As a Chinese immigrant, bullying had plagued Helen Yee’s formative years. But no longer does she passively accept it.
Written with candor and aplomb, Yee’s debut memoir “I Belong Here: Living the life I was born for in America” details Yee’s journey from a cloistered Chinese childhood into mainstream 1960s midwestern America, navigating between dual cultures and revealing events that cause her to reimagine traditional concepts of family.
A co-founder of OPAWL: Building AAPI Feminist Leadership, Yee serves on the board for the Lesbian Business Association and is a past board member of Stonewall Columbus.
“We all do belong here and there is value in all of our lives,” Yee said. “I want readers to know the struggles I went through and that there is hope.”
To learn more about her captivating story of hardship and acceptance, The Buckeye Flame spoke with Ohio’s Yee about why her experience is one we all need to know right this very second.
What inspired you to write this memoir about embracing your heritage and identity?
HY: I had been thinking about and sharing my stories throughout my life, and people always encouraged me to do something with my them since they are so unique. During the pandemic, I knew there was a big lot of time that I could actually spend on something.
I came here when I was very young and it was the first time I ever experienced bullying and racism. That was something that was also on my mind since there was an increase in Asian violence and hate during the pandemic. It really brought to my attention that I wanted to write about my experience.
What is your experience living in Ohio after immigrating to America?
I came here when I was two and my grandfather opened one of the very first Chinese restaurants here in Columbus. He was very well respected in the Asian community, and was trailblazing something that was very different here. He was able to bring over other families through sponsorship.
It wasn’t until I actually started in school that I realized how different I was from the other kids. I was the only Asian person in the whole school and that made me feel very unworthy. I started to experience bullying and racism. It wasn’t until I started taking martial arts that I started to build my confidence, through both the virtues and the skills.
I was an Olympic alternate on the U.S. Taekwondo team, so I was able to compete internationally representing the U.S. The individuals I met through martial arts were like my second family here in Columbus. Those virtues we talk about like confidence and persistence have helped and allowed me to navigate so many obstacles and challenges in my world, both personally and professionally.
When I was training, I experienced my first ever sports massage and it made a light bulb go off in my head. I thought, “I really needed to learn how to do this!” This was the first spark of me wanting to start a massage clinic. My business partner and I started one of the very first massage clinics in the country and we wanted to make this industry bigger by creating a clinic solely focusing on massages. From there we realized that we wanted to start our own school to incorporate our ideas and it became rather successful. We now have both a massage therapy program and an acupuncture program.
How did your friends and family support your journey with your sexual orientation during this time?
I didn’t identify as a lesbian until my mid-20s. A friend and I realized that we had more than just friendship feelings and that led to acknowledging that I had fallen in love with someone of the same sex. It was still very hard for me to grasp that I had this other challenge in my life.
It was difficult especially for my dad because, in China, homosexuality was not believed to exist. I never really sat my dad down, but he is very intuitive and probably knew. When I told him I wanted to move down to Florida to be with this person before I finished my last semester of college, he just did not accept that at all. He was very, very angry with me. He wanted to see at least one of his kids succeed in the American dream of going to college, which I did actually do when I graduated from The Ohio Dominican College.
As far as friends and family, they were very supportive of my training because I was competing very heavily in Taekwondo, and being an athlete it’s really important to have that support. I really felt lifted and uplifted by the martial arts family. That support really led to more self-confidence and more worthiness, and being able to live my own life the way I am.
I volunteered for many years with Stonewall Columbus, putting together the pride parade and other different events. It was so meaningful to me that I could see what I could contribute as far as ideas go and also represent as a lesbian, Asian-American woman. I believe that representation is very important and that people of all nationalities, ethnicities, and colors belong in this community.
What do you want people to do with your story after reading it?
I truly believe that my story is worth telling. I want people to see that we all do belong here and that there is value in all of our lives.
My book actually starts with when I got held up at gunpoint. That is such a gripping experience for me and I wanted it to be the first chapter of my book because of the fact that as many of the people in my life know that I am a lifetime martial artist. I know how to defend myself physically and how to teach self-defense and martial arts. But those physical abilities did not help me in that situation. What helped was that I was able to stay calm.
Additionally, Asian businesses suffered a lot through the two years of the pandemic because a lot of people weren’t supporting them, which was fueled by fear that was being spread. These are things that are important and I hope that my book shares a bit of how my life is just like anyone else’s life. 🔥