Q&A: Helen Gym

The first-term City Councilwoman and longtime schools activist, 48, on her new job, rebelling via Grease, and the lesson she never learned

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Helen Gym. My middle name is Hae-Liun.

I am a … mom, wife and Councilperson, and always trying to figure out how to be all three at the same time.

When I moved here from Columbus, Ohio, in 1986 … Philly was the biggest place I had ever been. My first apartment was at 42nd and Walnut. I got mugged maybe a block down. It was an adventure.

I met my husband … in the hallways of the Daily Pennsylvanian, when he was the photo editor and I was a brand-new reporter.

My kids are always telling me … not to leave the city for the suburbs. We use it as a threat.

The thing most people don’t understand about City Council is … that dynamics are always shifting. Positions on an issue might change. Things aren’t quite as fixed as they might seem to be.

My most prized material possession is … my Japanese maple that I grew from a teeny-weeny Home Depot plant.

My new colleagues on City Council have treated me … like an actual colleague, which was surprising and refreshing.

For lunch, you’ll usually find me … at my desk, eating Saltines and water and candy. It’s really unhealthy.

Charter schools are … complicated ventures that are vastly different than what they started out to be.

My unexpected friend on Council has been … Derek Green. We haze each other.

To parents leaving the city due to schools, I say … if you have the privilege to walk away, then I would hope that you would use the privilege to help fix it.

My secret talent is … I can fall asleep at will. Anywhere. Anytime.

The first album I ever bought with my own money was … Grease. My mom didn’t let me listen to music, so I’d sneak out to the library to listen to it. Eventually, I decided to buy it on my own.

My parents taught me … everything. My father taught me that you can’t really rise in life if those around you are suffering. And my mother taught me — don’t make waves. But she didn’t teach me that very well.

One hobby I don’t have enough time for is … martial arts. I started hung gar kung fu in 1999, right after I had my son, and continued until four or five years ago.

My worst subject in high school was … chemistry. I don’t think I applied myself. Asians aren’t actually all that great at science. I was clear proof of that.

One thing Philly should steal from another city is … solar buses.

Growing up as an Asian-American woman was … a struggle, because I grew up in a Midwestern suburb where I was a singularly alone person of color.

One habit I can’t break is … obsessively cleaning if I’m under a lot of stress.

The last time I had a cheesesteak … was three years ago at John’s, when my cousins from Korea visited. I’m much more of a Vietnamese hoagie kind of girl.

I wanted to grow up to be … Wonder Woman. She was awesome. Plus, those boots.

When people ask me if I’ll run for mayor, I tell them … I have a long way to go.

Published as “One of Us” in the September 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.