I first heard the word “intersectionality” in my senior year at the University of Southern Maine.
But up until that point, I did not know that there was an actual word for what I have experienced throughout my life – that experience being the convergence of multiple identities which brings with it multiple forms of oppression. The word was coined by critical race theorist and scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who developed intersectionality theory in the late 1980s. It has become a key theory in the feminist and queer movements within the past several years.
For me, it became an idea that brought together the various pieces of my life that I struggled with in a very compartmentalized manner. After my adoption at the age of 14 in 2005, my Khmer identity had already reached a point where it was practically buried beneath years of immersion and integration in the whiteness as a result of the foster care system.
And I can almost bet that kids who have had the sort of life typical of those who grew up in foster care and perhaps later adopted, are prematurely faced with monumental questions of identity. While kids who grew up in more stable homes are perhaps faced with more questions such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think foster kids and kids who know or learn they are adopted have immediate and real feelings of being an outsider. In a way, we are more susceptible to existential questions because are existence and our place in space and time is less stable and, in some cases, as it was in mine, constantly changing and in a state of flux and transition.
The existential questions presented to us are more complex and our answers less sure. The level of uncertainty permeating the various situations we find ourselves in provide no easy answers because we learn to expect that what is today, may not be what is tomorrow. So we are less likely to answer with some surety that we would like to be firemen and women or lawyers or doctors when we grow up, when what is of immediate concern is “Who am I today? Who am I right now? Who am I to those around me? Who am I in this family or in this new home?” Identity becomes the immediate concern, and not a question to be answered over the span of twenty one years.
For me, by the time I was adopted, I was all but lost to my Khmer identity. I had forgotten the language and customs into which I was born. My identity was fractured because who I was or thought I was had been broken so many times before as I moved from home to home. So when I moved in with my adopted family, I sought to fill that gap as so many others have done: with God and religion. Religion provided easy answers: I was created by God and had a purpose in life, but the only way I could truly realize that purpose was to accept Jesus into my heart and to follow his ways and teachings. I was unique and special in the eyes of God. I had a place in this world. Everything around me and happening to me and to those I loved was the result of God’s action or inaction. If horrible and bad things happened, then it was God testing us, as he had tested Job, or perhaps, like the preachers of old, we were sinners in the eyes of an angry God.
Those who I saw having their “come to Jesus moment” often cried while doing so or smiled and laughed with joy. Despite having gone to church prior and even singing in a choir while living with my first foster family, I felt as if I didn’t have what they had. So I raised my hand when it was time for the “altar call” at the end of the service. I repeated the words. But nothing. No tears. No joy. No immediate feeling of relief or that a weight had been lifted of my shoulders. Nothing.
So I thought something was wrong with me. I dug deeper, trying to figure out what these people had that I didn’t. Or what did I do wrong? I became deathly afraid, as I read more and more about the “End Times” and the rapture, that I would be left behind or that I would end up in Hell if I was to die. Before long, I finally pinned down something that could possibly be holding me back: I had feelings for other boys – which was an abomination in the eyes of God according to Leviticus.
I struggled with those feelings. I hid those feelings. I was constantly afraid and anxious to the point of having night terrors and begging God to “purge me of my sins” and “purge me of my lust.” God and the gay clashed throughout middle school and high school as I dove deeper and deeper into religion and prayed harder and worked harder to earn my place in that world. I took on leadership roles at my Christian high school’s student council, as a worship leader in my youth group, and joining and leading worship for the adults.
I fell in love with my best friend Travis, who became like a brother to me. My heart nearly broke as he left for college during my senior year in high school. My heart would break again when we had a falling out after I came home from my first year at bible college and decided to come out as gay.
I continued to struggle with my identity in college. Feeling a fire burn in my heart as I attended Lady Gaga’s repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rally in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, Maine. I felt proud as I helped start the University of Southern Maine’s Queer Straight Alliance in what I call “my actual Freshmen year.” But then I also faced homophobia and retreated. I kept myself busy to keep my mind off the harder questions surrounding my identity: helping to start a fraternity, leaving that fraternity and helping to start another one, joining student government, starting a College Democrats chapter, and toward the end of my undergraduate career, finding my strength to face the hard questions again as I took active and public leadership roles.
