Symbolism in Mask-Wearing between San Francisco and Taiwan, by Ting An Chen.

Updated: May 29


Ting used symbolism and belief systems to explore what mask-wearing means to people in San Francisco and Taiwan. She used her own observations, as an expert in both cultures, and asked her informants the following questions. Her analysis follows. -Lisa Feder


1.Do you think mask-wearing is an effective tool to stop virus spreading? When is it effective? Why?

2.When do you wear a mask? Where did you get your mask? Are there times that you do not use the mask? Do you have more than one?

3.Do you wear masks at the job? Is it because physical distances is not possible?

4.Is your family safe? Is your family have more than one mask?

5.Do you wear a face mask wherever you go out?

6.What do you notice about mask-wearing near you? Is everyone does it or some people? Or It depends on the place?

7.Has your life changed?

8.What’s your favorite activity before the pandemic? Do you continue to do this activity? Does it require you to wear a mask? How does wearing a mask affect you? (You like/don't like, why?)

9.How does wearing a mask make you feel? (Safe, protected, annoyed, etc...)


10. Before this pandemic, Taiwanese sometimes would wear a face mask as a fashion accessory. Do you consider mask-wearing as symbolism? Why?


Analyzed through symbolic interpretation, before this pandemic, people in San Francisco don’t wear a mask even if they are sick. However, everyone needs to wear a mask wherever they go outside during this pandemic, it completely subverts people's [previous] perception of masks. While this pandemic happens, the meaning of masks is changed. People start to wear a mask wherever go outside even if they are not sick. This is a huge symbolic transformation of mask-wearing for people in San Francisco. On the other hand, before this pandemic, Taiwan’s already used face masks regularly, and even as the fashion accessory. Also, some designer would consider the mask-wearing as a fashion accessory to fit in the look. This is the vast difference in symbolic viewpoint between San Francisco and Taiwan.

The second concept is the belief system, which relates to the previous paragraph. Because of COVID19, everyone needs to wear a mask. This confronts the cognition of the people in San Francisco of mask-wearing. Before this virus, they don’t have a habit to wear a mask because most people don’t believe that it is effective to wear a mask to stop spreading the virus. However, the government orders them to wear a mask no matter you go where, and at that point they change their belief system about mask-wearing. In contrast, the Taiwanese completely believe the mask-wearing is effective for the virus spreading.

Four informants' responses to mask-wearing questions


From my friend.

1.Do you think mask-wearing is an effective tool to stop virus spreading? When is it effective? Why?

Yes! Because its effect can prevent the virus from coming intact with your body and not develop the virus symptoms.

2. Do you think mask-wearing is an effective tool to stop virus spreading? When is it effective? Why?

Going outside or being in contact with a human being, Mom's customer, Yes when I’m at home in quarantine, yes you buy a pack of 50 mask please be smart about it.

3. Do you wear masks at the job? Is it because physical distances is not possible?

Yes! You wear a mask and gloves to keep a distance from others. Any close contact or physical contact can be possible to catch a virus.

4. Is your family safe? Is your family have more than one mask?

My mom is safe even though she has to work, Well of course they are well prepare being an asian person is being cautious of things.

5. Do you wear a face mask wherever you go out?

Yes!

6. What do you notice about mask-wearing near you? Is everyone does it or some people? Or It depends on the place?

Nothing... i grew a few pimple when wearing a mask thats what i notice, Majority maybe.

7. Has your life changed?

Uh yes because I can finally stay home and do online shopping and not care about the outside world because I’m a introvert.

8. What’s your favorite activity before the pandemic? Do you continue to do this activity? Does it require you to wear a mask? How does wearing a mask affect you? (You like/don't like, why?)

Staying home watching anime and reading novel, and going out to convention and cosplay, Yes but only at home now making tiktok videos. No, I have no feelings or affection for a mask.

9. How does wearing a mask make you feel? (Safe, protected, annoyed, etc...)

Secure

10. Before this pandemic, Taiwanese sometimes would wear a face as a fashion accessory. Do you consider mask-wearing as symbolism? Why?

Sure because for a mask it can do many things like if your sick you wear it, celebrity can cover their face with a mask if they want to conceal their fame, also wearing a mask can protect you from interacting with people you don’t want to talk to.

From the classmate, Deborah.

