Categories
Cultural Miasma

Unequal Footing

by Lila Templin | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

Navigating Oberlin’s latent culture of wealth.


I was nine when I was first thrown into the world of wealth—and realized I didn’t belong. I had a playdate with a classmate, a pushy, awkward girl who evened out my quiet, introverted qualities. We spent recesses drawing Warrior Cats with crayons or sitting very still to try and see one of the rabbits that lurked on the edges of school grounds. When she’d suggested the playdate, she insisted I come to her house, and since she was the pushy one, I obliged. She lived in the hills of western Massachusetts, and my mom had to drive me over an hour through the woods until we finally found her mile-long private driveway. As her house slowly rolled into view, I thought I was looking at a statue or moder art piece instead of a home. “Jesus,” my mom whispered as she put the car in park.

It was the true kind of modern mansion—the kind that didn’t look like a mansion at all. Only two stories tall but wide and sprawling, with glass walls and a roof that only slanted one way, like a very expensive mistake. I thought it was ugly, but I was also keenly aware of its difference from my house, or any other house I had ever seen. I could sense, quickly, that this difference was deeper than just the architecture. 

My friend came out to greet me and bring me inside. She had the attic all to herself. The basement was her playroom, but she also took over the home theater when she wanted to. She owned more Barbies, DVDs, and makeup kits from Claire’s than I could ever fathom one person possessing. When she asked if I wanted a snack, she called for a maid (who had been lurking just out of sight) to make us mac and cheese. I felt small, sitting at the island in the middle of the incredibly expansive kitchen that bled into the living room, dining room, and office. My stool was too tall, my shoes dangling feet above the floor. Suddenly, my friend didn’t seem the way she had at school—at school we were equals, given the same desks and books and toys, the same space to play and work in. School had been a neutral place where I always felt we were on the same footing. Here, she towered above me. I was desperate to run back to my mom’s beat-up minivan by the end of the afternoon. 

“It should’ve been fun,” I explained. “But it was just weird.”

“Maybe she can come to our house next time?” My mom suggested.

“Yeah,” I said, even though I knew that would be worse— I would never want her to be able to compare her life to mine the way I just had, and realize how far below her I was. 

Instead, I continued going to her house. Neither of us had many friends, and I kept giving in to her requests. There were countless weekends my mom drove me through the mountains to the cold and unforgiving house in the woods—but no matter how many times I stepped inside, I was always daunted by the cold tile and vast emptiness. I could never make myself big enough to match the space.

We lost touch when we went to different middle schools. She went on to boarding school, and I went to my county’s performing arts charter. True to the arts, it was a school full of passionate and inspired people that was barely scraping by each year. It accepted students from over 30 towns and there were no requirements for admission, so even though we had a performing arts curriculum, many of the students were just trying to avoid their districts’ public schools. Almost all of the student body were middle class or low-income, so even though I worked all through high school, drove a car that was older than I was, and had to thrift my prom outfits, I still felt I was one of the more privileged students. After all, I was one of the seniors who was expected to go to college, even a private one—even, through a miracle of financial aid, a school as expensive as Oberlin. 

***

Oberlin, like elementary school, was supposed to be a neutral space. We were all given the same dorms, classes, food—equal footing. This, of course, was a farce, but I wouldn’t realize it at first. Everything and everyone at Oberlin looked cheap, but was apparently worth quite a lot. I already knew the things—the dinged-up dorm rooms, the classroom chairs with sinking bottoms, the rubbery dining hall meals—had to be expensive, because I saw the bill for them. Slowly, I realized that the people were worth quite a lot, too. Oberlin students were obsessed with looking thrifted, gave themselves messy haircuts, wore shoes with tearing soles, and of course lectured at any given chance about the importance of redistributing wealth. But while presenting themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, as cheap, their wealth was impossible to hide.

In my first month I was eating lunch in the center of campus with a new acquaintance. It was one of those “testing the waters” moments that define the beginning of college. We both smiled too much and made safe jokes, unsure of who we really were or if we would like each other in a week. About halfway through my salad, as we talked about how we were liking Oberlin, I joked, “Thank God for financial aid.” It was a phrase I threw around so often at home, with my family and friends. My lunch-mate gave a forced chuckle—clearly the joke did not land. But instead of moving on from it, they paused, taking on a very solemn expression.

“I… actually have to tell you something,” they said. “I’m not on financial aid. It just felt wrong to laugh about it.” 

They said it with seriousness, and a nervous edge in their voice, as if they were coming out to me and unsure how I’d respond, as if they were revealing some deep and shameful part of themselves. But I was the one who burned with sudden embarrassment. 

“Oh yeah, haha,” I laughed, desperately trying to return to the light atmosphere we had been so carefully curating just moments before. I almost wanted to say, “Me neither!” just to put an end to the moment, but of course I couldn’t. My cheeks flamed, and I checked over my shoulders, both to avoid eye contact and to see if anyone else had seen my humiliation. They mercifully brought up a new topic, and the lunch continued until we both finished our meals and promptly left. I knew we would not become friends. I was careful who I brought up financial aid to after that. 

While direct displays of wealth like that one were not rare, what was worse were the much more frequent occasions when the gap in wealth was addressed more subtly. The girls in my dorm who ordered entirely new spring wardrobes, abandoning their old ones to the free store. The times people told me about the trips they had taken the summer before college, to which I had to tell them I had worked the summer in a sweltering deli with no air conditioning. The people who had brand-new cars, which had been “college gifts” (wasn’t college itself supposed to be the gift?). The time I was put in a five-person English class discussion group where every other student bonded over having gone to boarding school—I obviously had nothing to contribute to the conversation. These incidents were all followed by displays of performative poverty—showing off a funny trinket they had bought at Goodwill, or joking about being a starving artist after graduation. I felt insane listening to two friends debate which form of communism was superior in the living room of a party. I wanted to scream. “I know for a fact you both have trust funds! What are you talking about!” Instead I went to get another drink. 

When it mattered, they didn’t hesitate to use their money: when it came time to buy books for classes, while I scoured the internet for resells; when there was a vintage jacket they just had to spring for; when they wanted to go abroad for Winter Term with no funding. Then, there was suddenly no issue in dipping into that wealth. There were times I was genuinely left out of things, unable to afford a show, get a plane ticket, order an expensive dinner. I felt I had no way to explain this to them without overwhelming embarrassment. To address this fundamental difference between us would be to shatter the illusion that we were equals—after all, we were at the same school, in the same dorms, the same clubs and classes. Oberlin was the same kind of neutral space elementary school had been so long before. The last time I was forced to address the inherent difference between me and my rich peer in the hideous modern mansion, my friendship had never truly recovered. I didn’t want to risk that again.

I discussed all of this with my friends from high school who were now on financial aid at other private colleges—Middlebury, Pomona, Yale.  “It’s so weird,” one of them said when we met for coffee over Thanksgiving break. “It’s like walking through a sea of Canada Goose and Prada.”

I agreed, even though Oberlin wasn’t like that at all. So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. Everything looked so familiar, which made it even harder to realize that I was, in fact, intrinsically different from those around me. I almost wished that they did wear their money with pride instead of trying to hide it. The former was upfront—the latter felt almost like a cruel trick. 

So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. 

But to complain about it felt privileged and tone-deaf. After all, I was not, by any margin, poor. I had been so lucky to grow up in my lovely little house with my amazing parents who paid for dance lessons and occasional big vacations. I was aware of the financial toll that an unexpected medical issue would take, but never worried where I’d find my next meal. If the Oberlin experience was difficult for me, I couldn’t imagine how it would be for a person below the poverty line. To weep as if my life was so hard because my family wasn’t well-off enough made me no better than the other well-off students who performed poverty. Still, insecurity slowly bubbled up in me over the course of a semester, and I couldn’t rationalize it away. 

***

“It’s not that I feel out of place,” I told my mom over the phone—my mom, who was spending such an unbelievable amount of money, even after financial aid, to help pay for my tuition. My mom, who had always told me I would go to college, and that I would love it there. Who hadn’t gotten the chance to go to a school like Oberlin, and had once told me how jealous she was that I got the small liberal arts experience she’d missed. How could I possibly complain to her about this? I finished the sentence, “It’s just weird sometimes.”