It was during my first year of law school that I announced to everyone that I was gay. Up until that point, my closest friends knew and my immediate family knew I claimed to be gay (and thinking that I was confused). With that all settled, I turned to another part of me that was nagging at my heart ever since I visited my biological, Khmer family in California in 2012. As I answered these questions, I found myself also becoming more active in advocacy on the immigration and refugee front.
It is actually striking me just now that activism and actively fighting for issues affecting the LGBT+ and minority communities was how I discovered who I was as a gay man of color. Fighting for the rights of others and those who struggled like I did helped me to find and discover who I was and my purpose in life. I found community. I found new friends. I found new mentors and people who accepted me for all that I was – who truly accepted me as I was and who I was becoming.
This is a longwinded introduction, but I close it now by saying that I’ll be the first of both my biological and adoptive families to get a law degree. I’ll even be the first of both to graduate from college, where I obtained a bachelors with honors in Political Science. And I don’t say this to boast. In my heart, at this moment, I am feeling a sort of boundless hope and optimism. I have always had an optimism about me, even in the darkest and most hopeless moments. I’ve always known that I would make it through and that things will make a turn for the better.
And that optimism, I think, is why I am writing this book. As a testament for others that things do get better with a little help and a sense that things could turn out for good. But in no ways do I want to make an excuse for those who say that my story is an example of someone “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” In a way, I am writing this as an antithesis to what I see as a selfish belief that one can make things better all by themselves.
Overcoming adversity takes guts and grit and hardwork, yes. But it also takes a village. It takes family, friends, community, education, environment, social workers, government workers, and public resources and society. As the old adage goes, no person is an island unto themselves. Each and every person has an affect on other people around them and are affected by those around them. Micro decisions we make in our everyday lives have real consequences, not only for ourselves, but for everyone around us.
All of our individual lives are always colliding with the lives of others. Mixing and molding and changing and transforming in the melting pot of our collective existence. Understanding this, combined with all the ripples of the rest of us, turn into waves that push and pull the tides of what becomes our history.
Beyond the veil of our individual lives, we are bound to each other. My existence is tied to yours in ways both big and small. The strings of our lifetimes overlap and we occupy the same space that is our plane of existence.
So I do not believe that a person, by themselves, can pull themselves up and out of whatever situation they may be in. And that is what my story is a testament to – the idea that my life has collided with that of others, has changed, morphed, and transformed as a result, and whose course has been altered with every collision. It is a testament to realizing what is in your control, while at the same time accepting those things which you have no control over.
My story is not a story of self. It is a story of others and their influence and impact on my life. Without them, I would never have veered off on the paths that I have taken, the mountains I have climbed, and the destinations which I have reached.
I didn’t learn until later in life that when I was born, my mother, who was around 18 at the time, was so overwhelmed by the sheer weight of adulthood that she left me on the doorsteps of a Cambodian church. You see, she didn’t exactly have the most pristine and peaceful life.
She spent most of her childhood running. Fleeing from communist forces who, led by Pol Pot, sought to realize an agrarian utopia. This all occurred in the midst of a Cambodian civil war and the Vietnam War. Some attribute the success of Pol Pot to the resentment that Cambodians harbored against the ruling government at the time, which had allowed the US to bomb and kill approximately 300,000 citizens. Sadly, what was being realized was a dystopia where the educated and urban populations were forced to abandon towns and cities and into the rural regions, where they were subjected to hard labor.
Imagine an entire economy coming to a standstill. Imagine the immense effort to conduct a mass exodus of towns and cities and the countless lives that were butchered in order to expedite the process. The rice fields, rivers and streets were literally running with blood as 4 million people were butchered in the years between 1970 and 1980.
That was my mother’s childhood. One spent running and fleeing, losing loved ones, and in abject uncertainty of an end to her struggle. I’ve been told that even in a UN refugee camp, where she thought she would be safe, she was forced into prostitution – something that I remember angrily and vehemently denying when I was first told by my adoptive mother. In my mind, I saw the UN as the good guys. How could the good guys do such a horrible thing?
But the older I got and the more I learned, I realized that the world is not so black and white. That the lines we so foolishly wish would discern the good, the bad, and the evil, become blurred in a history told by the winners of minds, hearts, and wars.