1.Do you think mask-wearing is an effective tool to stop virus spreading? Yes, Absolutely! When is it effective? All the time. Why? Well, if you are wearing the mask in case you have the virus even though you don't have symptoms, you are protecting others, all others that you come into contact with. You could also be wearing a mask because you are afraid of getting the virus through the air from someone else, or both.

2.When do you wear a mask? When in public areas or any place I cannot distance myself. So far I've only had to wear one when dropping off and picking up my cat at the vet. The vet tech came out to the parking lot and picked the cat up in its carrier, took it in the office for a blood test, then brought the cat back out and put in my car. Both of us had surgical masks on. Where did you get your mask? Handmade masks are being sold in the neighborhood here as well as getting surgical masks from Amazon (although the shipping times are long); our wildfire safety kit with N95 masks; and ad hoc ones like bandanas. Are there times that you do not use the mask? Most of the time I don't because I am at home with the others in my household that all are "sheltering in place". Do you have more than one? Yes, a box of surgical masks from Amazon (took a month to get delivered); bandanas that we always have on hand in our cars in case of wildfires; one neighborhood-bought mask (expensive); and some N95 masks in our wildfire kit.

3.Do you wear masks at the job? My biggest "job" right now is nursing my Dad, and, yes, sometimes I do. Is it because physical distances is not possible? Yes.

4.Is your family safe? Yes, but we have not been tested yet. Is your family have more than one mask? Yes.

5.Do you wear a face mask wherever you go out? Pretty much have one on me in the car, but don't wear it as I am driving alone. And if I'm walking around the neighborhood, I just keep far away from everyone and can easily physical distance then, so I may have one in my pocket but not necessarily on my face.

6.What do you notice about mask-wearing near you? It's very sporadic in use; and all types are used as I listed above. Is everyone does it or some people? Mostly everyone, but less than I would like. I'd say about 80% of people are using some sort of face protection. Or It depends on the place? It partially depends upon the place. If walking on wide open streets, you see very little use of masks except for those that are older. In the grocery store parking lot about 50% had masks on across all ages. All the clerks of the stores had masks. I did not go into the store, they brought out the groceries and put in the back of my truck.

7.Has your life changed? Yes and no. I'm an introvert by nature, so keeping to myself, doing my work at home, taking care of my Dad, is pretty much what I do anyway. But I had two helpers come in before the pandemic to assist with my Dad, a housekeeper and a companion person that played cards with him and made him dinner several days a week. These two people cannot come over yet, so that is more work for me. Also, my husband is working from home now, so more meals, more prep, more cleanup all the way around. I am not complaining, though, I am glad we are in the position we are in because so many others in essential working categories are risking their lives every day.

8.What’s your favorite activity before the pandemic? Doing Art! Do you continue to do this activity? Try to do bits and pieces here and there but I have so much less time that it is hard to set up a painting because the setup and breakdown takes a few hours right there (preparing substrates, cleaning brushes, cleaning palettes, etc.) Does it require you to wear a mask? Hah! Actually sometimes with the cleaning fluids I may start to wear a mask because it does bother my senses. Never thought about it before because I never had this many masks! How does wearing a mask affect you? (You like/don't like, why?) So far it has not been that hot, so it doesn't affect me, so I tolerate them. It will be interesting to see when the summer heat kicks in, if I will still say that.

9.How does wearing a mask make you feel? (Safe, protected, annoyed, etc...) More safe, maybe not completely safe, but more safe, and I feel I am setting a good example for the rest of the people, too.

10.Before this pandemic, Taiwanese sometimes would wear a face as a fashion accessory. Do you consider mask-wearing as symbolism? Why? Yes, it shows you are aware of what is going on and how you care for your fellow humans. I can also see it begin to be a fashion statement, too.

I've attached a photo from a 2014 Fashion Week in China when the smog was so bad everyone had to wear masks just to breathe in some of the cities. This crisis prompted masks to be incorporated into the runway, too. There were a lot more, too, all you have to do is a search on "Masks used in fashion" and this is one of the links that should come up.

From the classmates, Eduardo.

1.Do you think mask-wearing is an effective tool to stop virus spreading? When is it effective? Why?