That phone call was in the winter of my first year. Within a few months, the supposedly neutral space of Oberlin’s campus was suddenly gone—COVID-19 forced these simmering insecurities into stark light. I once again felt like I had left the playground and was staring at the huge emptiness of my friend’s modern mansion.

It was immediate and obvious, even through a screen. People who were electing to rent Airbnbs with their friends, or whose families were moving to their second homes. The girl who apologized in a Zoom class because she was outside at her family’s beach house, and you could hear the waves in the background. Safety was also, suddenly, very physical, almost tangible. There were people who could afford to stay quarantined, and those who could not. I, along with many of my friends back home, started looking for jobs once it became clear we were not heading back to campus. Some of my Oberlin friends who I mentioned this to said I was being so brave, and that they would never work in-person with these conditions. I had always had a job—I was not being brave, I was just avoiding the pit of guilt in the bottom of my stomach that grew the longer I went without having one. 

I don’t need to explain and don’t want to dwell on how brutal quarantine was. I moved through the end of the spring in a haze, bombing several of my classes. I was miserable with myself and my work, culminating in a full day of sobbing when my final transcript was released. I was wasting the college’s money, my parents’ money, my future self’s money, only to perform like this? I quite literally couldn’t afford to do any worse—we wouldn’t be able to budget an extra semester. 

The summer, like the spring, was a timeless blur, and then, by some miracle of coronavirus safety, I was back in Oberlin in the fall. I podded with my close friends, so I interacted much less with others. Additionally, many richer students hadn’t even bothered coming back for this semester—they were able to find other, better, more expensive options. I did my strange three months of a semester and returned to Massachusetts. I immediately moved out to Boston to find a better job (I ended up being a barista) and to be in a city with better public transportation (since my high school car was long gone). It was a new place where I wasn’t expecting my insecurities to follow me.

Of course, that was naive. I talked to a few other Oberlin students living in apartments and quickly realized—due to their complaints of having too much free time, and the neighborhoods they ended up in—that their parents were paying their rent. Mine never would have offered, and I never would have asked. As I started working, I became jealous. I knew my parents would always be there for me, but I almost wished they would coddle me in this way. Work was hard, and unlike my working friends who were doing it for pocket money, my paychecks were immediately eaten by food and rent. I knew this would be my future, too, while those who were living off of their parents’ money (without having to live in their homes) would continue to do so as well. They would be able to get unpaid internships and move to big cities out of college. It would undeniably lead to different job opportunities, meeting more important people. Their whole lives were shaped by wealth. For the first time, I truly started resenting that mine wasn’t. 

Boston was where the gap between me and my rich friends was the most pronounced. I tried making plans with an old acquaintance who was also attending a private college and on leave in Boston. We decided on coffee. When I asked where, so I could find a bus route, she offered to drive me. 

“I’m fine on the bus,” I insisted. When she didn’t respond I added, as if to prove it to her, “I like it. Gives me time to read.” 

“But why take it if you don’t have to?” 

I was at a loss, for a second. I knew that her car was the better option—it was faster and safer and meant less work for me—but the bus was mine. It was what I took every day, and having it dismissed as such an obvious inconvenience unexpectedly stung. 

“No, I wouldn’t want to make you do that,” I finally said.

She paused before saying, “It would actually make me more comfortable. I just think it would be safer.”

I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that I took the bus almost everyday. That I worked in a café. That I was never going to be up to her standards. Before, I hadn’t been able to afford to meet my rich friends’ criteria for social activities or trips—now I couldn’t meet their criteria for safety.

Instead I just said, “Oh yeah, of course. Thanks.” We never followed through on coffee—maybe because she put together the pieces and realized that I was always going to be a danger. While the barrier between me and my rich peers had once felt unspoken, it was suddenly physical. I was not able to see them, because I could not live like them. I had always felt a bit out of place, but now I felt truly dejected.

***

I love Oberlin, in spite of and because of its weird rich arts students who want to play at going against the grain. I deeply love the friends I’ve made, the classes I’ve taken, and the experiences I’ve had. But the longer I’ve been there, the more out of place I’ve felt. I arrived as a first-year feeling as if I’d found my new home, and then slowly realized that I did not fit in with my new “family.” It’s as if there’s some piece they all have that I’m missing, and won’t ever be able to find. Of course, that piece is money, the culture of wealth. If I hadn’t realized this at Oberlin, I would’ve realized it later, as I entered the job field, as I started looking for a house, as I had children. But to enter Oberlin assuming I was on the same footing as my peers, and have that illusion slowly peeled away, was an especially jarring experience. 

As a kid I was able to overlook the differences between me and my rich classmates. The older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s been to deny, even when I want to. Now, still, I don’t want to address it for fear of seeming rude, lesser, or self-absorbed. But all it’s done is create resentment. I don’t want to be sour towards my peers. I don’t want to wish my parents could give me more. To say so is juvenile. I always thought of college as the transitional space between being a kid and being an adult—and what is more fitting for this transition than facing hard truths? The facade of a neutral space—the playground, the classroom, the campus—has faded. Still, sometimes, I childishly wish I could see it again.   

Categories
Cultural Miasma

Camp Magic

by Hannah Tishkoff | Cultural Miasma | Fall 2018

Images by Laurel Moore

Huddled in the only dry patch of the shelter, every clap of thunder is met with a predictable round of squealing from my campers. The high pitch that emanates from their pre-pubescent vocal cords finds a way beyond the birch trees and dissipates into the vast emptiness of this Vermont night. I hold them—not maternally—but as one of their own. A dozen little arms wrapped around my shoulders, grabbing for the comfort of my hands, looking for solace in my eyes.

For the next four days my co-counselor and I are the sole guardians of six seventh-grade girls on a camping trip. The theme of our trip is outdoor living skills, which we know very little about. They quiz me on the “lightning position” which is supposed to keep you safe in a storm, and I fumble my words. When the storm subsides I try to build the campfire I know will aid in marshmallow roasting and the sharing of secrets, but I fail every time. Tending to the fire for too long, my face burning red, my eyes growing blood-shot, my campers tell me that I should take a break. I acquiesce, blaming the failed fire on the dampness from the storm.

The next night I achieve a small flame, but it goes out quickly. They have no idea what the fire means to me. They think I am somewhere between 25 and 45 years old, and I’ve just informed them that no, porn and blow jobs are not the same thing, but yes, there is some overlap. Their presence evokes a flood of my own memories from seventh grade, and I smile, grateful to realize the distance between then and now. At night, finally alone in my own tent, I write in my journal: overfl owing with love for my campers. so special to be privy to their emerging selves, a world few adults are ever granted access to… and having just come out the other side myself not too long ago, the arc of that is so beautiful. They’re about to know everything, but not yet. The convergence of our different levels of knowing… it reminds me of what is important and how I came to know that. Although I only have a handful more years of life than they do, I am their protector during this brief encounter with the wilderness. It is an almost laughable amount of responsibility, and they could not be more oblivious to my ineptitude.

The eight consecutive summers I spent at sleepaway camp comprise some of my most sacred childhood memories. Camp showed me how food grows from the ground, taught me self sufficiency through simple living, and gave me a world where I could discover myself far away from my parents. I believe there is something magical and almost supernaturally special about summer camp, but I was hesitant to cross the divide between camper and counselor. I feared that if I saw behind the curtain and learned how the magic trick was done, I wouldn’t believe in it anymore. When the time came for me to decide if I would become a counselor, it felt important for me to keep the memories of my own camp world separate, and so I chose not to return. Instead, I drove east to Plymouth, Vermont to begin my job at a summer camp called Farm & Wilderness.

The work that counselors performed to cultivate the salience of camp was invisible to me when I was a camper, but during the one month of training prior to the arrival of children, our goal of the summer was made clear: to create camp magic. Naming “camp magic” transformed what I had passively consumed as a kid into something I would have to manufacture as an adult. To me, camp magic encompasses the almost inarticulable experiences that make summer camp—for campers and counselors alike—feel totally exceptional and unique from the rest of the world. Every moment of camp is treated with such reverence, from morning sing at the start of each day to to the teary eyed affirmations of growth presented to each camper before they head home. The extraordinary experiences camp staff are required to provide are complicated, however, by being supposedly authentic yet totally obligatory. For all its virtues, camp is also a product paid for by parents with a certain set of expectations. As the same kids return year after year, staff must find ways to reinvigorate the magic of camp for returners while indoctrinating new campers to its strange culture. The work of the camp counselor is therefore a delicate balance between serving the spiritual needs of children and engaging in a willful performance to maintain the purposefully manufactured world of camp. Nonetheless, waking kids up to pumpkin pie in bed and allowing them to wrestle in pits of mud is priceless and powerfully influential.