So was I surprised to learn that my birth mother would abandon me and leave me on the steps of a church? Yes and no. I was surprised because that was the first I had heard about it. But not so surprised that she actually had done that. You see, I had grown accustomed to her being on the run. I had no idea as a child what her upbringing was like and what she had to live with as a child, but I could see it in the way she always tried to run from it.
I could see it in the way, in the early years, how she would sometimes disappear and I would end up, again, with the pastor of that Cambodian church and his family (who I now consider my godparents).
I could see it in the desperate way she would try to find refuge in the men who exploited her fragile and broken heart. In the way she submitted to their authority and stayed despite the beatings and the abuse she endured.
One man sticks out in particular. The father of my two youngest siblings, Brandon and Seyya. I have a different father and my younger sister Tanya also had a different father than me and the two youngest. But Mr. Dith was Vietnamese and a violent man.
When we lived in California, I distinctively remember the home we lived in because it so resembled a prison – although was most likely typical of homes in the San Diego area.
There was the dusty, dirt driveway with a gate that I can’t remember whether it slid open and closed or parted in the middle. There was a concrete path leading from the driveway to the doorstep and on to another, smaller gated entrance that led to the street on the other side.
The property was surrounded by fencing. The fencing and gates were always clear in my mind because they reinforced his wish that my mom and me and my sister Tanya not leave the premises. My mom always had this frantic feeling about her when she wanted to go visit another Cambodian family down the street, as if he could come around the corner at any moment.
Living there, or living with that man in general, and all the memories associated with him are clouded in that sort of hazy, half-hearted and forced forgetfulness that accompanies the soft trauma of your mother being emotionally controlled and abused.
But one memory conjures up when I think of that dusty prison, one of those pivotal “I’ve reached a crossroads” points in life that most likely everyone can admit to having. I was given a choice between two very different paths of either staying in that prison or moving to Texas with my godparents.
Like I’ve said before, I was always going between my godparents’ and my mom’s care throughout my early childhood – depending on what state my mother was in. But one of the few sources of stability I had at that time, my godparents, had to change at some point. And it did.
My godparents decided that it was time for them to and my two godsisters to move to Texas. And I remember quite clearly being sat down and being asked by my godfather to make a choice: did I want to stay with my mother or did I want to go with them to Texas. Even now, I remember being conscious of the choices I had been given, of the crossroads that I had reached. Even as a kid, I knew the difference between stability and safety and instability and hell.
I knew my godparents as if they had always been my real parents. And I loved them in that way. But I also knew and felt that way about my mother and my sister Tanya. Only children who have grown up in situations like these know what it is like.
As I am writing this, I can almost sense you asking yourselves: “who would ask a four or five year old to make such a big decision,” or “why didn’t they just take him with them if they knew it was so bad?”
Don’t we all wish it were that easy, sometimes? I mean, Americans do want it and have it that easy often times. Convenience is a hallmark of capitalism. We outline our basic preferences and from there we let the invisible hand, i.e. the convergence of hundreds of thousands of micro-forces and decisions, make decisions for us. What is available, our “supply of choices”, is nothing more than those options presented to us after many decisions along the supply chain have already been made for us.
We do not want to be bothered by what we now deem as trivial and beneath us. Instead, we trade away huge swathes of frantic indecision, with some varying degree of engineered and well-executed marketing and advertising campaigns, as well as societal trends and pressures, to obtain the comfort of what is often a this or that – the ease and convenience of binary choices.
Convenience is merely our insecurity with making choices. It may appear that the crossroads I was presented with was but a choice between stability and instability, but think again. Despite being four or five, I had some idea of the monumental-ness of what lay before me. In however many minutes, hours, or even days I deliberated over what to do, I made a million decisions in my head and in my heart about my future.
Were they conscious and obvious thoughts? Absolutely not. But all the feelings I remember feeling then only happen when there are a million thoughts running through your head and a million split-second decisions being made. I remember feeling that dread that you feel when you are faced with the decision of whether or not to leave some you love, whether it be family or a friend or a lover. I remember feeling, not necessarily thinking about, what life would be like living permanently apart from my birth mother. I remember feeling, not necessarily wondering, what it would be like to live with my godparents and not have to worry about the steady stream of awful male rolemodels come in an out of my life.
