Hoarder by Lena Chen

lena chen headshot

By Lena Chen

I stopped writing when I moved to Berlin because I could not make room for more words in the cabinets. I brought too many with me from America and jammed them next to cans of lychee and red bean paste and bags of flour which have never touched a measuring cup because I haven’t baked anything but my head in years.


The trash bin is overflowing and its sickly sweet smell penetrates the living room. I pile sticky beer bottles next to the sink, where their presence reminds me of guests who have passed our threshold. Glass is easier to hold on to than friends.


The man I live with wants to clear the house of these remnants of parties past but I delay this chore for weeks even though there is a convenience store downstairs where I can trade empty bottles for credit toward new ones. But instead of taking out the recycling, I hoard stuff like secrets and make excuses to keep them around. There is always something left to be cleaned off and stored away for the future just in case.


The old words sit forgotten on the highest shelves of my kitchen – out of sight, out of mind – and out of reach unless I climb onto the counter or ask the man I live with to fetch them for me. But he is not always there and he cannot read the labels from my country and even when he hands me what I asked for, I request that he puts it back because I am not ready to open anything. Not yet, I say. I have been saving this for a special occasion. There was a limit to what I could import, and while there are markets here that sell the same brands, it wouldn’t be the same as cooking with my transatlantic syllables. They have a particular flavor, although I am the only one who can ever seem to tell the difference.


I know we are running out of room for the words when the expiration date for the lychee has past and beetles get into the flour. The man I live with starts to toss out entire contaminated containers and I take it as an affront that he is ridding our home of everything I have carefully preserved. He says he is making room for new words, the ones I am polishing instead of silverware, but I do not have the heart to tell him I am still following old recipe books instead of cooking up original ones as promised. I transported tall tales across oceans but I cannot bring myself to acquire new stories or friends.


I consider moving entire sentences down to the cellar, where flattened cardboard boxes once containing clothes have long moistened with mold. But I can not discern which words or possessions or people or grudges are worth holding on to. I have always had a hard time letting go.

Lena Chen is an American artist and documentarian based in Berlin. Her work explores sex, gender, identity and trauma through text and performance.