To think about summer camp, I first have to think about the powerful fictions it is predicated upon, and how inextricable the origins of North American summer camps are from my own experiences. The traditional summer camps featured in movies like The Parent Trap or Wet Hot American Summer, were created by social reformers in the early 20th century as a nature themed response to rapid industrialization. The free and feral childhood of yore was thought to be under threat by the shift from a natural, agrarian living to a more mechanized, industrial way of life in the cities. Summer camps like Farm & Wilderness and the one I attended in California emerged in the 1930s to provide children with supposedly authentic encounters with pre-industrialized country living. While the intentions are earnest, they remain deeply rooted in distorted conceptions of wilderness and childhood—both strategic inventions created to assure a nostalgia for something lost while eliminating the possibility of ever restoring the real thing. The traditional folk crafts, cabin architecture, farm animals, and lack of technology that define camp culture are therefore conspicuously and intentionally anti-modern. Camp seeks to turn back the clocks of time, to return to a fantasy of free play in pastoral landscapes, unencumbered by machinery. (The motivation to provide this supposedly natural landscape is also mimicked in America’s creation of national parks to provide sites of consumable wilderness.) Farm & Wilderness’ historic appropriation of Native American culture, which renders the symbols of native people into mere signifiers of a bygone primitive past, also finds its origins in this context. Although F&W has adjusted over the years to changing times, echoes of this history are ever-present in camp ideology and culture.

The motto of Farm & Wilderness is “Work is Love Made Visible,” a quote from poet Khalil Gibran. Throughout the summer, when campers complained about washing dishes or cleaning their cabins, a stern look and recitation of this motto was a failsafe way to ensure work was being done with intention rather than resentment. Part of what I believe makes camp so meaningful for kids, including myself, is its emphasis on the moral lessons incurred through labor. The vast majority of F&W’s campers whose parents dish out a couple grand each summer for camp are financially privileged, and often hail from cities like New York and Boston. Although campers are hesitant at first, the communal dishwashing and the empowerment of chopping firewood imbibes them with a sense of purpose that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. The notion that the strenuous life is the path to a meaningful life reigns supreme. Yet camp can’t be too strenuous or children would complain to their parents, or not return. This is one of the central tensions of camp life; the survival skills are more symbolic than practical. Yet the symbolism of outdoorsy skills like fire building, wood working and backpacking have their own tangible weight in reality. For the contemporary camper, the meaning of “survival” becomes more about spiritual or moral survival against the backdrop of modernity than the logistics of making it through the winter. For all its comfort and convenience, modernity lacks in spiritual fulfillment, and summer camp was born to make up for this loss.

Throughout the summer I became increasingly aware of these tensions, and I am trying now to understand how summer camp’s romanticization of rural life remains both so restorative and unsettling for me. The project of Farm & Wilderness, and camp in general, involves intentionally distorting space and time in order to construct an alternative atmosphere of adolescent bliss. Although F&W is near a number of small towns, campers imagine themselves to be situated in a wide open pastoral playground, isolated from any form of civilization. Despite knowing this during the three months I spent working at camp, I felt that I too was living in a separate universe. Staff park their cars a mile up the road, rendering our nightly escape vehicles invisible. Taking a day off is coded as “going to the disco,” which younger campers are told is located through a trap door beneath the dock of the lake. Older kids perpetuate this myth, exaggerating the unlikely extravagences of the disco to the wide eyes of the nine-year-old campers. While kids exchange their iPhones for postcards and recorded music for acoustic sing alongs to the Indigo Girls, counselors secretly leave at night to blast pop music and sip drinks at the local bar. In these moments I felt the space between my childhood myths and the reality of my adulthood most intensely. As a camp counselor, I grappled with the actual loss of my childhood while participating in its imagined recovery. 

“Camp time,” a phrase thrown around during the summer, describes the sometimes refreshing, often disorienting disconnect between the temporality of camp and the rest of the world. Sometimes I’d wonder what what kind of national news would be big enough for me to have to tell the kids. Otherwise, we lived a life of feigned preindustrial simplicity, free of alarm clocks and recorded music. Ephemerality is the nature of camp, and it’s part of what makes it so magical. The whole operation has to be precise enough to pull off life changing experiences in a matter of weeks. During each three-week camp session, I watched children cherish their time with a unique intensity, fearing the end as soon as it had begun. Yet even returning campers from forty years past remarked on F&W’s timelessness, how everything was exactly as they remembered. Camp’s intensity is fueled by its simultaneous time sensitivity and timelessness. The days which became months unfurled almost secretly like the approach of spring, but they were some of the longest I had ever known. Like in any enclosed community, the regular dramas, disappointments, and achievements, any of which could happen in a matter of hours, felt monumental. A day that began at 7:30 AM could easily involve the unanticipated evacuation of an asthmatic camper from a backpacking trip, followed by an ocean-themed banquet for the youngest campers, accompanied by an original rewrite of the lyrics to “Under the Sea.”

The peculiarity of the camp experience resonates long after I left behind behind the mildewy cabins of Farm & Wilderness and readjusted to the comforts of indoor plumbing. What I had perceived to be an organic child-run sanctuary was in fact a highly mediated, studied performance. Yet the realization of this didn’t make it any less special. Adulthood is about letting go and taking hold at the same time; loving the magic trick in spite of knowing exactly how it’s done. The biggest myth of all is that magic and wonderment are novelties reserved for children, that we have to give all that up when we pass the age of camp. As a counselor my job was simply to help my campers realize how much they already knew, while allowing them to help me remember what I was beginning to forget. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated wilderness, just as there is no such thing as a free and feral childhood.

Sitting under the stars on the last night of our camping trip, my campers and I take a moment to lie in the damp grass and absorb the balmy air. The thunderstorm is long gone by now, but my campers still cling on to my arms. Now the object of my campers’ fear has become much more amorphous. What kind of world would we return to now that we had shared this experience? We couldn’t know—but we lay in the grass to reminisce about what we did know. We were there to count the seconds between us and the stars, between who we were and who we might become. This is the magic of camp: to feel that you are in a world that is your own.

Categories
Cultural Miasma

After Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

by Wenna Chen | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Images by Brad Boboc

CONTENT WARNING: This piece involves content concerning sexual assault and suicide. please read with caution and care.


In high school, there was no merry celebration for the end of last period when the 5:00 PM bell rang and the teachers dropped their chalks. Mechanically stuffing books and question sets into their backpacks, two-thirds of my schoolmates proceeded to go to cram schools, where they paid private tutors to hammer knowledge into their brains. On top of the traditional high school curriculum, students in cram schools are expected to take intense courses that coach them to become nothing but test-taking machines. Cram schools blossomed first into a building, then two, then a whole block, and eventually settled down to an entire district. After ten hours of school, thousands of Taiwanese students crowded into the cramming districts, craving more force-fed knowledge that was somehow the golden ticket to attend top-notch universities.

Yi-Han Lin was one of the students whose backpack bore nothing but a dozen question set copies. She was the brightest among us all. With a perfect score on the college entrance exam, she was admitted to the best university in Taiwan for a Bachelor’s degree in pre-med. A few years later, her life took a detour when she decided to study Chinese literature. A few years after that, she stopped her life once and for all, leaving behind only an apologetic note. 

Lin’s life was once mine. We crossed the street in the same blue skirts that covered our knees and white uniforms that gave away the colors of our bras. We squeezed into buses with our packs of friends and giggled loudly, annoying the other passengers. And every night, we studied the mountains of books piled up in our rooms. But at some point, our lives started to stray. Lin took off before me and I’m left to wonder what went wrong. 

***

I can’t pull out what has been thrusted inside me.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Lin’s death would have been swallowed by the indifference of society had her beauty and rare talent failed to garner public admiration. With big brown eyes, round pink cheeks and a dimpled smile, she was the girl that made guys twist their necks when she walked by. Her life should have left its final footprint at a small column of the local newspaper and dissipated from public memory, but the only novel she managed to publish before the end changed everything. With Lin’s name on the cover, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise leaped to the top of the best-seller list in a heartbeat. Beneath its smooth pink cover lay a heartbreaking story tagged with Lin’s note: Based on a true story, for the girl who is still waiting for her angel and B. 