I am conscious now of the thoughts I must have had, knowing and remembering and conjuring up the feelings that I felt back then. Rationality had no meaning to me then. It was pure gut reaction about who I wanted to be with when all I really wanted was to be with both.
But my attachment to my birth mother was still strong and potent. I’d like to think that I felt a sense of duty to be there for my mother and my sister Tanya. And, honestly, I have always had that sense of duty – even to this day. My godparents told me that they always thought I was going to be a doctor because, when my godfather was sick, I tended and cared for him and made sure he was ok.
I tell this part because I have paused many times to consider how big of a crossroads that was for my life and the path I ended up on. I pause and wonder how different my life would have been moving to Texas with my godparents and two god sisters. I would have been their only son. I would have received consistent care and lived a stable life.
But then I look back on my life and remember all the people I’ve met thus far and, despite all the traumas, all the good memories I have had growing up. Nostalgia replaces regret and I begin to appreciate again the path I’ve tread and who I’ve become.
It was in my early childhood that I began to develop an independent spirit. I realized early on that the person I was closest to by the mere fact that she was my birth mother, would not always be there for me. And although others during that time tried to fill the gap, when a child recognizes that early that your birth mother is incapable of providing stable and consistent care, it does something to you.
You don’t cease to love them; you just love them differently. And you adapt. You realize that they are incapable of loving you in the way that they should, or in the way society expects they should, and you learn that the only way forward is to survive. To cope. To become self-reliant.
Portland, Me, 1997.
I realized this more and more when we all moved to Maine in the late 1990s. By the time we made it to Maine, my mother had given birth to my sister Tanya in 1994. Once in Maine, she gave birth to yet another child, my sister Seyya, in 1997. All three of us had different fathers, and the man she was with at the time was one of the most abusive men I’ve known in my life.
We had lived with him for some time in California before our move to Maine. I remember quite clearly the dusty, red driveway. I remember more clearly how the house had a black iron gate and was walled off by fencing from the other houses. This was most likely typical of homes in San Diego, but remembering it now, it seemed like we were the only ones in that prison.
Fortunately, when we moved to Maine, we all shared an apartment with my grandmother and my six aunts and uncles. I say fortunately because if there was one person whom Seyya’s father feared, it was my grandmother. I learned then never to underestimate a protective grandmother and her sandal.
And her broom, from what I’m told. My Pheakdey reminded me of the time when my grandmother and Mr. Dith were fighting. It escalated to the point where my grandmother threatened to call the cops if he dared to hit her. His response? Go ahead, call them. And so she did and so they came. But this is the part that, in my mind, is so very typical of domestic abuse situations.
The cops came and talked to both my grandmother and Mr. Dith. My grandmother explained to them that he was getting violent again, and went right back to sweeping the hallway as the police talked to Mr. Dith. I’ll make a side mention that I chuckled a bit picturing her going right back to sweeping. It just sounded like grandma.
But that aside, I say this was a typical domestic abuse situation in that Mr. Dith had told the police that my grandmother had struck him with her broom. Guess who they believed? You got that right. They arrested my grandmother and put her in jail for the night and my uncles had to scrape the money together to bail her out. So, while at the same time I was chuckling about my grandmother just going about her day after a fight, I’m a bit exasperated at why she was the one put in jail. But then again, it’s pretty typical that a domestic abuser can smooth talk his way out of things.
I grew very attached to my grandmother during that time. She was more of a mother to me than my own. Her two youngest children, my uncle Salut and my aunt Saly, were both younger than me (Salut by 6 months and Saly by a year and a half). My uncle Salut always snickers when he reminds me that my grandmother used to breastfeed us both. I remember my first day of school, Baxter Elementary, to be exact, and how my grandmother got six year old me and my five-year old uncle Salut into a scalding, hot bath. However, if my memory serves me correctly, Salut was not yet in school. Later, I attended Reiche Elementary, where I remember the oversized cubicle-style classrooms and the centrally located open-air library.
Reiche was progressive for its time, in my opinion. There was a big multicultural event they hosted once where we put on an African play about a caterpillar in a hut. Guess who got to be the caterpillar in the hut? Yours truly. I can recall that night, the nervousness especially. Being in that little hut holding a microphone and the script. The stage lights peaking through the strands that made up the door. They had also organized all the children to draw pictures for the multicultural calendar. I still have that calendar. I had drawn a straw hut sitting on stilts with a tiger lurking around outside.
