the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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irregular features
Ask Lena: Reader Questions Answered
Anatomy of an Outfit
Bad Feminist Confessions
Freelance Friday: Career Advice for Young Writers
Hate Mail
Gratuitous Photos Of My Bulldog
Notes & Snapshots from Abroad
Recent Tweets @lenachen

It still feels like 2013 never really started. That’s probably a sign that I am still fucked up. Five months into the supposedly new year, the year my life is supposed to begin anew or something like that, and I have been living in standstill since I don’t even know when.

Berlin is lovely and depending on who you ask, I have been waiting weeks, months, years to be here. Moving countries wasn’t a mistake, yet I can’t shake this persistent feeling that I have arrived too late to a party thrown in my honor. The perfectionistic side of me will not relent. She says I would have been finished writing my book by now if only I’d found the guts to leave Boston a year ago.

(And there is that lie I keep telling, about wanting to live in Berlin the utopia, the most interesting place on Earth, when really, I just didn’t want to live in America anymore.)

Sometimes, I think it’s my cowardice that is to be blamed for what happened last year. Then I think, is it cowardice to not want to save myself or is it really more akin to a death wish, a kind of suicide? Either way, I let it happen. Fair-weathered friends. Manufactured scandal. Your judgment. My fears. I always just let these things happen.


I worry about little things. I worry about big things too. It’s hard to figure out what is worth remembering and worrying over, so I try not to remember or worry much at all. This makes me feel more at peace, though not necessarily happy.

For example, I don’t remember what I did for New Year’s. Or rather, I can’t so I don’t try, because if I can’t remember, then there must be a good reason why. I can’t recall much of last year. There are vague outlines, sketches of people, and a voice or a laugh, but I don’t care to concentrate on the details. I know that this is a sign I need to slow down or “take care of myself” or eatpraylove, whatever the prescription. But I’ve known this for a year now, and even though it defies logic, I feel like I can’t be held responsible, like someone should stop me. (From what? I’m not sure.)

And anyway, nobody stops me. So instead, I keep dream diaries and little logs of my days that read “Weekend visit from X” and “Flea market with Y”. Punched into an iPhone. Scrawled onto used dinner napkins. This way, I will remember.

I abandoned journaling five years ago, abandoned it without a second thought, and I still can’t relearn the habit. I think I believed it was the only way to save myself. The irony of it all.

How do you explain a breakdown that you are not sure will ever end? You don’t. Or you do, but you fail to capture the intoxicating feel of it, the bliss in the free-fall,  the willing capitulation to a force that you are not sure you understand, a force that should terrify you all the more because it is yourself after all that escapes comprehension.


For a long time, I loved who I wanted to be more than I loved myself. (No secret that achievement comes naturally to those who have something to prove.) There is still no forgiveness here, but at least I know there’s something to forgive, someone waiting for answers.

A twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of a bomb. He wasn’t alone; a hundred and seventy-six people were injured and three were killed. But he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units. He was the one whose belongings were carried out in paper bags as his neighbors watched; whose roommate, also a student, was questioned for five hours (“I was scared”) before coming out to say that he didn’t think his friend was someone who’d plant a bomb—that he was a nice guy who liked sports. “Let me go to school, dude,” the roommate said later in the day, covering his face with his hands and almost crying, as a Fox News producer followed him and asked him, again and again, if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer.

Terrorism is as much what we inflict upon others as it is what is inflicted upon us.

I couldn’t get out of Boston soon enough when I was in the midst of leaving the country in January. I wanted nothing to do with the city any longer, and I felt like there was nothing left for me there. But of course there’s something I left behind, or I wouldn’t be this upset, this much of a wreck that I interrupted a family dinner to shove a smart phone in my boyfriend’s face.

Surprisingly right now, I actually miss Boston. I even wish I were there. I feel something I didn’t think I was capable of feeling anymore. Homesickness. Powerlessness. I don’t know, but I feel something and that is more than what I can say for most days. I called the first friend I could think of in Boston, and the number was busy because every number in town is busy, and then I called my best friend, a native Bostonian, who now lives in New York. And I guess there is, after all, something I’ve left behind.

