In an homage to where trivia nights usually take place, Hackett asks each participant for $5 to play, which she then donates to the One Fair Wage Relief Fund and other funds for people in the hospitality industry who have lost their jobs since the pandemic. So far she’s raised $5,000, as well as an additional $1,000 supporting restaurants by buying gift cards to give to trivia winners.
Hackett asks about everything from current events to ancient history, then drops fun questions into our chat window between rounds that serve as conversation starters. One round was themed: “Appropriate uses for bleach.”
The trivia nights have proved popular, with sometimes 50 different competitors in one Zoom. Many are regulars who return every week. My team, however, is the only one that’s (in a way) China-based.
This is a weird brag, but here it goes: I am a member of Beijing’s current second-most-winningest English-language trivia team.
I was affected by the global pandemic earlier than most Americans because I live in China — or did, until February. For over five years, I worked as a magazine editor and freelance journalist in China, and for much of it, my group of friends and I gathered at an American-style bar in Beijing on Thursdays for their English-language trivia night. The bar mimics mid-America barbecue-joint vibes — an accurate, if overpriced, portal to my faraway home.
I was visiting my family in Pennsylvania when news of the coronavirus outbreak began to swirl. My family hoped I would stay for a while longer, but I was hesitant, because my work, my social life and my belongings were all abroad. Then United Airlines made my decision for me when it canceled flights to China indefinitely.
Since then, chances of me getting back to China this year have grown smaller by the day. In March, Pennsylvania enacted its own stay-at-home order. In April, China banned entry to all foreigners, even ones with residence permits, like me. Last week, Chinese officials announced restrictions on international flights would continue through October at least.
My group chats with fellow Americans in China have become spaces for commiserating, swapping info on quarantine requirements and venting about visa issues.
My trivia chat was no exception. Several of us were in America, and one in his home country of Iran (the irony of leaving China for places that would have their own horrific experiences with covid-19 is not lost on us). Then my friend Sarah, an American in Beijing who’d previously lived in D.C., brightened the mood when she sent over a link and said: “You guys should try this out.”
It was a link to Distantly Social Trivia, and that was March. My team has been playing ever since — the five of us who are in the United States, anyway.
“I believe we have a team from China playing?” Hackett said into her webcam, looking both confused and amused, our first night playing. I was going to correct her and clarify we weren’t actually in China, but my teammate Miriam, quarantining in D.C., beat me with: “Yes, it’s 9 a.m. here and we’re drinking anyway!”
My team isn’t the only one using online trivia as a way to stay together — in fact, Hackett tells me it’s a bit of a theme among her regulars.
“So many families and people with friends spread across the world and the country have used this as their weekly way to catch up. We’ve had parents connecting with their children stationed far away in the military, girlfriends who were supposed to be celebrating a wedding, high school friends reconnecting and siblings maintaining a healthy sibling rivalry.”
My friends and I have been glad to have our trivia routine back, too — especially now that it’s for a good cause.
There’s something reassuring about a straightforward, answerable fact during this confusing time. Many of my trivia friends are also stranded, and some of us have lost jobs as a result (telecommuting is difficult when there’s a 12-hour time difference). Many of us are journalists, unable to cover China from thousands of miles away. Trivia doesn’t fix any of this, but it is a balm.
What does CVS stand for? Consumer Value Store!
What three rivers meet in the center of Pittsburgh? The Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio!
What album sold the most copies in the ’80s? Thriller!
Not long after the U.S. went into shutdown mode, friends in Beijing were going back to something resembling normal. I watched on social media and in group chats, as they reemerged from their strict lockdown. I was happy for them — and also jealous. The American-style bar started trivia nights back up again, albeit with a staffer taking everyone’s temperature upon entry.
In Beijing, my friends are going to parties, watching live music, and dining out – all with the knowledge that if they leave, they may not be able to get back in.
We live in separate worlds now, but on a recent night, we bridged them. Sara, Andrew, Curtis and Calvin woke up at 7:30 a.m. China time to call the rest of us in the U.S., rubbing their eyes as they stared into their cameras. Those of us in the U.S. cheers-ed our wine glasses to their coffees.
Then Hackett appeared in a separate window. In our own window, my team and I stumbled our way through a round of questions themed “Can’t Touch This,” in which my friend Gabe correctly identified Stanley Kirk Burrell as MC Hammer, and then debated answers about world tourist attractions, laughing along the way.
We didn’t win that night. But we did stay on our own call after trivia had ended to catch up. It was just like old times, but 12 hours apart.
For Hackett, this is anything but old times — and she’s grateful for it. As she tells me: “I think I’m one of the very few fortunate people that has gained a ton of new friends during quarantine.”
Noelle Mateer is a writer (now) based in her hometown of State College, Pa.