Reiche was progressive for its time, thinking about it now. To this day, it is still a progressive school that prides itself on multiculturalism. In fact, when I was googling photos to make sure my memory about the cubicle classrooms was correct, they had a news item celebrating one of their teachers becoming a U.S. citizen. There is a feeling akin to hope in knowing that schools like this exist all across the United States. It was empowering then, and a powerful memory now, realizing that despite our diversity, we we as one body celebrated the cultural and ethnic uniqueness of each individual. It both speaks to the tremendous power of education, of which I have been a strong proponent of ever since I found my voice as an advocate, and a powerful testament to the idea of America. A nation founded upon individual liberty, a nation always in a struggle to define what that actually means, has pockets of hope where the individual is celebrated with a unity that coalesces around the idea of diversity and inclusion.
I remember my grandmother’s two bedroom apartment was located in downtown Portland, Maine, across the street from Portland High School and just behind the Boys and Girls Club on Cumberland Ave. It was here where I remember playing in the parking lot with Salut and Saly and cutting my foot on a rusty shaving knife. Or when my aunt Saly, around 4 or 5 at the time, was “dating” two white boys in the same apartment complex. Or my first introduction to a Maine winter during the Ice Storm of 1998. Our big family of 12 was crammed into the first and third floor apartments of that complex with cans of food and only each other to keep warm. That and the big, Asian mink blankets. Thinking back now, my little brother Brandon was lucky to have been born during the summer following that storm (all four of us are June babies).
What peace and childhood we lived during that time was provided by my grandma’s and my two oldest uncles’ hard work. My uncle Chinda started work in high school at Barber Foods, where he still works to this day. Twenty whole years in 2017. My grandmother barely spoke english, so the only job she could land was working the graveyard shift getting paid under the table collecting sea urchins. My uncle Sambo, who was either a freshman or sophomore at Portland High School at the time, also worked under the table doing the same. But despite all of this, we were a large family with the three of them working to support my alcoholic grandfather, mom, my uncles Pheakdey (who was in middle school at the time we were living there) and Salut, my aunt Saly, me and, by 1998, my three younger siblings Tanya, Seyya, and Brandon. Whenever I went to Shop ‘n Save with my grandmother, I’d often see the fancy looking paper that she would use to buy groceries. I knew it wasn’t money, but I knew it kept us fed and I had an appreciation for it.
This flies in the face of much of the political, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric around public benefits, food stamps, and welfare. To paint a broad stroke and generalize that people of color, immigrants, and refugees are lazy and are welfare queens is baseless and damaging to the idea of America – largely because it is false, demeaning, and provides a crutch to privileged segments of the population, who not only vote consistently against their own interests, but subsist in blissful ignorance in a system that divides them from the rest and places those of color beneath them in order to allow them to say, with some certainty, that their predicament is not all that bad. It is a cognitive dissonant and racially motivated economic superiority perpetuated by a false sense that one is better and above another, when, in fact, one is still being crushed under an economic system that supports the concentration of wealth at the top.
This is not to say that some people of color, immigrants, and refugees don’t entirely subsist on public benefits. But if they do, I can say from personal experience that many of them are the children of great trauma and many of them suffer from deep, mental anguish that so often leads to mental health issues. As I have mentioned before, our human brains of 80+ billion neurons is complex and it is not for us to say that a person is merely being lazy and simply needs to pull themselves up and out of whatever abyss they are in. For many, their families often do not have the resources to deal with everything that is a byproduct of mental illness. So many such individuals must find help wherever they can find it.
For some, that help is found in religion. In a supreme deity who is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent and has a purpose behind every action or inaction. And so it was, at times, the light in my mother’s life. My mother, who would at times go to my godparents’ church when living in Cali – my godfather being a Cambodian pastor and all – found a new church which sent around these sort of iconic, maroon buses and 18 passenger vans to all the neighboring towns. The church was Freeport Baptist Church and it was a part of my life on and off up until I was put in foster care, and they were intent on remaining a part of my life. You see, we didn’t want to go. The vans and buses would show up and, at times, they would literally chase us down and cram us in and ship us off to Sunday School. Depending on what the statute of limitations is, I may have a case against them for false imprisonment and kidnapping (joking!).