***

I don’t want people to read this book with the sentiment ‘Oh, thank god it’s not real.’ I don’t want them to leave their feelings behind and just move on with their lives.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Every drop of ink in the book was arranged with meticulous discretion. Lin wrote and tweaked until the exquisite metaphors, abandoning traditional syntax and grammatical governance, became something entirely her own. The story of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise centers around a girl named Fang Si-Qi whose life unraveled once the Li family moved into a lavish building in downtown Kaohsiung, the most flourishing city in southern Taiwan. When Guo-Hua Li, a renowned cram school teacher who specialized in Chinese literature, became thirteen-year-old Si-Qi’s new neighbor, he preyed on her innocence. Li was an experienced predator who knew how to exploit teenage girls under his care in the name of love. Si-Qi was thirteen the first time Li raped her, but she was eighteen the last time she woke up beside Li in a motel bed. During their last encounter, Li snapped a shot of Si-Qi’s nude body, which was the final tipping point for Si-Qi. In the end, she was left to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

Lin’s writing is compelling in the most repulsive way. She captivates her audience in the scenes of horror. She didn’t just want her audience to watch and register what happened, she wanted us to feel every scene and the pain that came with it. Because of that, this book was the most miserable reading experience in my life.

***

I am a malicious writer. My writing was never inspired by the noble hope to redeem anyone, not even to save myself. More than anything, I want every single one of you to feel Si-Qi’s pain, the pain that could destroy everyone on earth had they tasted a mere fraction of it.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Fiction or not, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise spoke for Lin when she gave up the chance to utter another word. The news of Lin’s suicide traveled at an unprecedented speed. Within a few hours, the whole of Taiwan woke up to talk about her death over breakfast. On the same day, Lin’s parents issued a statement through her publisher that sent the public over the edge: 

Dear friends,

Thank you for grieving with our loss. There are a few things we’d like to say:

The source of our daughter’s suffering, the nightmare that had haunted her for years, and the reason that her depression was never cured started with the sexual assault that took place in her life eight to nine years ago.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was the true and painful reflection of our daughter’s psyche after she was violated by a renowned cram school teacher.

What happened to the characters in the book—Si-Qi, Xiao-Qi, and Yi-Ting—all happened to our daughter. She structured the story that way to protect us and the family.

She wrote the book in hope of stopping similar tragedies from repeating themselves. We ask all parents, boys, girls, and men that know kindness, to protect the suffering Fang Si-Qis with tenderness and warmth.

Our daughter is gone. We would never be able to hear her call for Daddy and Mommy again, but we hope people can remember her by her smile.

Lastly, if you really feel sorry, please pass this message to everyone in Taiwan. Please buy this book and pass it to the parents and children that are in dire need of help and comfort. 

Bing-Huang Lin & Jia-Fang Lai, April 28, 2017 (Guerrilla Publishing)

Stunned by the revelation and poignant emotions in this message, thousands of Taiwanese people flocked to bookstores in search of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. The book skyrocketed up the best-seller list until there weren’t any available copies left for sale. While most of us awaited our copies, those who had dedicated an all-nighter to devour it were all asking the same questions: “Who did this to Yi-Han Lin?” “Who is Guo-Hua Li in real life?” “I know a Chinese literature cram school teacher whose taste in antique collection matches Li’s.” The society would do anything to satisfy its morbid curiosity. As snowballing rumors electrified the public sphere, people were pointing fingers at every suspicious figure that allegedly fit the description of Guo-Hua Li. This unusually polished letter had earned Lin’s parents country-wide empathy and indignation on top of an exuberant sales boost. If the message was furnished with the intent to manipulate public predilection or commercialize Lin’s death, the Lins had overachieved their goals. 

Most of us are vigilantly aware that public rumors, when stirred, become imbued with destructive force. But this case was a rare exception. Infected with profuse indignation, the online community shouldered the burden to answer justice’s calling; people began to tear Lin’s story apart, searching for traces of evidence that would point them to the perpetrator. In the frenzy, Kaohsiung city councilmen Yong-Da Xiao made a blatant statement that rocked the boat. 

In graduate school, Xiao had been an enthusiastic activist who pledged for political democracy in Taiwan along with the 6,000 students marching in the Wild Lily student movement. He then worked as a faculty member in multiple schools around the Kaohsiung area before founding the Kaohsiung Teachers Association and successfully running for three consecutive terms of councilmenship. Seated in the center of a conference room, Xiao combed through his manuscripts as the press settled down. The only poster on the wall behind him plainly read: “Expose faculty predators—there shall not be another Fang Si-Qi.” Swiftly extending his arm to test the microphone, Xiao began the announcement in unwavering composure and confidence: “According to my investigation, the offender is a Chinese literature teacher currently employed by Tong Xin cram school. His name is Kuo-Xing Chen.” In a split second, the room droning with frizzy movements withered into a graveyard of dead silence. Xiao refused to reveal the source of his investigation due to protective confidentiality, but he did not shy from further revealing himself. “I swear on my political career to expose this corrupted teacher. And I will not back off until he admits to what he has done.” 

Immediately, cram schools associated with the accused severed ties with Chen, cancelling all his classes and expelling him from employment. Kuo-Xing Chen’s daughter, an amateur model, was the next to pay the price while her father remained unresponsive to the accusation. Swarming to Tiffany Chen’s modeling fan page, people rained a gruesome attack on her and her family. Tiffany was forced to shut down the page full of hateful comments and lost her career to the gravity of collective speculation. 

At the heat of this rippling havoc, Readmoo, a virtual ebookstore, released a series of videos that documented their interview with Lin prior to her death. In a thin pink blouse that draped loosely over her chest, Lin rested her hands on her criss-crossed knees. She was alive. Light shimmered in her eyes as she unscrolled a note on her lap—this was the closest I could ever get to her. 

Chewing on every word carefully before spitting them out, Lin pieced her first sentence with meticulous precision: “After reading my book, many would conclude that this is a story about how a girl was exploited and raped. But that’s not entirely accurate. This story is about how a girl fell in love with her abuser.”

However, Lin had no intention to delve into sexual exploitation or rape. Instead, she gave the audience a literature review of her book. While the majority of her peers wandered into literature studies with anything but heartfelt passion, she enrolled because she was obsessed with it. “In high school, I was crazy about Eileen Chang’s work,” she said. “I could recite the whole set, from the very first word to the last, exactly as they are. My fixation scared me so much that I put Chang’s books away and started reading a bunch of translated literature to dilute her voice in my head.” 

After Lin was diagnosed with depression, she spent most of her time at home. During this time, she read hundreds of books that ranged from Tender Is The Night to A Personal Matter. At one point, her obsession for literature inadvertently blossomed into an admiration for writers. Enticed by their pen and talent, Lin trusted the masters behind those exquisite literary miracles to be equally astonishing in character. As a romantic, Lin fell the hardest when reality betrayed the trust she endowed in literary aesthetic and humanity. “For me, the most painful thing to watch in Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise is how easily Li, as a person who knew literature, exploited its aesthetic power and defied its legacy. He spoke love in so many ways, each of which mesmerizing, but he never meant any of them,” said Lin during the interview.

***

After his two-week silence in this scorching controversy, Chen finally launched a statement. In the belated letter, he painted a picture of himself that the public did not recognize. 

Dear friends, 

My name is Kuo-Xing Chen, not Kuo-Hua Li. I want to apologize to my family and everyone who has been following this incident. … With regard to Mr. and Mrs. Lin’s loss and grievance, I declined to come forward in the first place. However, as the situation grew out of control, I had to make my statement:

First of all, I did not go off the grid or attempt escape. I did not, as rumored, spend the time of my silence destroying evidence. I have been in Taipei the whole time, trying to cope with the gravity of public rumors. …

Second, I first met Ms. Lin when she became my student in February 2009. Our interaction was limited to class time. It wasn’t until August 2009—when she became a rising college freshman—that we engaged in a two-month relationship. During the affair, we were no longer faculty-student bound. Mr. and Mrs. Lin broke up the relationship upon notice. And my wife’s forgiveness marked the end of this affair. 

