I was watching “The Bachelor” with some friends on a quiet Saturday night. A few hours prior, I had reposted two things on my Instagram story: A list of “facts” and “myths” about the novel coronavirus, and a message stating that “coronavirus doesn’t give you the right to be racist and xenophobic towards Asian people.”
My phone buzzed; I glanced at the screen half-heartedly as the drama in the show unfolded, and was immediately outraged. “Hey,” I tapped the friend sitting on the other end of the couch. As calmly as I could, I asked, “Do you think that’s funny?” “Yeah!” He answered with a nonchalant shrug, “Don’t you?
He had just replied to my second story with one simple word, “myth.”
And no, I didn’t find it funny, especially because myths have always been a powerful vehicle of xenophobia, as exemplified by notion of Yellow Peril and the anti-semitic belief about Jewish people’s devilish horns. I found the joke to be so terribly insensitive and hurtful that I paused the show and demanded an apology. He was surprised I was actually mad, and told me that I needed to “learn to take a joke.” “That seems like a you problem, Ruby.”
Is it my problem though? In fact, in my friend groups I’m known to have a dark sense of humor. I joke about dysfunctional family, therapy, race and past trauma no less. But I draw a simple line when it comes to jokes — I only make fun of things I actually understand. It’s quite simple; for example, when you haven’t personally suffered through an eating disorder, maybe don’t make fun of people who have. When you are not Chinese or of East Asian descent, you probably don’t understand or haven’t experienced firsthand the political implications of this health crisis, so think twice when you are about to make a distasteful joke.
A few months ago, I came across this tweet by Heather Thompon Day about how asking her male boss to explain a sexual joke to her effectively shut him down. She wrote triumphantly at the end, “And that’s how I learned that once sexual harassers have to explain why their inappropriate jokes are funny, they stop laughing.” I’ve found this technique to be incredibly useful when faced with sexist, racist, homophobic and all otherwise inappropriate or offensive comments. For example, the other day I ran into a friend and stopped for conversation. She introduced me to the person she was with, who joked, “You weren’t in China recently, were you?” My right hand that just shook his suspended mid-air, as he let out a nervous giggle. “Is that funny to you?” I asked. And he just looked away and quickly excused himself. Later when my friend relayed to me that he thought I was “too intense,” I didn’t know how to respond. In the comments section of my column about trigger warnings, an army of middle-aged white men attacked me and even our generation for being “weak”, “wimpy” and “unable to deal with the real challenges of life.” While these statements seem to be contradictory, the same mentality underlies all of them: Their privileged position overlooks or invalidates the feelings of those marginalized. Similar to how women with postpartum depression used to be deemed “hysterical,” victims of various forms of violence today are still faced with harmful and manipulative rhetoric, like “you’re overreacting” or “you need to learn to take a joke.”
I never finished that Bachelor episode because after trying to explain to my “friend” why some things just aren’t a joking matter for half an hour to no avail, I decided to leave. On my way home I called my grandma, who told me that supermarket shelves are empty everywhere in Hong Kong but luckily, she’s a hoarder and they should have enough rice left for a few weeks. Her words somehow reminded me of 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic also left us stranded at home. I was too young to feel scared, and was simply happy that I could watch anime all day instead of going to school. Yet 17 years later, thousands of miles away from home, I just can’t stop worrying about my grandparents when statistics suggest that the elderly may be more susceptible to the virus. I asked her again to keep me posted before hanging up.
By the time I got home, another friend that was at the watch party had sent me several texts, asking if I was ok and trying to mitigate the matter by saying that “He’s just clueless sometimes.” “I’m gonna go to bed,” I texted back, “can’t get sick now. I’m Asian.” But I couldn’t laugh at my own joke.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.