One elderly couple from the church took particular interest in my mother and me. The few times I made it to Sunday School, they would swing by and say hello. I do not know why they took interest in us or me. But they became attached to my mother and I in a certain way, so much so that the first time I remember receiving a Christmas gift was when they stopped by and gifted me a firetruck. They took me for a ride shortly after and we talked about things, of what I am no longer sure. But they took an increasingly important role in my early childhood.
Riverton Park, Portland, Maine, 1998.
Eventually, our part of the family had grown too large and my mother, Brandon, Seyya, their father, Tanya, and I moved into a four bedroom unit in Riverton Park, a low-income housing development located just off Forest Ave heading toward Windham. This move was the beginning of the end in a way. Gone we were from the watchful and protective eyes of my grandmother (and her broomstick). I wonder to this day whether it was Mr. Dith that convinced my mother to move out. It is a pattern of many domestic abusers to remove their victims from safe spaces – whether it be family or even friends.
There is one dark memory that I am reminded of as I am writing this. A memory that, thankfully, has lost the sting that many such traumas carry with them. My mother had taken us to a friends house on St. John’s St., where they were celebrating or partying or whatnot. My sister and I were asleep in one of the bedrooms when we began to hear clamoring and shouting. Mr. Dith had shown up and he was arguing with my mother. Next thing I know, I hear a loud SMACK and my mother began to cry. And I began to cry because I knew exactly what had happened. Mr. Dith was being violent again.
I came out of the bedroom and my mother was on the ground sobbing hysterically with her hand over her mouth. Blood was running down. He had struck her so hard that he had knocked her teeth. This was the worst I’d ever seen Mr. Dith do and I sobbed even more uncontrollably. My sister Tanya had joined the sad chorus as well. My moms friend had called the cops, who had arrived on the scene shortly after. I still remember the blue lights flashing in and out of my mom’s friend’s second floor apartment. For some reason, Mr. Dith didn’t flee, or maybe he tried to, but he was detained outside by the police. It was either after that point, or some time thereafter, that he disappeared from our lives. Perhaps a restraining order was put on him. I don’t know. But good riddance.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the practice of revisiting traumas and thinking about the feelings then and the feelings now, removes that trauma from the primitive parts of the brain to the rational, thinking parts of the brain. The trauma gets processed and you are able to make somewhat rational decisions about what power that trauma holds over you now and in the future. It seems counterintuitive but I would say processing trauma is much different than dwelling on it – recognizing that brings with it freedom. Because no matter how much you want to run from a trauma or ignore or seal it away, it is a truth that is a part of you. It is something that happened to you and nothing in the world can rewind and change that.
If you run from something you fear, it gives that fear power and that fear will continue to chase and haunt you. But if you turn around and face it, only then can you begin to see it for what it is and only then can you see it in the light, rather than having it lurk in your own shadow.
After this, things got worse with my mom. I don’t remember exactly what tipped me off, but I knew that my mother had picked up prostitution again. She would disappear, oftentimes for days at a time. There was one time when she disappeared, and I remember it clearly because I was in pain. Whether it was a UTI or what have you (I’ll spare you the grisly details), I was running around to all of the other Asian families in Riverton Park trying to find her. When I reached one of our cousins’ houses in 4th Circle (we lived in 6th, which is kind of ominous thinking about it now), I was told that my mother had gone to Boston.
I once walked in on her and an Asian man who I knew was married to a family friend. I remember being livid and my mother asking me why I was mad at her. I’d like to say I was mad because I knew it was wrong. But I think that, by that time, despite the other men in her lives, I had grown accustomed to doing what I could to take care of my mother and my siblings. I felt I had assumed the mantle of the “man of the house.” I became protective of my mother and remember holding a lot of resentment toward the other men she brought in, many of whom were as verbally and physically abusive to her as the last one. There was this one white man she dated, Scott, who spoke Khmer fluently. I hated him. But Scott and my mom had a fight once in the kitchen. My mother had a butcher knife in her hand and they were arguing about something. He was closing in trying to make some point and she slammed the butcher knife down. I’m pretty sure it was pretty close to his hand or something because then they started arguing about how she almost cut his hand off.
