Face masks and cultural identity on YouTube

Unlike hand washing, about which there is unanimous agreement when it comes to fighting coronavirus, the practice of wearing face masks is still a contentious, emotional issue, evolving into a complex moral question about civic responsibility and altruism in many countries. The question of whether to mask or not is interpreted by some as evidence of ‘cultural’ differences’ between East Asians and Europeans /Americans, or taken as an opportunity to position some cultures as more ‘sensible’, ‘scientific’ or ‘socially responsible’ than others. One place where this ‘cultural positioning’ is most evident is in YouTube videos. The positioning of the ‘prepared Asians’ and the ‘unprepared others’ has been a dominant discourse in a considerable number of videos that we observed.  

In Hong Kong and many other places in Asia, face masks are seen by many as a sign of pandemic preparedness. Face masks have become such a common sight that anyone who is not wearing one is marked. The health advice issued by The Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection advises the public to wear surgical masks, not only for patients who are symptomatic, but also for the general public who need to take public transport or to stay in crowded places. 

Having been through the SARS outbreak in 2003, people in Hong Kong are knowledgeable and well-informed about mask-related issues. People are generally concerned about the quality of face masks. On YouTube, it is not hard to find videos of ordinary citizens testing the quality of different face masks that they bought in shops. For example, this video shows a person performing a series of ‘tests’ on a mask to check its performance. 

In late January, Hong Kong saw a shortage of surgical face masks leading to a rise in the number of tutorial videos in DIY face masks. A recent development is the Hong Kong government’s announcement of its  reusable mask scheme. Free, reusable masks that can be washed up to 60 times will be distributed to all Hong Kong citizens.

Outside of Hong Kong, the need for wearing face masks has also been recognised albeit with some reluctance in some regions. As many countries all over the world have begun to lift their lockdown measures, face masks are seen as an important prerequisite for people to gradually resume their normal operations, though people are portrayed as not as cooperative as others, reinforcing the theme of the ‘prepared Asians’ vs. the ‘unprepared others’. For example, in a video created shortly after the governor of New York announced mandatory face covering, reporters went around different neighbourhoods in New York, and found that while most people had some kind of face covering, there were still people who went out without any.

The video is narrated by two Chinese-speaking reporters who travel to different neighbourhoods, commenting on the relationship between the cultural backgrounds of the people living in these neighborhoods and the proportion of people wearing masks. In the part of Manhattan where many Korean stores can be found, most pedestrians were filmed wearing masks, whereas in South Williamsburg few people were shown wearing masks.  In the film, the two Chinese-speaking reporters position themselves as investigative journalists out to uncover the real reasons why some Americans don’t wear masks, and what they ‘uncovered’ ended up reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘prepared Asians’ vs. the ‘unprepared others’.

This theme can even be found in videos made by non-Asians wanting to position themselves as ‘prepared’. In the video below, for example, an American who speaks fluent Chinese visits a supermarket in the US and counts how many people he encounters who are not wearing masks or any kind of face covering.

Another video created by a UK-based teenager who is also fluent in Chinese depicts him giving a pack of face masks to his mother as a birthday present. He was also seen giving away face masks to shopkeepers who didn’t have them. 

These videos reveal an interesting phenomenon of Westerners speaking fluent Chinese using their alignment to face masks to position themselves as ‘prepared others’ in contrast to the people around them. Rather than challenging the trope of ‘prepared Asians’ vs. ‘unprepared others’, these videos in some ways serve to reinforce the stereotype even more strongly. The enthusiastic learners of Chinese who made these videos seem to want to position themselves as ‘authentically Asian’ by showcasing their affiliation with the ‘cultural practice’ of wearing face masks, which indexes ‘Asian-ness’ in the current context. 

On the other hand, they also want to offer an ‘authentically Western’ point of view based on their own upbringing in America and the UK to explain to Asian viewers why face masks are not adopted in the same way as in Asia. Their display of ‘dual authenticity’ is significant in the construction of the argument that face masks are important regardless of one’s geographic location and nationality. Their fluent Chinese and their positive attitude towards wearing face masks also index a translocal identity that is made up of a foreign language learner identity, combined with their own ‘home’ identity. To Western audiences, the video-creators’ global outlook is symbolically important as it can be capitalised on as a way to persuade skeptics of face masks to re-examine their stance. To audiences from Asia, the video-creators’ ability to relate to both the Asian culture and their own ‘home’ culture can help Asian viewers understand the reasoning behind the (lukewarm) adoption of face masks in the West from a more personal, bottom-up perspective. 

Through these YouTube videos, these globalised, transnational video-creators use their rich linguistic and multimodal repertoires to construct an argument that face masks are important in the fight against COVID-19. Through their transnational encounters, they used video as a medium to demonstrate to the world their personal experience of living in different cultures, and combine this with their understanding of their own culture in order to make sense of the situation. Adopting a transnational identity allows them to connect the past, present, and future discourses of face masks and the pandemic in general, and to engage audiences regardless of geographical and cultural boundaries. These global participants are important players in influencing the public’s views about cultural practices of health. 

Digital technologies such as online videos are particularly important in a world characterised by what Vertovec (2007) called ‘superdiversity’. As highlighted by Androutsopoulos and Juffermans (2014:2), digital media facilitate ‘deterritorialised interaction, individualised self-presentation, and large-scale participation in cultural and political discourses’.  In times of pandemic, YouTube videos afford an important means of disseminating these cultural perspectives about face masks. It is important to understand how everyday practices, ideas and positionings are spread and constructed through more vernacular media practices. As applied linguists, we are interested in how these new communicative practices play a role in the dissemination and construction of knowledge. As Blommaert (2020) observes, the COVID-19 outbreak accentuates the mobility of people, and of knowledge. It remains to be seen how these creative, bottom-up vernacular practices, together with advances in digital technology, will continue to shape how we obtain information, and how certain beliefs are constructed throughout this and future crises.

References:

Androutsopoulos, J., & Juffermans, K. (2014). Digital language practices in superdiversity: Introduction. Discourse, Context and Media45, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2014.08.002

Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies30(6), 1024–1054. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870701599465

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