When the news of Stan Lee’s passing broke, I was having a late lunch by myself in Bethe dining hall. My phone screen lit up with a Washington Post notification as I was biting into an apple, and the moment I glanced at the headline, I almost forgot how to chew.
I didn’t finish the apple. I sat in the dining hall until everyone else was gone.
Incidentally, it happened on the same day as the funeral of someone of very similar cultural and social importance in China — Jin Yong, the most renowned Chinese wuxia (martial arts) novelist, who has influenced generations and essentially single-handedly shaped the modern Chinese conception of heroism and bravery. Some of the most important people in the country had sent flowers and their condolences, and when photos of the funeral emerged online, the whole Chinese internet flooded to express their love for the iconic characters, books and TV series he created. Little did they know, a few hours later they would wake up to the news of the departure of his American counterpart, who created the other fictional world of heroes that they’ve come to love just as much in recent years through Marvel movies.
“God now has the best wuxia novels and the best comic books for himself, ” read one of the trending tweets.
Most Chinese kids of my generation did not read Jin Yong’s novels. I knew, however, that they used to be considered trashy pulp fiction and bad for teenagers, the same way American comic books was deemed toxic for children back in the day. Decades later, both of these literary forms have prevailed against criticisms of being toxic, and are now each celebrated as an indispensable part of modern cultural identity and memory. Somehow, across two societies that seem so at odds on the surface, some of the most significant parts of their respective pop cultures ended up being not so different after all.
The topic came up when I FaceTimed my mom a few days later. I had posted on WeChat a message about Stan Lee’s passing, and my mom didn’t really know who he was. She knew how much I loved Marvel, however, and after I explained it briefly to her, she pondered for a second and asked, “So he’s the American Jin Yong?” I paused, then hummed in agreement.
Now, I could count the ways Marvel mattered to me: It was one of the few ways through which I, when I came to the United States alone at the age of fourteen, managed to connect to my American classmates, to understand America as a country, and in a way, assimilate. It was what encouraged me to be more imaginative, to step out of the box and begin writing fiction. It’s the reason I have many of the friends that I have today. It’s escape when life becomes too suffocating even if I know full well that none of it is “real”. What was not on this list, however, was the fact that it’ll one day connect me and my mother in a way I’d never expected.
It was 12:30 a.m. and I was bone-tired. My mom and I hadn’t talked in a while, both of us having been so worn down by what’s going on in our own everyday lives. It simply made more sense to not worry someone thousands of miles away. When the topic of Jin Yong and Stan Lee came up, however, both of us became so talkative that it was borderline annoying.
My mom told me that when she was sixteen she would work so hard on preparing for the college entrance exams during the day just so she could hide under the blankets and read Jin Yong’s novels before she went to sleep — the same way I would take an exam early just to see the midnight showing of an MCU movie. I rambled about the golden age of comics and the political implications behind Captain America and Black Panther, and she went on about Jin Yong’s characterization of his heroes and how that made her want to write. Both of us became lost in each other’s tangents and could not remember a single thing we said, but to me it’s the revelations that are important. There was a time when my mother was just as enthusiastic about something as I am now. There’s a fictional world she loves just as much as I do. Despite three decades and two languages in between, our dreams were made in the same way.
But maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. At the end of the day, as humans, we may just be bound to dream the same dreams — of love, bravery and endless possibilities. And it is people like Stan Lee and Jin Yong who are the makers of these dreams. For this, we owe them the highest of gratitudes. Excelsior.
Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.