Early Friday morning, I awoke to a series of social media notifications. Many of them were WeChat messages from my family and friends, sending me New Year’s well wishes and electronic red pockets, while others were from people on Weibo (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter) discussing the annual Spring Festival Gala. But all of those messages shared a common theme — they all had to do with Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak somehow, as they had for the past week.
“My family’s getting ready to watch the Gala,” one of the Weibo posts read, “but it feels so wrong. We shouldn’t be able to sit at home laughing at comedy sketches while our people are dying.”
I didn’t catch the Gala, but the sentiment echoed with me nonetheless. In the past week, I’ve been monitoring my Weibo feed and messaging my friends and family constantly, sharing information about disease prevention, resharing cries for help from Wuhan and looking for reliable ways to donate and contribute. Weibo is usually a place for me to nerd out about movies, theatre and literature, but in times like this I feel the responsibility to help. Posting about anything else, entertainment most of all, seemed morally wrong.
That was until I came across the news that actor and director Xu Zheng’s new comedy film Lost In Russia was going to be released on Tik Tok on New Year’s Day for free. In fact, all seven Chinese New Year blockbusters, initially scheduled to be released during the holiday season, have been delayed in concordance with the effort to control the epidemic. While it seemed altruistic at first, Xu’s decision is actually a genius one financially. The profit from selling the rights to Tik Tok is more than enough to cover what the film would’ve lost in ticket sales. It’s also better for public health, and so a priceless PR move in a time of public anxiety. What it got me thinking about the most, however, is that maybe I’ve had it all wrong. Maybe healthy entertainment is actually what we desperately need.
I’m not ashamed to admit that being on social media this frequently has taken a heavy emotional toll on me, but in retrospect, the only respite I’ve had has come from social media as well. Many well-known Weibo-ers, be it artists, influencers or movie bloggers, found creative ways to not only spread information, but to also relieve the intense, and sometimes even traumatic, emotions online.
There were funny — but genuinely useful — memes about how to educate older family members to wear masks in public. There were province-specific jokes and Tik Tok videos showing how some parts of the country have taken disease prevention to hilarious extremes. There were hand-drawn comics criticizing the practice of consuming wildlife. There were limericks about the major failures of the Wuhan government, and even one satirical rewrite of a scientific report on the spread of the virus, in attempt to help people understand how epidemiology models work. A few clips from Chernobyl circled around too, calling on people to reflect on government accountability and transparency. The funniest one I’ve encountered so far came from a fellow Marvel fan, who made a meme of the Winter Soldier with his mask on, questioning Captain America on why he wasn’t wearing one.
This collective effort to care for each other while trying to help Wuhan is astounding. It made me see the strength and tenacity of my people, but also made me realize that I shouldn’t banish entertainment as a luxury that has no place in times of crisis or overlook its positive impact.
So imagine my shock and disappointment when my roommate showed me the unsympathetic, ignorant and downright xenophobic memes on the Cornell subreddit and Facebook while we were at New Year’s Eve dinner, while every Chinese student in the restaurant was distressed about the safety of their family, friends and countrymen. Yes, my government failed. But so did the Australian government with a wildfire that has destroyed more than 2500 homes, and so did the US government in addressing hurricanes. Yes, the virus potentially posing a risk to this campus is a valid concern, but it will not be addressed by uninformed panic, insensitive jokes and victim blaming instead of making the right people answer the right questions.
Hey, go ahead and make or laugh at the next coronavirus meme. Just know that many Chinese Cornellians have been losing sleep and wishing that we had a way to protect our loved ones thousands of miles away. All the time and effort in crafting that ‘quality shitpost’ could have been used not to hurt, but to educate, to unite and to heal.
Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.