Third, as indicated in her interview, Ms. Lin had suffered from severe depression since the age of sixteen, the time in which we didn’t even know each other. …

Fourth, during her book primier conference, Ms. Lin clearly stated that she was not the main character in the book, disappointing everyone. […]

Chen expressed overt willingness to cooperate with the prosecution as this incident evolved from gossip to a criminal investigation. After pulling out communication records between involved parties and deciphering Lin’s encrypted online journal, the prosecution studied Lin’s past work while interrogating associated witnesses. Based off the evidence they managed to collect, the prosecution drew a conclusion that threw Taiwan into the height of inflammatory hysteria: Kuo-Xing Chen was acquitted from every charge. 

He walked free because the cram school record and witnesses indicated that Lin was over sixteen—the age to give legitimate consent—the first time they met. He walked free because two of Lin’s best friends testified that Lin had happily introduced Chen as her boyfriend on three separate occasions and had never mentioned being raped. He walked free because Lin had withdrawn from cram school in June and they had started texting the moment she ceased to be his student. He walked free because Lin was eighteen the first time they had sex on August 11, 2009. He walked free because hospital records showed that Lin had attempted her first suicide after her parents broke up. And even though Lin brought up “rape” and “being coerced” in her therapy session, he walked free because Lin also called this episode “a love affair.” The official verdict was a document that disassociated this case into a bundle of facts devoid of any emotion. At the end, it plainly recited, “Apart from the informer’s subjective speculation, there is a lack of conclusive evidence to establish that the accused was guilty of charge.” 

Chen did not walk away because the evidence wasn’t enough to prove him guilty in the realm of law: He walked free because he knew that modern justice left a grey area for those it failed to prove innocent. Rape is too narrowly defined by Taiwanese law; a man is labeled a rapist only if he violates a woman’s body against her will, but the authority couldn’t lay a finger on the man who played on a girl’s feelings just to get into her pants. Instead of leaving the case in an innocent man’s suit or a criminal’s jumper, Chen walked away as one who failed to qualify as either.

***

This case had haunted me for months since I shut Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise in a cold sweat. Twenty pages into the story and the pain within was already tearing me apart. Lin’s words, infiltrating the defensive rationale and suspicion I had as a reader, destroyed the barrier of mental energy I was willing to invest in reading someone else’s story. Her pen peeled off my skin and shoved me into the sea of intimate horror. I do not doubt that this story originated, at least in part, from her personal experience. 

The interviews with Lin’s best friend and publisher confirmed my dreadful intuition. On February 26th, 2016, Lin’s best friend, May, received the first draft of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. May recounted, “It was a 10,000-word manuscript. Yi-Han said she found her voice in writing and decided to start working on the piece she had been constructing for the past seven years.” Every week, Lin would send May another 10,000 words. May was Lin’s first audience and editor. “My reaction to the story was probably similar to the majority of others. It was an extremely uncomfortable reading experience and I was beyond disturbed by the pain packed within Yi-Han’s words. But at the same time, I felt strangely satisfied,” May continued. “As her friend, I was most worried about her mental state. She must have been suffering in conscious pain when she poured herself out on the paper. The way she wrote, she was self-inflicting at the same time.”

***

You couldn’t pull yourself to watch the nauseating details of rape in real life, but you are able to keep reading it in my book. Why? Because the pain satisfies the worst of your curiosity. It hurts, but at the same time, it brings you contentment. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you did it anyway.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Guerrilla Publishing was the least attractive among all the publishing companies that contacted Lin. They had a specific taste for topics excluded from the mainstream and were chronically understaffed. Even though many of their past publications received awards, Guerrilla Publishing remained a meaningless name to the majority of Taiwanese people. After the initial introduction to the manuscript, the head of Guerrilla Publishing, Pei-Yu Guo, declined to publish Lin’s book. “As a reader, I was impressed by her script. But as an editor and a publisher, I was afraid that I would cause Lin more harm when giving her feedback. My life experience was limited; I did not find it in myself the confidence to navigate what the characters in the book were experiencing.” 

An unofficial, part-time member of Guerrilla Publishing at that time, Nini Chang, was the only one who thought that it was a mistake to turn Lin down. Chang had never worked as an editor, but she had a strong feeling about Lin’s story. “I cried for two days when I looked up Yi-Han’s blog and read what’s on it. I was shocked to find out that her perspective on this world matched mine almost perfectly. It was as if she spoke for me. Our experience doesn’t necessarily overlap—I had never been that severely traumatized, nor had I actually been hospitalized—but I could take in the emotions in her story. And if I can, I want to protect her, or be her company in sailing through all this.”

At first, Lin was reluctant to review Chang’s offer from Guerrilla Publishing due to its trivial size and peculiar interest. But after several meetings, they agreed on a preliminary contract. Before entrusting her work to Guerrilla Publishing, Lin approached Chang with one lingering question. “If the press makes a fuss out of my work, would you, on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing, side with me?” The team promised to do so. A few months later, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was printed and finely wrapped for sale. 

Prior to launching the first edition of their hard work, Lin and her publishing team sat down to map out a story for any press complications, such as: what if the media draws a parallel between the story and Lin’s private life? In the interview with Lin’s editors, Guo recounted that Lin did not mind people knowing that the book derived from her personal experience. In fact, saying this out loud would be relieving for her. Lin’s only concern lay with her family. After a futile attempt to deter Lin from publishing Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise, Lin’s parents insisted against any confession to the press. Lin compromised. Guo said, “[Lin] was afraid that, once we went public about what happened to her, the consequent societal perception would cause her family more harm, so we had a consensus to tell everyone that the book was based on a friend’s experience.” People had their suspicions, but the story managed to contain public speculation until Lin’s suicide ignited the chaotic outbreak. 

Chang’s phone rang nonstop the morning Lin died. On the phone, Mr. Lin asked Chang to publish a statement on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing. “After an emergency meeting in the morning, we decided to issue an official statement through the company site. When Lin’s family, the people that she cared about the most, had asked for a voice, we wanted to help deliver a clear message and consolidate its credibility among rumors and aimless speculation,” Guo explained. But the weight of Lin’s life unsettled the team. In the days that followed, members of Guerrilla Publishing struggled in doubt as they interrogated themselves repeatedly: Have we kept our promise to side with her or did we do something wrong? 

They never knew the answers to those questions the same way I never found the answer to mine: How did things go so wrong so fast? 

***

Kuo-Xing Chen might not be made guilty by law, but public moral trial hung him relentlessly. He was reckless at best, cunningly corrupted at worst. And many, like me, found our moral compasses bent toward the abominable end of that spectrum. From the cell phone record, the prosecution uncovered that Chen had started texting Lin four days before she withdrew from cram school, four days before the legal boundary of faculty and student expired. Lin replied to his text two weeks later and they communicated extensively in the following months until the relationship halted. This suspicious timeline, coupled with other narratives entangled in the case, was more than enough to dismiss the convenient claim of coincidence. Instead of clumsy recklessness, Chen’s demeanor warranted questionable intention. 

***

The Kuo-Hua Li in my life is still alive and he won’t die anytime soon. I still walk on the street and see his name up on the billboards. There would always be another victim and the same thing keeps happening to those girls.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Chen might be the most conspicuous figure that drove Lin to take her own life, but he was not alone. When Lin’s parents talked about their daughter, the one thing they neglected to mention was how they may have contributed to this tragedy. Lin’s family had long indulged in the glorious privilege of being part of the high-class elite society: Mr. Lin was a doctor famous for his extraordinary accomplishments in medicine, and Lin was the beautiful daughter whose precocious talent made the front page before she graduated from high school. They were “the perfect family” in Taiwanese society, but wearing their pride came with great cost. According to Lin’s editors and close friend, Lin’s parents did not report the case when they discovered that an authoritative male was taking advantage of their daughter in a romantic relationship. Upon discovery, the Lins confronted the accused and his wife at a deluxe booth in Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel. After Lin’s parents went into a lopsided verbal rampage for an hour, Chen’s wife threatened to sue Lin for adultery and exclaimed, “If I go to court and make the whole thing public, Lin is the one who would to pay the ultimate price.” 