The only thing I want at the moment is to be able to see and hold my friends, to sit in my old apartment (now occupied by strangers), to be on that street I took for granted. We went every year to the marathon. We’ve waited at that finish line, me and the dog. Our apartment was two blocks away. Patrick has even run that race, back in 2008. I’ve passed that intersection hundreds of times over the course of the past few years, so many times that by the end, I didn’t even really register it anymore, because that’s how numb I was to it all. That’s how shut down I was in January. But I don’t feel numb anymore. I feel something, that’s for sure. I feel something.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
I wanted to let you know that your blog has been a great source of comfort to me, though I've only popped in from time to time in the last few years. I was also socially ostracized in college (on a much smaller scale) when I was unhappy. Since then, I've felt that I'll never regain the confidence that I'd need to pursue my ambition of becoming an academic, a belief that my ideas could matter. Your passion and courage are so inspiring. They make me think I could be stronger, too.
lenachen lenachen Said:

I think you’ve already demonstrated your strength by sharing this story (which I have been terribly tardy in responding to - my apologies). Hopefully, in writing me this message, you can recognize that the people who ostracized you were wrong in their actions and especially in their opinion. Your ideas DO matter. This note mattered to me, and I’m sure it will matter to someone else who is reading.

I have been told many times that my work and writing are passionate and courageous, but if I am brave, it is only because I am continually humbled and inspired by others who have overcome far more adversity and emerged even kinder and more loving than before. There are so many people I have had the privilege of knowing (both online and in real life) who have shared similar stories of exile and rebirth. And these are mostly regular people - not sex bloggers or hardcore activists or folks who are even necessarily political. Sometimes, all it takes to be made fun of is to be poor, disabled, a person of color, a survivor of sexual/psychological trauma, queer, gender non-conforming,  or just plain weird or “crazy” by typical standards of society.

The thing is, most of us are weird, most of us are born with both privileges and handicaps, most of us spend our lives trying to make sense of the suffering we witness or endure in the world, but few of us manage to avoid inflicting suffering upon others, few of us manage to ease the suffering of others. As Albert Camus noted, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” And it’s precisely because I know how difficult it is to live in this society (no matter what position you might occupy in life) that I have tried to share a bit of my experience. Honesty and open-heartedness and empathy are some of the few tools at our disposal. Writing is simply my way of wielding these tools. I am certain that you will discover the right ones for yourself.

In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I’ve been harping on this organization for years, but it hasn’t exactly made me popular among my gay friends. Here’s why this incident (in which a HRC staffer tries to silence a trans activist) doesn’t surprise me in the least:

1. The HRC is first and foremost a political action committee, which means that they want and have always prioritized broad mainstream support, both financially and politically.

2. They have historically excluded, minimized, or simply ignored trans people (as well as other marginalized queer folks) in their agenda and have shown many times over that they have no qualms about abandoning equality for all in favor of equality for some.

3. Its leadership consists almost exclusively of privileged and white gay men. Its corporate partners are led almost exclusively by privileged and white (though not necessarily gay) men. Despite historic criticism of the organization’s lack of diversity, nothing has changed in the last decade. Because the HRC is not interested in anything changing.

4. I know from personal experience that they do not train their staff or volunteers on sensitivity toward trans issues even after all the controversy post-ENDA.

5. The HRC will negotiate with the Devil and sell out just about anyone if it fits their schemes. Would you trust a group like that with your social security benefits? You shouldn’t.

The organization has demonstrated time and time again that it feels no accountability toward major segments of their supposed constituency (trans or young or poor or non-white), so I find it fully plausible that this incident occurred and that the HRC is trying to cover its ass rather than admit that the largest lobbying organization for LGBT rights in the country is really more concerned about staying in power than actually challenging the power structures that currently exist.

In conclusion, you will not find an equal sign on my Facebook or anywhere else. I think it’s hypocritical and ignorant to allow the HRC to represent the entire American queer agenda, so long as the organization continues to devote the great majority of its manpower, influence, and money toward marriage equality alone - a goal which (long overdue may it be) frankly changes very little for the most marginalized and most ignored parts of the queer “community”.

I spontaneously threw up again last night, the culmination of a migraine that had been building up for the past few days. I don’t know what it is with my body.

I wasted away this fall, to the point where it became visibly noticeable. The worst of it was in August/September, when I dropped about ten pounds (approximately a tenth of my body weight) in a single month. It taken me a long time to recover. I guess my appetite went awry around the same time I got depressed and anxious and had a kind of breakdown.

