to track and share fitness activities. By contrast, Taiwanese ideal of healthy and beautiful doesn’t emphasize overt athletic ability. Skinny without bulging muscles is ok. Many of the most popular exercise activities, such as hiking and biking, are relatively devoid of competitive atmospheres. My theory behind this difference is the long-held reverence for the scholar in Chinese culture. Thus, even now, when it comes to ideal beauty, bulging muscles and overt athletic prowess aren’t necessary.

 

Another major difference is the activities of the elderly. To begin with, the elderly seem like a much larger presence when I am in Taiwan. I don’t have a concrete evidence for this feeling, but it just seems like there are more old people around. They are hanging out in parks; they are in the alleyway hairstyling salons; they are in the marketplace; they are in the subway. I think this is because there is no place “that old people go”: there is no Florida, there is no Arizona, there are no nursing homes. So instead of disappearing to some haven with other elderly, old folks simply live out their golden years mixed in with the rest of Taiwanese society. And part of those golden years include regular exercise.

 

Indeed, old folks seem quite active in Taiwan. They are out jogging in parks, playing tennis, climbing mountains, doing taichi, attending exercise classes at community centers, riding bikes, etc. In fact, for most of these activities (that I have just thought of randomly), the bell curve of age seems to be centered around a comfortable 55-ish with far fewer young and old people. Why? The younger generation is “too busy” for exercise. Until one is secure in a position, likely sometime in the late 30’s or 40’s, working culture in generally seems to include 70-80 hours at work per week*, usually as unpaid overtime. This extensive time at work which also contributes to a decreased likelihood that this younger generation is going to go home and cook a meal, further enforcing the challenges that they face for healthy living. This group of younger adults is also possibly caught up in raising kids, which are always a large drain on time and money resources to spend on things like health-related activities. And kids? Forget it. They’re all stuck in cram schools for much of their lives. Based on what I’ve seen college students seem to find time to play sports like basketball and tennis and go for the occasional bike ride. But aside from a few families that I’ve observed out hiking during the New Year’s holiday, I can think of very few times that I’ve seen kids between the age of 10 and 18 out and about for some fun and exercise. Although there was the time when my sister and I stumbled across all the highschool dance troupes that apparently practice at the SYS memorial after dark…

 

Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don't see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that's not surprising.)
Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don’t see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that’s not surprising.)

 

Overall, it is a pretty different picture from the US, in which young kids up through high schoolers run around on fields aplenty, and then young working adults often zealously go through workout plans, get gym memberships and try strange diets. Whether Americans continue to be active through their 40s and 50s seems to be variable by person, and my general impression is that Americans over 60 don’t engage in anything other than walks across parking lots to the mall or the movie theater (okay, actually I don’t really know because of the aforementioned disappearance of elderly from the rest of American society so I feel ill-equipped to really assess how active older generations of Americans are). Oh the contrast, where exercise is a luxury of the elderly in Taiwan (Taiwanese people have also commented on this to me).

 

During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn't mind that I sat there for a little while.
During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn’t mind that I sat there for a little while.

Which society is “healthier” is not really a conclusion I can make. Sure, statistics of obesity and other diseases related to lifestyle choices could be dragged out, but these kinds of numbers include several decades of history, and fail to incorporate factors like differences in gene pools. Thus, I find it unfair to claim them as truly speaking to answer this question. But for now, let’s say that I find myself as often out with people 2-3 times my age when I am running in the park in Taipei.

 

*although, to be honest, watching my Taiwanese friends’ Facebook updates, I’m not convinced that this time spent at work has any particularly strong relationship with how much work gets done.