I was angry at all the men she chased. To this day she’s still chasing after them. So, no, it was not some noble morality that drove my anger. It was a feeling that I had been replaced. It was a feeling that things were out of my control and I was powerless to protect her from them and from her own demons. One of which was alcohol. I can remember one night when she was drinking and we were all sleeping downstairs in the living room and I woke up to her puking on the floor. I remember it was the cheap rum in the plastic containers. I don’t know who called them, but the ambulance arrived.
She was also still haunted by her experiences in Cambodia, as evidenced by how she watched Cambodian movies about the Khmer Rouge. Which I knew then was dangerous. One movie she watched was of a Cambodian woman being subdued and raped by soldiers. It wasn’t the movie that I remember as clearly, it was how fixated she was on it. I tried to change the tv but she snapped at me. I have always wondered how some Cambodians seem to remember the Khmer Rouge like it was all in the past, and they kept it there, but some still live it. This is a prime example of how some are able to process trauma, while others dwell and relive it over and over again in their minds. But the human psyche is perhaps the greatest mystery of all it seems to me at times. The human brain is made up of roughly 85 billion neurons, which is scientifically proven as resulting from the advent of cooking – which allows us to metabolize calories more efficiently and therefore devote more energy to brain functions. The studies are out there, too, that poverty, hunger, trauma, etc., especially for children who are in the midst of brain development, is extremely harmful and is linked to mental health issues.
Which compels me to make a side point: consider the impact it would have on child development, on family, and, yes, on government spending and the economy, if the wealthiest country on earth invested in completely eradicating poverty and hunger? It would take a generation or two perhaps to realize the tangible benefits, but by focusing on the eradication of both of those societal ills, we could even reduce family dysfunction as the rate of mental health issues goes down, crime goes down, and people are well-fed and happy. If the human brain made the evolutionary leaps that it did by making the transition from raw to cooked foods, and many of society’s ills are the result of mental illness and anti-social behavior, could we perhaps draw the conclusion that making sure the next generation has the resources to fully develop their brains is a worthwhile investment a government and society can make? Would that not be the “fiscally conservative” thing to do since, in the long run, economic costs will go down due to more certainty and stability at both the macro and micro levels? It’s quite the dream, but first we need to rethink our current economic system, which is dominated by competition and models developed with scarcity, supply, and demand in mind. The fixation on competition without consideration of what may be the golden mean, in my opinion, is not an efficient market but rather a race to the bottom. There may yet be hope with the advent of the “sharing economy”. Not that the sharing economy will save us, but it could mean that we can move along to a “cooperative economy” rather than a competitive economy.
This of course is an oversimplification, but I am no economist – merely an idealist. But, yet again, I digress.
It was during this time that I began to see other people enter our lives. By other people, I mean white people. By white people, I mean the Department of Health & Human Services’ case workers, guardian ad litems, etc. I should also point out the Asian translators – who, despite their role of translators, also took an interest in our lives beyond their basic duties.
These people often visited and would ask me if I was alright, how much food I had to eat, if I felt like I was being taken care of, and if I felt my mom was doing well. Then, I felt like they were snooping around for any wrongdoing on the part of my mother, who I knew was struggling. Again, my protective side came out during these times. Yet, I also grew accustomed and perhaps even fond of these people – people that seemed to have my best interests in mind. Especially the guardian ad litem, a lawyer named Kevin.
Remember the elderly couple from the baptist church that I had mentioned took an increasingly important role in my life? Well, at this point in time they decided to take it to the next step and try and remove me from a situation that was getting increasingly worrisome. They worked with my guardian ad litem and eventually presented me with the choice of whether to move in with them or not. I decided that, yes, I would – given that these people were kind, had taken an interest in me, and had showered me with gifts. But I pause in order to say that they weren’t showering love and affection on me to entice me to leave. It’s just, in my mind at the time, I saw the life and the privileges they had and I wanted a piece of that. So I went with them and moved into a small room in their condo in Freeport. I was enrolled in the small, private christian school, where I remember a mean teacher who would sit next to me and pinch me if I couldn’t read or write the way I was supposed to. I also remember that I would get stubborn and give them a hard time, which, thinking now, I feel bad because they were so old and I was so bad and ungrateful. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but there was a night when I woke up crying and missing my mother. Some time after that, they asked if I wanted to go back and I said yes – which I’m sure broke their heart. With all my troubles, I heard that I was still a sweet, considerate boy. Although, I have a hard time believing, but it might be because I knew what was in my heart at the time.