In the days that followed, Lin’s parents kept their silence. They did not report the case after Lin calmed down from the rush of love and realized that she had been exploited. They did not report the case when Lin wanted to seek justice for the assault. And they held Lin back when she demanded to tell her story. 

I think that the pressure to maintain the glowing façade of perfect family denied Lin’s need for a voice and forced her to bury her feelings internally. I think that Lin’s parents rejected any means to publicize the incident at the expense of their daughter’s well-being because they were petrified of marring the family name. I think that Lin’s parents attributed the encounter to Chen’s corrupted character as much as to Lin’s senselessness. I think that, while Lin’s parents knew that their daughter was the victim, they still couldn’t help but render what happened as a disgrace. I think that Lin knew how the value of honor, face and feminine chastity fostered the culture of victim-blaming. And I think that she knew exactly where she stood: a victim who needed to convince everyone that she was a victim.

***

While she was packing for college, Si-Qi opened her mouth and let her words flow out with artificial innocence, “I heard that a student in my school got together with one of the teachers.

Who is it?” Her mom asked. 

I don’t know.’

‘Never too young to be a slut.’

Si-Qi sank into silence. At that moment, she decided that she was going to stay silent for the rest of her life.”

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

A society that follows the conservative norm of gender roles and power dynamics inevitably buries victims of sexual assault. And the education that repels sex creates more victims. In elementary school, Taiwanese children began to realize that boys and girls have different reproductive organs. We were curious about the differences in our anatomy, but teachers at school were only willing to talk about numbers, Chinese characters, and English alphabets. In junior high school, we were introduced to the biological mechanism of reproduction through science courses, but that was far from enough to satisfy our blooming curiosity. We started to sneak readings and materials that would appall our parents and consulted them for sexual knowledge covertly. In high school, sex education could be summarized in one sentence: Do not have sex. The teacher would stand on the podium for the entire afternoon showing us cases of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and a million reasons not to trust any means of protection, but never once did they talk about sexual assault or the meaning of consent. Never once did anyone teach us how to protect ourselves. Taiwanese education is essentially sexphobic. It taught us reproduction, but we had to self-teach ourselves everything about sex. It painted sex with the color of embarrassment and hurdled many into the unbroken silence that emanated not subtlety, but negligence. This broken system produced 30,000 teenagers the year Lin graduated from high school, all of whom grew up to become potential victims or perpetrators. 

***

At the table, Si-Qi spoke in a way like she was putting butter on bread. “We seem to have everything in our family except sex education.

Her mom stared at her in dismay, “What sex education? Sex education is for people who need sex. Isn’t that how education works?

Si-Qi understood then, that her parents were forever absent in this story. They skipped class, yet they thought school hadn’t even started yet.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

Lin spent the last chapter of her life putting her story into Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. She hoped that her audience could read with her—which many of us did—but we didn’t necessarily take away the message intended for us. “I have no intention or hope for this book to change the world in any way. In fact, I don’t even want to connect with the big words or societal structures,” said Lin. Instead of tracing the broader stroke of a long-term system, Lin wanted us to remember every girl that shared Si-Qi’s story. “It scares me when the ‘smart, progressive, and politically correct’ people talk about structures. They are ambitious, but they are also conveniently oblivious. The structure is determined by thousands of cases, each one with a victim just like Si-Qi. Those are humans, not numbers.” 

Categories
Cultural Miasma

Angel of the Home Computer

by Julianne Hussman | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Image by Leah Yassky

4:01 PM on a Saturday and a music application plays “Everytime” by Britney Spears. “Why carry on without me?” I mouth weakly in my bed, “Every time I try to fly I fall.” My cat meows in the hallway. I open Instagram, the online theatre of reputation. I evaluate my power quantified through big data. I compare, self-objectify. I closely examine myself through the eyes of the imaginary ultimate Spectator, whose judging eye is an abusive assemblage of internalized gender, class, and capitalist cosmetic expectations. I look in the mirror. I am cute and pretty, yes? I am lovable, yes? 

Sickly white fragile beauty, will I be loved the nearer my proximity to death? Is feminine shrinkage a corpse meditation for those who gaze at her? Some Buddhist monks would watch women’s beauty decay—their attrition a reminder of impermanence, loosening the grip of desire. In the Victorian romantic vision of tuberculosis, the consumptive woman’s frailty is accompanied by a heightened, spiritualized consciousness as her guilty flesh burns up. Her appearance was and is emulated in makeup styles, corsetry, high fashion, and diet culture.

Is she a reminder that even the duplicitous power and beauty of femininity will, in fact, die, and perhaps our self-sovereign spirits may outlive the mother’s leaky body? The gendered body is associated with leakiness and penetrability, inferior to the male citizen-subject who is self-sovereign and contained. I imagine I will be rewarded for tightly regimented bodily choreographies: shrinking and contorting according to ideals of passive beauty. I seek thinness, an implanted desire. My unconscious, uninterrogated reflex is to think that my security––my “belonging,” or protection and privilege––lies there, in the amorphous endless striving where the trauma of self-neglect won’t follow me. The more I curl into and against myself, contorting into a cute commodity, the less dangerous I become, the less dangerous we become.

Approval of my body and face has come to stand in for being “seen” in my wholeness, my consciousness, emotions, experiences, and the ancestral line which flows back to beginningless time that has produced this body. I try to forget, for a moment, my digital spectacles of identity, the ways I have come to love and desire my own subjection in spite of intellectual critique. I close my eyes and begin some mirrorless, spectatorless dancing. Okay, the living body is here, still. 

My kitten continues to meow outside. Yasmin is a ragdoll cat. The breed acquired this name due to the cats’ tendency to collapse limp in the arms of children, follow closely, cuddle affectionately. Yasmin is charged with mischief energy, tiptoeing across the hangers in the closet. She follows me, chirping, into the bathroom, snuggles my face, kicks lighters under the couch (we found seven under there once), “shakes paw” for treats, sleeps on my second pillow. I read on Wikipedia that, “Some breeders in Britain have tried to breed away from the limpness owing to concerns that extreme docility ‘might not be in the best interests of the cat.’” In a neoliberal, post-industrial context, domestication can be seen as a history of producing pliable, dependent subjects—private sphere companions to make life more livable. 

Yasmin says, no I am not only an object because my dances of beauty and affection and kittenness are appeals, strategic performances––as much as any other being’s bids for love, safety, and warmth are––though some beings have been dissected and molded and refashioned by others who ingrain dependence in us so our whole existence becomes an appeal. My smallness fragility and hobbling forever-baby forever-acted-upon forever-chosen-for soft face whisker-kiss love me so much you could eat me up take me into you––relationships of love are also relationships of power.

Hello Kitty has no mouth so we can project whatever feeling we want onto her. She has no mouth, a Sanrio spokesperson once said, “so we can be happy and sad together with Hello Kitty.”

***

At ten years old, I’m a browed, queer, lonely girl, wearing my hair like a tangled, black, proto-emo veil with ill-placed bobby pins. A boy on the bus says I look like the girl from The Ring and tries to force me to show my face. I spend the majority of my time in my basement with internet friends on Neopets and designing websites for my guinea pig Marshi (Marshmallow Maro Jr.), my only friend allowed at the house. I named her after Mashimaro—a cop-hating, brilliantly perverse and vulgar South Korean cartoon rabbit introduced to me in third grade, before my mom transferred me to conservative Catholic middle school. A boy in my new class says, “You know, Julianne is obsessed with her guinea pig. And she kind of looks like one…”

I would draw my guinea pig Marshi, write her diary entries, photoshop her in dozens of settings, and give and receive pet website awards from quirky middle-aged ladies online. These digital worlds were escapes from the sadistic hierarchies of middle school, where we expelled the pus of our enculturation, trauma, shame, and insecurity onto one another in crude, early games of power and privilege. Embodying my idea of Marshi was a passage to connection with other women––ones who loved the cute, who wanted to learn how to love better, who knew how to nurture life, who lived and made kin with a particular kind of being, deriving a sense of self in relation. 

My activities with her idealized anthropomorphic character online were balanced by play, affection, care, leafy greens, and hay, but I wonder if I sometimes neglected time with Marshi for her dream image. My babysitter forgot to feed her when we went on vacation and baby’s breath grows in the spot where she’s buried. 

