Nowadays, every moment of my life is done in honor of xiao (“little”) Helen. I think about all the things she wanted to accomplish, to experience, and I open my heart to give her all the fun, kindness, and compassion she wasn’t able to receive when she was younger. Something something, healing my inner child? Acts of self-care have become so much more than adopting the quick-fix-treat-myself mentality (although I’ve learned that summertime watermelon does this, definitively, for me …) and instead are blanketed with intentionality: I asked myself where joy comes from, where it can blossom and unravel in the most contagious of ways, and I quickly learned how the majority of it stems from the fleeting moments of unfiltered curiosity I held as a small child, i.e. before the crushing spirit of capitalism came charging in. Every day, I am endlessly indebted to this way of life, to take things less seriously and nourish the parts of myself that are not tied to #productivity and becoming #thatgirl. And every day, I see how it makes me a better person.
Some days, it’s the willingness to say yes to a new activity my friends suggest. Other times, it’s the lack of anger and embarrassment that comes with perpetually losing while playing video games. And other days, it’s being able to make a celebration out of anything just to be able to hang out with my friends. It’s small, but it allows me to spend my days with a sense of pride and awe. It’s like if you were to go back in time and give someone in Mesopotamia a Dorito chip, but instead of villagers from the oldest civilization in the world and lots of spices, it’s me and the love that comes with community and belonging and meaning. Xiao Helen would’ve never believed she would have gotten to live a life like this.
But there is a weird place that exists in between the immense gratitude that I have for life and the grief that I carry for the past. It is dusty and dilapidated and riddled with a cold air that can only be pushed in by a deep mourning. In this space, contradictions come alive. It is empty, like a box that never got to be filled with outgrown toys and just-embarrassing-enough-to-also-be-nostalgic tween memories. At the same time, it is full, heavy with a kind of claustrophobia that comes from adolescent anxiety and an unspoken, messy trauma shedding its hair everywhere. It is dark, tinted with the strongest of desires to escape, and it is bright, blinding. It is emotional, yet it is numb. It is noisy, and silent. Aggressive, and scared. In this space, shame lives. Turns out, In-The-Middle-Helen never quite felt like she deserved to live a life like this.
There is a degree of paralysis that comes with confronting your lived experiences. It can be overwhelming and world-shattering, a kind of fog that cloaks almost everything in your line of sight. For me, the future was too blurry, just a distant gossamer too far to materialize concretely. The present, meanwhile, was too out-of-focus; like I was wearing glasses that were way too strong for me, not only was I unable to see clearly, I perpetually had a headache (not-so-fun-fact: I have chronic migraines, and I used to get like 20 migraines a month. I’m like 99% sure this is largely due to trauma). The only thing I could see was my past, Xiao Helen sitting in the corner of the room all by herself. But in the same way that after you stare at a painting for too long, or say a word too many times, I stopped being able to recognize anything, everything just slightly off. Xiao Helen was no longer my past, but a vestigial marker of my resentment and my pity all bundled in one. I stopped being able to remember the actual experiences I had, my mind a blank slate on the who, what, when, where, and why, but flooded instead with the well-this-is-what-I-felt. And so Xiao Helen grew up and became In-The-Middle Helen, trying to navigate these complex, lost emotions in the midst of everything else that makes the human condition so complicated.
In-The-Middle Helen was a nightmare. It was a volatile time, and that made me a volatile person: I would cry all the time, until I wouldn’t be, and then I would feel embarrassed enough about crying that I would cry again. I built my personality around empathy and kindness, but never reflect deep enough to identify that as a projection of my own desires. And every now and then, the anger that Xiao Helen had bottled up would seep through like toxic sludge, burning everything in my path. It wasn’t until recently that I started to understand where In-The-Middle Helen was coming from. Because if you box off the different parts of your life, sever them from the flows that birthed them and fed them, you never get the whole picture. Xiao Helen was cute and curious. In-The-Middle Helen was chaotic, confused, but simultaneously, very comfortable.
Just as there is a paralysis in trauma, there is also a weight to being well. Toni Cade Bambara states in The Salt Eaters:
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
Acknowledging the harms done to Xiao Helen allowed me to extend a warped version of compassion to myself: pity, disguised as sympathy. I could spend hours talking with my friends trauma-bonding and reveling over who had the most fucked up experiences growing up. I wore my sufferings like badges, because in In-The-Middle Helen’s world, that became a way to brand my survival. But life changes, and it changes so quickly that my badges started to collect dust: the same violences I saw happen to Xiao Helen slowly started to fade away as I went to college. I was no longer living at home, no longer working under an education system that pushed me to get into a prestigious university (instead, just an adjacent education system that pushed me to get a prestigious job …), no longer around the same people I had been for the majority of my life. New violences were happening—the false hope of identity politics, amplified racism (not to be isolated from rampant Sinophobia), more explicit sexism, capitalism—but as those developed, I was simply not equipped to be well. To be honest, I’m not even sure I wanted to be well.
