Mimi Zhu on chosen family and healing: Be Not Afraid of Love
By: Mimi Zhu
This is an edited extract from Be Not Afraid of Love by Mimi Zhu, published by Hardie Grant Books. Available nationally, RRP $27.99.
Content warning: This extract discusses sexual violence and abusive relationships.
On the night that X assaulted me in the Oakland alleyway, I watched my brief life flash before my eyes.
That night when I escaped, I also experienced communion at its most powerful. My friends mobilized quickly as they took care of me, caressed me, held me, dressed my wounds, and helped me decipher my feelings. They promised me protection and supported me while I was vulnerable, betrayed, and hurt.
They did not force me to “get better” or dictate my path to healing, and as they saw me teeter on the edge of an emotional cliff, they ran to catch me when I fell.
My friends showed me love amid the most horriﬁc of circumstances. The way my friends held me was an embodiment of the love that I was searching for, but never found, in X.
Photo: Author Mimi Zhu, by Sandy Taboo and Etoile Bright
While unlearning the heteronormative standards of romance and family, I realized that my biological and romantic relationships were not always the safest spaces for love. As much as we may love our biological families, there are dimensions of our identities that we may not feel safe exploring with them.
We cannot choose which families we are born into, and some people, especially queer and trans people, have families that are abusive or demanding or unaccepting.
Just because we experience difficulties with our biological families does not mean that we will never experience kinship. Being in community allows us to relearn love by redefining what a family can be.
I relearned love slowly by listening to my own intuition. When X and I were over, I felt immensely fragile, anxious, and timid. I carried with me a whirlwind of feelings and fragments of my identity that I was never allowed to explore.
I slowly started to open up to my friends about how heartbroken and ashamed I was. I was dedicated to releasing that shame by being honest with myself, and so I started talking to myself as if I were an infant and learning the art of reparenting. I listened to my most basic needs from the voice of my inner child and learned how to cater to them.
I allowed myself to break down and show immense vulnerability, and I asked myself how I felt in public spaces, knowing that X might be nearby.
I listened to myself whimper in fear and sob uncontrollably. I listened to those needs, and after some time and consideration, I chose an act of love that required me to put some space between me and my familiar surroundings. I decided to move to New York.
Moving to New York was both exciting and full of struggle. I had no job prospects, and I knew only a few people in the city.
After some unstable housing situations, I was invited to live in a queer cooperative household with ten other queer people of color. Upon moving in, I knew only one of them.
The intention of the house was clear: we wanted to create a space for queer and trans people of color that was safe from white supremacy and queerphobia, and that allowed us to live new experimental dreams of communal living, chosen family, and queer love.
We all grew extremely close. We shared extravagant potluck meals, traveled together in a huge collective, and held one another during times of hardship.
We watched one another fall in and out of love, stretch outside our comfort zones, live our dreams, and learn crucial life lessons. During the harshest of winters, we would prepare warm meals for one another and cuddle in the freezing night.
We loved one another in ways that dismantled my learned ideas of heteronormative romantic partnership, and we explored intimacy in tender and nonconsumptive ways. Committing to queer love meant allowing safe spaces for our oscillating, ever-changing, ever-fluid, multifaceted identities.
Of course [in the household], there was ample conflict. We argued and bickered and disagreed. Sometimes our arguments would trigger us and remind us of painful family dynamics.
Now and then, we became codependent, because our chosen family became so close that we did not know how to spend time without one another. We were challenged to set distinct boundaries and learned that boundaries, too, are acts of love.
When I reflect on those times, I often think of somatics practitioner Prentis Hemphill’s reflection: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” We were rediscovering family and making new choices that we were unable to make as queer children.
At times [the housemates] were seeking perfection, in hopes that the queer household would be free of any harm that we were familiar with.
When our household did not feel like utopia, some of us would take it personally, as if we had failed one another and ourselves. We would punish one another, call one another names, and reenact the same harm that we had experienced in past relationships.
Expecting utopia didn’t take into consideration how complicated and layered each of us was, and how, as queer people of color, we have all endured and survived traumatic experiences.
Our traumatized projections leaked into our arguments, and as much as we held one another, we hurt one another too.
Yet even during the rockiest periods of our togetherness, we still vowed to support one another in ways that we knew.
Whenever I experienced a mental health crisis, financial instability, or immigration struggles, my chosen family would mobilize to make sure that I had the resources I needed, and that, most important, I felt safe and protected. I vowed to do the same for them.
In many ways, we were all able to access our inner children together, and we spoke to one another as if we were babies and provided for one another with our own unique gifts.
I felt safe exploring my queerest freakiest self and was even encouraged and celebrated for it. These were new euphoric feelings, and I learned what it felt like to be loved as a whole and dynamic person.
To be non-white and queer means to be in constant resistance to ways in which mainstream cultures are designed to thrive.
We defined our own survival and supported one another in our mutual strength, in hopes that one day we would not have to be in active resistance anymore.
We hoped that one day soon we could just be. We embarked on that together, through all the nuance and conflict and intimacy and celebration, and I learned of closeness not so much as striving for perfection, but of collectively finding our way.
Perhaps being in community isn’t as much about creating a utopia as it is about allowing space for complexity and celebrating those meeting places.
When we are in communion, we create millions of unique points that dot the sky in shimmering constellations. We dance around one another like shining mirrors and watch how all our pain and our joys combine.
At our most joyful, we experience moments of synthesis. At our messiest, we are given raw opportunities to learn and unlearn many complexities, and to guide one another and ourselves in an intertwining process.
Through meaningful relationships we are forced to be honest with ourselves and one another, and that is an act of love. We are taught how to set boundaries, hold ourselves accountable, heal interdependently, and communicate effectively in myriad ways.
Being human is ever complex and being queer means to be in perpetual metamorphosis. In communion, we hold one another through fear and emerge from it in rapturous song and dance.
That dark night in Oakland, my friends’ commitment to care showed me kinship in new and urgent ways. It jolted me to rid myself of the hierarchies I had been bound to and propelled me toward a journey of nourishing and queering my chosen relationships.
My friends allowed me to be vulnerable in their arms, wiping my tears and assuring me that they would love me even as my unpredictable and messy emotions came to the surface. They did not wish to control me, nor were they threatened by the honest displays of my emotion.
As they massaged my hands and my feet, I learned that loving communion is finding new ways of sharing safety and ensuring mutual liberation.
Finding people who honor your full multidimensional self is not easy, but when you do, you have begun relearning love, and you have found chosen family.
Be Not Afraid of Love by Mimi Zhu, published by Hardie Grant Books is available nationally, RRP $27.99.
Mimi Zhu (they/them) is a queer Chinese-Australian writer and artist. They explore the many intersections of love and fear, and they facilitate workshops that are dedicated to the healing power of the written word. Their work has been featured in The New York Times, PAPER, i-D, The Guardian, Printed Matter, VICE and more. They are based in Brooklyn, New York.
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