The trouble with living relations is the possibility of rejection and loss. The squirming of a kitten from your arms, a crying baby. A sharp shock of shame, personalization, and perhaps, a turn to the mouthless, pliable benevolence of plushies. My child-self loved who she was in relation to cute objects. They did the quiet, invisible labors of constructing my subjectivity as the one-who-loves. The one who recognizes what is lovable: I am soft-hearted, nurturer, “good female.” 

A matted block of synthetic fur became a medium to play-act these femininities. I thought American Girl dolls were too creepy to be so expensive, but I loved their doll-sized pets. I had the Westie named Coconut. Coconut had a solid but hollow body with plush white fur and black beads for eyes. I would keep drawings of her in random manila folders, make her outfits, play her online games, bring her everywhere; she turned gray, and a little piece broke off inside her and would jingle if I shook her—I called it her heart. She was a haunted and enchanted object, an idol and an outlet for private child dreams and secrets. A lonely child in a consumer culture may have a host of object love affairs. 

***

Have you ever felt the gut-punch of the news that your mother gave away a stuffed animal you haven’t seen, touched, much less thought of, in years? We become subjects by fashioning the self within networks of relations. How have I been so shaped and impressed upon by bonds with cotton and yarn manufactured in the shape of a friend? How have object intimacies become major forces in the construction of my narrativized self? In my isolation as a tween basement-dweller, I encountered the cruel relief of intimate commodities. I was endowed with both a sense of power and connection, although I lacked access to a living collective. 

Images by Leah Yassky

As the concept of a living dog compressed and abstracted into an accessory, Coconut became a symbol for my identity constitution as feminine caretaker. A purchase can be an apparatus for exploring the “self,” often a gendered self, offering a temporary cohesion of an internally regulated consumer identity. I experience the purchase as a socially-sanctioned, oft-repeated sacrament to appease capital, that feels as if it were really my idea all along. The desire to acquire is written into my ways of seeing, visually accumulating and claiming images and objects as a means of self-branding, self-understanding. Somehow, this becomes the way I experience myself as a social being. I buy back glimpses of sociality in the form of cute commodities. 

The Sanrio franchise has a character duo called Sugarbunnies. They are soft white and brown rabbit plushies named Shirousa and Kurousa. Sanrio released a video of the Sugarbunnies baking a cake for the loneliest French child pianist. She spends her day at the piano bench. In time, the girl’s productivity is shot; she’s demoralized, frustrated and uninspired by the keys in front of her. She is alone in her charming little house, no parents, no pets, two plushies. She tucks herself into bed. 

The Sugarbunnies wake in the night, “Il faut l’aider,” we must help. They work until morning to create le gâteau piano, embellished with pink roses. The little girl takes a bite, consuming their love, her worth, her inspiration, and plays smilingly. I would watch and rewatch this video and felt relieved, held, however superficially. The video’s golden-rose tint made it feel like a memory, an early impression, a nebulous imprint on my sense of self.

In a culture where she must train herself to meet productivity norms, the little girl stumbles into inertia, despair, and loneliness. The Sugarbunnies are her rescuers, revivers: They are angels of the home. They crack the eggs, ice the cake, cut the strawberries. The cute, caring agents––Shirousa and Kurousa––hold the social duty of pleasuring and reviving the worker during her retreat to the private sphere, preparing her for the exploitative arrangement that awaits the next morning. This mental, emotional, physical, self-perfecting pleasure––and affection––producing labor must never appear to be labor, but a fountain of instinct flooding from the feminine heart. The Sugarbunnies represent the mystery of making feminized domestic labor invisible and thus creating a saccharine specter of devotional magic that appears intrinsic to their being. 

The plushie is not the only intimate, pacifying commodity I live with: I’ve grown entangled with my phone and PC. I become aware of the bleeding of the lines between us, as my phone comes to be a technology of the self. I sit inert and simply listen as my cell phone calls to my restlessness. My phone marks one entry point into the corporate matrix of social data, holding the promise of visibility and acceptance, as well as a source of busyness to disconnect me from the agitated disquiet of having to be with my body for too long. The discomfort and ever-shifting sensations in my guts, the forced presence with my thoughts: fluctuating and in play—like weather. In better times I may be able to sit with them like a compassionate observer. It is not always that time.

Sometimes, I’ll start to grasp, reach for grass to pull, nails to bite, something to smoke. Often, I grab my phone for some unlimited access into some of my most unmindful impulses. (Have you ever gone into a plastic surgery Instagram hole and emerged thinking that your whole face is a pathology? Or the shape of your labia or jaw or ears or tits or dick is a disease?) 

***

Burrowing into certain digital enclaves under a spell of lonely unrest, I came across the women who mime love on a screen. The women layer a complex of hand motions and sounds that, for some viewers, trigger a sensuous and tingling warmth in the scalp, neck, and spine called ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. Developed primarily for relaxation and relief from anxiety, loneliness, and insomnia, ASMR video artists create intimate role-play simulations. Opening an ASMR video can be discomfiting, as the performer crosses personal boundaries and touches vulnerabilities; or she can appear creepy, with her unnaturally over-mediated, sterile, and truncated intimacy. To consume requires a surrender, a sinking in, a suspension of the reflex to recoil at her virtual touch: To consume her love is to naturalize the melding between myself and my hardware. 

Many of the most popular ASMRtists are thin, white or East Asian with long, silky hair, and perfectly manicured nails. (The ways in which individual women strategically navigate sexist-Orientalist viewership on YouTube, as well as the implications of this viewership are knotted and vast, and deserve an entire piece all their own). They whisper unintelligibly, tap and manipulate household objects, gently affirming and attending to the viewer. Their videos are consumed by millions of others, but this is just for me.

Once I have sunken into her curated soundscape, her performance is disarming… she punctures the film of my cynical disbelief, my technophobia, my desires for more radical tactile, embodied relations. She offers an irresistible commodity. I can find care, be warmly held with no demands placed on me. I can take a break from agency, accountability, and mutuality to be unconditionally soothed. ASMRtists are maidservants, sound-makers, relational specialists––arms of feminized intimacy, servitude, and occasionally, quietly coded or not, eroticism. She dresses me, she loves me, and there’s nothing she adores more than my relaxation. Brushed hair, facial treatments, words of love, thousands of crackling, tingling objects in hundreds of tiny silk pouches. From her I find a short, twenty minute break from my work to be consoled and revived, to have my wounds licked. 

Away from her, I am so often cut off from others, isolated and self-monitoring. To produce, achieve, and consume, there is no time for the rat’s nest messiness of interdependence… With her, I can feel a flimsy but graspable emergence of tenderness and care without the heart-draining uncertainties, losses, and pains. She lives as long as I have internet connection.

She can be your caretaker, your ideal mother, your inner child’s imaginary love, whatever you need. Look at her—do you want to fuck her or return to weightlessness in her womb? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

There is a recurring debate within the ASMR community about whether or not the videos are “sexual,” as they often include erotic vocalizations, mouth sounds, girlfriend roleplays, and other forms of sensuous, tactile, feminized labor. Many creators and viewers staunchly maintain boundaries between this intimate labor and that done by cam-girls, porn performers, or other sex workers. ASMRtists often aim to maintain their distance from other erotic laborers to ensure the respectability and “legitimacy” of their practices. 

The prevalence and popularity of white, bourgeois bodies also disguises the reality that caring labor (domestic work, child and elder care in the U.S.) is most frequently extracted from the Global South. Her view count grows, while migrant and lower class women of color do much of the work in the global economy of emotions: labor that capital ensures is exploited and made invisible. 

***

Under neoliberal capitalism, reliable structures of public life and social relating have broken down in favor of privatized, market-based alternatives. It is challenging, for me at least, to find forms of nurturance besides those precariously secured in romantic or sexual intimacies. I occupy and shift between the subjectivity of the cute, caring agent like the Sugarbunny or the ASMRtist, with her life-giving flourishes, and the worker-consumer she attends to. At times I embody both at once; I consume beautiful sedatives as I am trained to become one. 

I smear on some pink lipstick and black winged eyeliner. I open a new tab, observing my digital cam-girl profile. I am immediately wedged into a distinct subjectivity, a new performative role: the doll dominatrix. Over the past year, I have developed this online dominatrix persona. I feature very demure, cute, “innocently” sensuous photos of myself, often holding my kitten. While the combination of cuteness and domination may appear paradoxical, I decided to play on cuteness’ (pejorative) associations with duplicity and feminine entrapment. The client is drawn to and disarmed by the cute object, and giving in to the cute object’s appeal for affection is an indicator of their leaky weakness and penetrability, a threat to their self-sovereignty. The expectation may be that the cute being will submit to you, allow you to mold and shape her in your image, consume her. 