There is a phenomenon that my friends and I talk about a lot about these days, a kind of suburban-sitcom dynamic that occurs to people who were fed a version of life through cheesy TV shows and Disney-ified romcoms … so, most people. (It doesn’t help that the US government literally funds Marvel movies!) And for the longest time, I fell victim to it. I made myself the main character, desperately awaiting new recurring characters to be added and new plotlines to make life interesting. I watched HIMYM enough to become the top rated person on HQ Trivia (I had to Google what this app was called because it literally is so meaningless to me now! Nice! We love growth!) in my region, but also enough to crave the kind of monotonous insurance that comes with having a glorified sitcom-esque life.
After a childhood filled with lots of pain and tumultuous changes, I wanted to magically enter a sitcom and stay there, scripted lines and all; it would have been all the wellness I needed. I don’t blame myself. I see now that In-The-Middle Helen simply wanted some kind of stability. But for a really long time, In-The-Middle Helen was, as the kids say, so fucking cringe (derogatory). So it became exceptionally difficult to warrant compassion for myself. Why be nice to myself when I’m the one that is crying too much and making everyone else annoyed? Why be patient with myself when I’ve continuously managed to screw up my relationships? Why be understanding with myself when I’m the reason so many bad things are happening to me? Why be kind with In-The-Middle Helen when she’s all over the fucking place when she should have just been cute and curious like Xiao Helen?
A few years ago, I started to learn about Marxism. (If you’ve been reading my little blogs/newsletters, this is not a surprise to you!) By no means was it an attempt to improve my mental health, but it has led me to understand that to have compassion for yourself is to have compassion for all versions of yourself and realize that you are inexplicably interwoven into the web of capitalism. Marxism is not just about philosophy, or political economy; it is about the very real, material world we live in and all its various appendages that impact, quite literally, everything. I’ve been reading and researching and learning for years that the weight of wellness no longer feels so heavy; I’ve started to understand why things are the way they are, and I know that asking when is equally as important as asking why. But sometimes, life does feel particularly heavy because if not for the weight of wellness, there is the weight of capitalism. Reading and researching and learning does not necessarily mean internalizing.
As I grow up, it seems that there is a collective realization that adulthood is nothing like we imagined as children, and we feel somewhat motivated to make changes. There is a version of this kind of self-care that exists in the seams of social media, capitalizing off of this collective desire to be as carefree and untethered, unfiltered and easygoing. It teaches us to reconsider a work-dominant lifestyle; it teaches us to travel the world and explore; it teaches us to build out hobbies so we can continue to fuel our passions; it teaches us to be introspective as a means to build a better path for our future interpersonal relationships. But it also teaches us in a vacuum, never shedding light onto what this version could look like without a deep, deep dependency on financial stability and all that it's tied to. Absolving yourself of a work-dominant lifestyle can mean trading in a 9-5 for freelance work, but that suddenly means you’re technically on the clock all the time. Exploring the world not only requires a lot of money, but it probably means you need to be in a position where you hold a remote-friendly job. Hobbies are wonderful, but they’ve become grated to a version that only exists as the fun things you do to sandwich the time in which you’re exploited for your labor. Even building relationships and working on yourself becomes complicated, as you start to question where your motivations come from and what influences you’ve been consistently exposed to. Capitalism teaches us how to build our own graves and convinces us that we're actually in a spa.
A month into 2022 and the eve of the Lunar New Year, I’m so grateful to remember that I am a real person. I am not a company in the midst of some marketing campaign hoping to rebrand with pretty colors and a more modern, appealing-to-the-masses look. I am a person with desires, connected to a set of flows that do not reduce me to a character in a TV show but instead honor my dynamism and fluidity as I live under capitalism. I am a real person that is thankful to recognize that the very factors that are contributing to violently shutting down Xiao Helen are the very ones I am combating today.
And so one year later and twenty-something pages away from finishing Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, I can so confidently say that it has changed everything. Like the outro to a cheesy, cliché coming-of-age movie, their words have stuck with me in the most visceral of ways. Cue the indie-pop music that fades out as the montage of blurry pictures flurries by, but instead it’s a new framework that makes life all the more interesting and worthwhile. They write, “Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolution out of desire, not duty”. Revolution is not just about the Struggle™, but about desire, love, and a kind of action that can only come from agency. They continue, “To confess, to whine, to complain, to commiserate, always demands a toll. To sing it doesn’t cost you a penny. Not only does it cost nothing—you actually enrich others instead of infecting them.” They remind me so delicately that I hold an incredible power in myself, and to only view myself as Xiao Helen, In-The-Middle Helen, and In-The-Present Helen as three categorical, flattened versions of myself is the biggest violence I could self-inflict.
Yes, Xiao Helen deserves the world, but in reality, Xiao Helen is a bait. She is 4-year-old Helen wandering the streets of Suzhou with her grandfather just as much as she is 17-year-old Helen anxiously awaiting her first day of college. She is 23-year-old Helen pondering just what life will become in the middle of a global pandemic, but also Yesterday Helen. Xiao Helen is not what is written in my Twitter or Instagram bio, or the introduction I always give during corporate ice breakers. I am a real person with revolutionary desires, and I am always changing, always absorbing. Xiao Helen is a desiring-machine, and machines break down all the time. But then they can redirect, try again, become something else, take a long break. They can build and distort and sing and push and pull and pause and persevere.
As Deleuze and Guattari say, “Desire is in itself not a desire to love, but a force to love, a virtue that gives and produces, that engineers.” Xiao Helen is a fucking force, and I hope you can look at Xiao you & remember that you are too.