“Course and org,” reads the push notification. I open up my group chat for K-pop updates and see Suho (real name: Kim Junmyeon) of EXO edited into the toga of my university. It’s a Tuesday night, a few months into the longest lockdown in the world. Several people are typing.
“AMF,” says one person. Applied Mathematics and Finance. “ComTech,” chimes another. “He’s definitely in a science-but-management course and is also a part of AJMA,” the university’s marketing org. “Is he a douchebag?” asks another member. “Maybe, but not Kyungsoo. D.O. looks like a nice guy, and para talaga siyang kaklase natin.”
“I don’t know if I’d want him as a groupmate. No wait, I would,” I reply.
The rest of the night is spent speculating the identities of our fictitious classmates and how they’d fit in the narratives of our college lives. Would I date Park Chanyeol if I really knew him? Would I notice Min Yoongi if he were my classmate? Would Irene break my heart?
sige bhie </3 pic.twitter.com/fLEc2G1XyF— ًً (@sgjiro) June 10, 2020
Clay Routledge, author of “Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource”, describes nostalgia as a stabilizing force. It’s our mind’s way of creating “safe” places to retreat to in times of crisis, says Florence Saint-Jean, the Executive Director of Global Trauma Research. Living in the country with the most COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, the threat of the virus looms larger than life— a crisis with no end.
They say misery loves company, but maybe it likes K-pop. Or old video games. It likes unpacking anime crushes from childhood, and finding out just how much (or how little) your taste has changed.
“See you in two weeks,” says my officemate, three days before the Luzon lockdown was declared.
“We need to start seeing this as something that’s going to be around for a long time, not a passing snow storm,” says a friend from abroad. I tell her I don’t know what that’s like.
“When all of this is over,” says another, “let’s meet up for a drink.”
Living in the longest lockdown in the world feels like jet lag. Trapped in a latitude where the sun sets differently and everyone else is a day ahead. Are we in the past or is everyone just in the future? To get through the worst of the days, I rely on old memories because we live in a time where it is difficult to make new ones.
There is a lot of literature on how nostalgia is an effective way to combat loneliness. Last March, Nielsen and Billboard released a study that showed that half of consumers sought comfort in old TV shows and music from their youth, like pop punk. A few weeks ago, a friend messaged asking if he should pay $20 to buy a Cameo shoutout from Stephen Christian, the frontman of rock band Anberlin.
While nostalgic reverie often centers on personal experiences, there is a social aspect to it. Nostalgia can be used to maintain and foster relationships between new and old friends. After we had exhausted the possible identities for Kim Junmyeon, BS Management and Applied Chemistry, we began asking each other about our college lives.
“So Toni, would you walk to school?” Asks someone from the chat. We’re 11 people in the group. Many of them I have only ever spoken to a handful of times, while some of them I’ve never actually met in person.
“No,” I replied. “Because I lived so near, I was always late for class.”
“Discussing a nostalgic childhood experience with a new acquaintance could promote self-disclosing behavior in both individuals,” writes Routledge. Or if you were close, people might discuss a shared memory in order to maintain intimacy, he adds. Such as a pair of friends remembering a wild party or a couple talking about the first time they met.
As it turns out, I have a lot more in common with my pandemic friends besides our joint love for Sunmi. With one person, I found out that we hung out in the same spots in college but never once met. One friend shares in my love for King Chef in Banawe. Another friend apparently grew up in the same Christian church as I did. We talked at length, sharing memories of Sunday school and problematic pastors.
Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions. Like a child’s blanket or a stuffed animal, nostalgic behaviors like playing old video games, listening to old music, or wearing old clothes can be seen as transitional objects. Things that soothe and pacify us when confronted by a reality that is stressful, jarring, and in flux.
Fandom isn’t all that different. Fandoms can provide a support system and a sense of belonging. Online fandoms and group chats can provide a sense of community and closeness, feelings that may have been lost in the time of social distancing.
I’ve made new friends this pandemic largely through the group chats I inhabit. We talk at least a few times a day in these virtually compatible spaces, mostly to share updates of the things we fan and stan.
I have a chat dedicated to Dragon Age, a franchise of video games that started in 2009. Together we redownloaded the games and embarked on our own respective playthroughs. There is a different kind of peace when replaying old video games. Perhaps it is the allure of predictability, when you know exactly how everything ends.
But the group chat itself has expanded beyond a live walkthrough. Some days I’ll wake up to a barrage of my favorite characters rendered in the style of Japanese gay comics or stay up later than usual to laugh at trash memes that only fans of the game would understand.
There are days when we break from the lore. We ask for advice about things in the kitchen or talk about the happenings at Bon Appetit. We’ll recommend bread we just tried or share the fantasy novel we’ve just finished. Sometimes, we seek comfort and reassurance on the days when the lockdown seems endless.
Internet friendships are not perfect, but we have to start somewhere. Just like people, fandoms can be equally as supportive as they can be toxic. There are some things that can never be fully migrated to the virtual space: A shared meal, the solace of a hug, and the comfort of presence. But in isolation, what other choice do we have?
It is in our nature to belong and connect with others. The human race has survived plagues, wars, and the Ice Age because of our unique ability to adapt and cooperate. Study upon study shows how friendships can make one happier, live a little longer, and make one less at risk for heart disease.
I have no idea when I’m going to see my friends again. I look through our photos and videos and recall the time when my biggest problems were a demanding client and a leaky office pipe. I know things will never be the same. Not anytime soon, at least.
But in the interim, I am glad to have made new friends and to have connected with old ones in this time unprecedented. When the heaviness of the day is too much, I’ve found more than one willing chat window to help me feel seen and validated. When I’m pressed, I can count on these same friends to hold me back from dying on all the wrong hills.
There are two kinds of nostalgia: Restorative and reflective. And the difference between the two, says Hal McDonald, is how they look back on the past.
Restorative nostalgia looks back longingly on the past and desires to relive it in the present, while on the other hand, reflective nostalgia “savors the past with the full knowledge that it is, in fact, past and can never be relived again.”
“I’m sending you horcruxes,” says a friend. I didn’t reply because I thought he was talking about a video game. Later on, the doorbell rings and I suddenly have a miniature stack of jams. “To cheer you up,” says the note. I have never met this friend in person but I’m beginning to accept that maybe that’ll matter less in the next normal.
Maybe one day, when I see my friends for the first time offline, we won’t feel like strangers. We’ll have the meal we dreamed about and recollect our time together in the virtual space. We’ll share fan art and fan fiction and laugh without ever having to click send.
Header art by Thea Torres
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