After we left the East Coast in February for our California sojourn, I started experiencing food cravings again, but I also got nauseous whenever I consumed meat. I could barely eat any tacos, sushi, Chinese BBQ, all the things I associate with home. Patrick’s been vegetarian since he finished his dissertation (on food production) last May. But it wasn’t until California that I started doing the same. Like everything else that’s happened with my body, this is involuntary.

And then there are the sleeping issues, the weirdly intense dreams featuring people I thought I’d long forgotten. I wake up with aches and pains, despite the fact that I spend an hour or more stretching everyday. Sometimes, I get claustrophobic in bed. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t breathe properly. There were entire days I spent on the verge of tears this past fall. The last time it was like this, it was 2008 and I’d been humiliated in the most public fashion possible. I haven’t been humiliated this time around, but I’ve been deeply disappointed.

I stretch so much these days because I had to stop doing yoga regularly this fall. Then the last time I attempted it (in New York City in early February), I fainted half an hour into the class. That’s never happened to me before in all the time I’ve been practicing, and now I don’t feel like doing yoga again, which I know is stupid.

I think I know what this is all about, but if I don’t know how to express it, how to be honest about it, not just to myself and to Patrick but to the other people in my life, then how am I supposed to gain back everything I’ve lost, both physically and emotionally?

I wish I felt like there were something in America for me to return to. But I don’t - not at this moment. I feel like I’ve done everything I can over the past few years to help the people in my life become better versions of themselves. I feel like I can’t care about anyone the same way anymore. I don’t miss my friends the way I thought I would. I don’t miss my life or my work or my old apartment. I don’t miss who I was either. That’s the thing I miss least.

I’m not angry, not anymore. And I’m not without hope either. But I do feel blank, like there isn’t much I left behind.

I think I miss having expectations of people, having ideas of who they would become, having hopes and dreams about a common future. I don’t know what my future holds anymore, but I feel like I can’t wait for the past. I feel like I’ve been waiting and waiting for something or someone to change. And the only thing I can change is myself.

The choice to follow love through to its completion is the choice to seek completion within ourselves. The point at which we shut down on others is the point at which we shut down on life. We heal as we heal others, and we heal others by extending our perceptions past their weaknesses. Until we have seen someone’s darkness, we don’t really know who that person is. Until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is. Forgiving others is the only way to forgive ourselves, and forgiveness is our greatest need.
Marianne Williamson (via humanflower)

(via guerrillamamamedicine)

Asker Anonymous Asks:
I feel silly writing this, but here goes. Several years ago, we had a soc class together; we were in the same section (with Patrick as TF). I'd heard of your blog and read a little of it; I judged you. Today, something reminded me of all that and I thought I'd check it out. I read about your depression and I felt normal and unashamed for the first time in 3 years. I couldn't believe it. I was inspired. To be healthier. To work harder (or at all, again). Thank you. :)
lenachen lenachen Said:

Don’t feel silly - this note made me feel better about a lot of things (both past and present), so I’m glad you wrote it even though I have no idea who this is.

We’re all guilty of judging other people, and what I’ve come to realize since I left college is that more often than not, we are really just judging ourselves. Cruelty to others is too commonly a manifestation of self-hatred. Maybe that’s why I’m able to take criticisms less personally and treat strangers more kindly these days. I actually like myself and I want everyone else to like themselves too.

(And it does help to be reminded that there are those who once judged a younger me and who have since reconsidered their original opinion.)

So, thank you for your honesty. I’m glad that reading about my depression made you feel less alone. I’m sure that your message has made someone out there feel less alone as well.

Left Williamsburg shortly after 4pm.

Puked on myself/the luggage/cab en route to the airport.

Got on flight around 7pm. Plane taxied for 45 minutes.

7+ hours later … disembarked to snow and below freezing wind chill.

Maneuvered luggage to train station. Waited an hour, got on, transferred to another train, got off.

Got picked up.

Ate breakfast.

Still smell like puke as of this post. (It’s a little after 2pm in Germany).

So I guess my “leaving home” or “leaving the continent” was not nearly as triumphant an endeavor as originally envisioned.

Given the completely last-minute and disastrous nature of my first visit to Germany, I really shouldn’t be surprised that this is how my new life starts.