Yes. But I do believe it is more effective in the case of the other sanitary precautions aren't an option. For example social distancing, if you are practicing social distancing correctly there shouldn't be a need for a mask. I believe if my research was correct that the distance is far enough to mitigate someone else's cough particles or any other airborne particle coming from another person you are currently interacting (from a distance) with. If one is only going to be in isolation at home ore minimum direct contact with another person outside their inner circle, there is no need (in my opinion) for a mask as there are other people that need it more such as health care individuals or essential workers.

2.When do you wear a mask? Where did you get your mask? Are there times that you do not use the mask? Do you have more than one?

I don't wear a mask as I'm mostly in self isolation at home and when I go outside I practice social distancing, avoid crowds and/or people I don't have in my inner circle. My dad on the other hand is a doctor, he does wear a mask, he got it from one of the hospitals he works at. And he has more than one, as they have limited uses (the one he as are disposable).

3.Do you wear masks at the job? Is it because physical distances is not possible?

No, I work from home.

4.Is your family safe? Is your family have more than one mask?

Yes, thanks for asking. Yes we have more than one mask.

5.Do you wear a face mask wherever you go out?

No, as I don't interact with other people.

6.What do you notice about mask-wearing near you? Is everyone does it or some people? Or It depends on the place?

Some people do wear them on the street, there isn't really a pattern I could identify. People from different ages, backgrounds a professions seem to wear and not wear.

7.Has your life changed?

Absolutely. I had to stay in Mexico after the holidays instead of my usual plan of getting back to San Francisco. My classes had to be online only. I had to get a job here in Mexico to pay for said classes as my former job (Dog shelter) couldn't do it online.

8.What’s your favorite activity before the pandemic? Do you continue to do this activity? Does it require you to wear a mask? How does wearing a mask affect you? (You like/don't like, why?)

Playing videogames was my favorite. I do continue to do it but ironically enough I do it less often. It doesn't require a mask. Wearing a mask doesn't really affect me, I see and appreciate their value. I used them when needed because I want to take the right precautions.

9.How does wearing a mask make you feel? (Safe, protected, annoyed, etc...)

Defenseless. I know it sounds contradictory but I feel that way towards my own body/system.

From the professor, Lisa.

1. I think mask-wearing is very important when going into stores, food-shopping, and possibly if people are outside and passing each other at less than 6 feet (2 meters) distance, which seems to happen frequently on the streets in the city. It is effective if people have the virus and happen to cough or sneeze and spread particles, or even if they talk. Microscopic saliva also flies through the air when people talk.

I just bought real masks yesterday, our first day out of isolation. I do not tend to wear a mask when I am outdoors because I do not live in a very populated area. I pass people on the street with less than 6 feet between and I hope that no one will cough or sneeze. When I talk to people without a mask I try to maintain 3 feet (1 meter) distance. I wear a mask only when I go into stores to buy food. I haven't gone into any other stores yet.

I work from home on line, and I spend most of my time home or in the nature. I almost never wear a mask for that reason, but I see I have to get used to the habit now. I think it is smart and very important to wear a mask in public, so I will do it regularly. I am a bit aware of the stigma of wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. Different people in different parts of my town feel differently about whether to wear a mask or not. Some think it isn't important and they laugh at those who wear masks. Others think it is essential and scoff at those who don't wear masks. There is a lot of tension around this subject as we get used to the new habit.

My Family is safe- It is just my partner and I. We help each other to be smart and to not take risks, but we both are not perfect in maintaining social distance with a mask. We discuss this practice frequently and remind one another to stay away from people.

Yes my life has changed. I normally feel free to travel to Paris and to the USA from my new home in Marseille, France. I was relying a lot on my ability to travel before Covid. Now I am not able to leave my city and it has changed my life a lot. Some of these changes are very good, and some of them are very hard. I try to accept them all and be happy.

Before the pandemic I spent a lot of time with my partner in the sea. We swim and kite-surf and use his boat. During the pandemic we are not allowed to go in the sea. this has been the biggest and most difficult change locally. These are the local laws.

Wearing a mask makes me feel a little silly. It is a new habit I am not used to it yet, and it feels like I am hiding my face and I am not as friendly. It also makes me feel safe when I am in a store and there are a lot of people. I felt a little nervous about not having a mask before it became a requirement.

Mask-wearing is not fashionable to me yet because I have an ugly, surgical mask. I see some people with very pretty masks. If we continue to need to wear them, I want a pretty mask too. I see that it is definitely becoming a fashion accessory, part of your clothing and style. But I am not to that point yet.