I add some tags to elicit interest in clients:

#cutie #sweet #angel #sensitive #compassionate #caring

While my performance is still largely shaped by the gaze of the consumer, I play a very willful cute object, questioning and prodding my submissives to interrogate their own desires, their own subjectivity, their own power. Femdom, or “female domination,” is more like psychological play, a liminal ritual of reversal in which the traditionally subjugated party adopts a domination ethos.

#goddess #hypnosis #merciless #financialdomination

Some of my clients are middle-managers, tech bros, and PhD students. A few of them are rather dominant in their work sphere and may, to some extent, be seeking a surrender of that self-sovereignty and dominating subjectivity by taking orders from a dominatrix. In this ritual of reversal, the submissive man may not “lose” agency, but rather is turned on by the idea of temporarily undergoing a disciplined self-fashioning in a submissive role. 

#wisdom #advice #authentic #GFE

Some clients live in cities with flexible, tech-oriented work cultures. They can be socially atomized, with no time to date. They don’t want the engagement involved in relationship, but still want the “girlfriend experience.” They want psychological, emotional, and sexual needs met without any expectation on them in a mutual relationship. It is easier to consume a cute, lovely, “authentic” commodity to efficiently meet those needs in an optimized way, than to endure the grind of living-with. Digital interfaces like this one can provide a platform for nonnormative relational modes and new types of connectivity. But, of course, they largely cater to male entitlement, as sexual and emotional experiences are offerings in a buffet under late capitalism. 

#princess #feet #420 #humiliation 

Not only high income or high-power men are interested in submission. I’ve worked with men of different races and classes who are also interested in “sissification,” “feminization,” and humiliation. I try not to pop-psychologize them too much, but I have considered that certain humiliating sexual practices can be attractive to some men who carry shame or want to turn painful experiences of masculine non-belonging into pleasurable ones. I also can’t help but think that to them, to be a feminized subject is deeply humiliating and taboo. But these practices aren’t just rooted in shame, personal pathology, and patriarchy. The sexual imagination is polymorphously perverse, fluid, yet shaped by institutions, individualized, and biomedicalized. It can attach to all kinds of things; for example, a client who has a fetish for women wearing their seatbelts. 

A necessary thing to mention about being a dominatrix online is that, from my positionality, I can expose as little of my body as I want to maintain my personal security on the internet. I occupy an exceptionally non-precarious space on the spectrum of sexual-caring-intimate labor. Moral hierarchies and stigmas abound within and outside communities of sex workers based on their class and racial positions, their levels of exposure, the cultural and educational capital they hold, and whether they work indoors or outdoors—factors that affect who faces heightened criminalization and violence. A lot of my boundaries are rooted in my economic and social class, whiteness, conventional beauty, and availability of other income options. Creating a commodity based to a large extent in educational, emotional, and cultural capital is not superior or more of a body of skilled knowledge than more explicitly “sexual” uses of body capital. I can have conversations and transactions safely on my terms, although I am still operating under a neoliberal individual-entrepreneurial model within an interface that takes nearly 40 percent of my earnings, then gives me the opportunity to earn single percentages back, over time, the more I make. 

Embodying the cute dominatrix is a form of deep acting, of switching into a quasi-performative space. It’s sometimes difficult to switch on the goddess-act of the doll dominatrix because she is a hyper-realized version of myself: no insecurity, unable to be manipulated, fierce boundaries, unshakeable sense of self, but still “authentic” and vulnerable in a bounded way. Authenticity as commodity has its own set of scripts: Yes, I am ‘me,’ quite risky and spontaneous, I can be intimately vulnerable, this is all from the pure wellspring within, yes, is it not? Do you feel connection, release? I am an angel of the home computer, of the digital marketplace. I rejuvenate the worker, conjuring and selling just enough semblances of life back to him to get him to return to work. 

Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.

José Esteban Muñoz

Cuteness can be an embodied strategy to ensure one’s own care, with its penetrating, disarming appeals for nurturance. Yasmin’s affectionate appeals for care, her purrs, her tricks, and her cuddles, are “cute” bodily technologies. I have also lived into and subconsciously attuned myself to “cute” bodily choreographies in my own relationships, transactional or not. In this sense cuteness is done to subjects, but they can also “do” cuteness. While it often seems like an external imposition or false consciousness, cute subjects are also creators of “cute” discourse. An attraction and desire for the cute recruits us into its regime, where we challenge, reappropriate, and reformulate imposed categories. 

Cuteness can shape interspecies relations, as we impose ideas of cuteness onto other animals and deepen power imbalances. Donna Haraway writes that companion species are “not here just to think with. Neither are they just an alibi for other themes; dogs [cats, guinea pigs] are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience. They are here to live with.” Yasmin often defies the over-determinations of her breed, refusing docility and containment. She has taught me a lot about boundaries, reading cat body language and signals, and interspecies communication. We practice the slow blink, through which we express our trust in one another. I learned how to approach, with an outstretched hand and limited direct eye contact. Cats rarely preemptively attack, we just haven’t been listening to them and the language of their bodies. 

Cuteness can be produced within consumer objects and technologies to ameliorate social deficits. I am not a technophobe for thinking that embodied intimacy with self-compassionate, protective boundaries makes life livable. Capital will keep us at the edge of the bearable, to make our lives work, to give us just enough love, or simulations of it, to let us go on reproducing this life-world. As valuable as digital connectivity and object intimacies can be for those of us decentered in the public sphere, they cannot be a replacement for collectively transforming social relations. Embodied relationships will have to be the interstices in which we can imagine and live into possibilities of, in Lauren Berlant’s words, a “radically resensualized post-neoliberal subject.”

Cuteness can be used as a discourse to subordinate docile dependents, then scapegoat populations in the name of their protection. Some sensitivities and fragilities disguise violence, when my avoidance of pain or discomfort is predicated on the disproportionate burden of pain on others. Consider the white fragile woman, made more and more fragile—embodying, to use bell hooks’s term, a “patriarchal femininity”—in order to become the beloved object that justifies racial violence against Others. This form of masculinist protectionism is based in white supremacist national security, sexual pathologization and criminalization of Black, Arab, and other people of color as threats to cute, docile white women-and-children, as their “inherently dangerous” counterparts.

Some of the most apolitically framed identities are often not so innocuous; they disguise violence, and are mobilized and constructed for oppressive ends. The feminized caretaker, the “cute” dependent, and the racialized Others whose labor and resources are exploited and whose bodies and life-ways are “cleansed” from the social body in the former’s name, are all subordinated positions to the self-sovereign, autonomous, masculine, white subject. Their oppressions are interlocking, opening an opportunity for solidarity-building, mutual presence, and interdependent bonds across axes of oppression, in which we are also accountable and co-responsible for the ways we reproduce and enable each other’s oppressions. Our conceptualizations of solidarity, care, and love must not elide the workings of power within such relationships.

NOTE: My own healing, thought processes, and analysis are so indebted to world- and heart-opening, transformational work by Sara Ahmed (on the affective politics of fear, the concept of willful subjects, and so much other wisdom), bell hooks (on patriarchal femininities), Saba Mahmood (on docile agents), Donna Haraway (on companion species), Rob Horning (on the acquisitive gaze), Lauren Berlant (on cruel optimism), Elizabeth Bernstein (term and thinking around ‘bounded authenticity’ in sex work), Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (on intimate labors), Patricia Hill Collins (on interlocking oppression), Iris Marion Young (on masculinist protection), Kathi Weeks (on ideologies of work), Silvia Federici (on domestic labor and capitalist social reproduction), Jean Baudrillard (on consumer society), for inspiration and the term ‘cruel relief,’ the book: The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness by Joshua Dale, et al., the article, “Love’s Labours Lost? Feminism, the Disabled People’s Movement and an Ethic of Care” by Bill Hughes, et al., and many more influences, including support + understanding from my professors (especially Crystal Biruk, Meiver De la Cruz, Emilia Bachrach, Rian Brown-Orso), friends, and multispecies kin.