When I moved back to Riverton Park, things reached a point where the State decided that my mother was incapable of taking care of all four of us and the two younger ones, Seyya and Brandon, were the first to be put into foster care. This was around 1998 or 1999, during a period in time where the State was pulling kids out of homes, left and right (thankfully, in the past decade, policy has shifted toward trying to keep kids in their homes, a policy I believe to be sound but also threatened under the current administration).
We didn’t lose complete contact with Seyya and Brandon, though. I recall the countless trips we would take with RTP to go and see my youngest siblings. Thinking of those trips, it is sort of funny that I associate those trips mostly with the radio commercial “whenever you need us, call 1-800-East-West.” I’m sure some of you may remember those commercials, as well. They’re probably still running.
But it wasn’t all dark and gloomy during that time. I still found ways to be a kid. I made friends pretty fast in Riverton. Most of them of Asian background and some of African backgrounds. Riverton Park, being a low-income housing community, in fact, was predominately made up of immigrant families from African and Asian regions. There were many Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thai, Somalian, and Kenyans. I can only remember of one white family – who operated the neighborhood candy store in their unit.
Friends became extremely important to me during this time. They were my escape from my lack of a home life. We did everything together. We would walk the mile to Riverton School and together lived the lives of children at play. I remember very clearly those golden days of simply walking down the street with your friends, joking and laughing all the way to school or back home. I remember feeling the adrenaline as neighborhood dogs gave us a run for our money. Or when we would try to take on some older, bigger kids and found out all too soon that we were going to get whooped. Or the times we felt like we owned the world. Going where we wanted. Playing where we wanted. Being friends where we wanted.
One of the clearer memories I had during this time was when I first experimented with one of my good friends whose family was from Kenya (whose identity I will keep confidential). But before I delve into this story, I want to warn those who would use my story of childhood hardship to somehow say that being gay is the result of bad nurturing, and not something that is a part of someone’s very nature. In fact, I tell this story of my earliest gay experience to make the opposite point.
You see, I had experimented with girls as well. The usual “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” But I remember more clearly my time with my best friend, a boy. It was as strong of an emotional connection a boy could make at that point in time. One that, at my age, I couldn’t explain or put into words. It was something I just knew. Something I just felt. Something I just ran with.
I wasn’t confused when I kissed him or hugged him. My feelings and thoughts were unadulterated by societal judgments or moral abhorrence, free from the self-hatred I would later feel as a teenager. I did what I wanted. I did what I felt was right. I loved who I loved without fear. I was a child experiencing love with childlike wonder; a love untainted by the coming years. At least when we were alone. There was this one time where we had been wrestling on the bed in the bedroom with a window facing the circle of houses. The light was on and the shades down. After a while we collapsed in a heap and started to kiss.
The next morning we both walked to the basketball courts where we met up with my predominately asian group of friends. As we walked up, one of my friends who happened to live directly across from me on the other side of the circle, jeered at us and said he saw our silhouettes wrestling in the window. Both my Kenyan friend and I panicked and came up with some story to rebut their presumption – but it was for naught. I suppose we were a little ashamed, but any guy/girl caught messing around, at least before that age where boys began to boast about their exploits, would react in that bashful feigning of innocence way.
Somehow, we got them to get off our case and we walked the mile or so to Riverton Elementary. Sometime we took the main way, by walking to the Riverton Park entrance across from the 7-11 on Forest Ave, and following that major road (also known as Route 302) until we got to the intersection with the fire and gas station – which also was the entrance to the school. Most of the time, we’d go through the woods behind 2nd and 3rd Circles and weave through the cul-de-sacs and working and middle class neighborhoods that lay between our low income housing development and Riverton Elementary. Often times, we’d also walk back that way, making sure to avoid the white kid who had chased us with his dog once.
We did take the bus initially, until we figured out we could pretty much walk and have adventures along the way. I remember one time after school, we all were riding the bus back home and Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby” song came on. Us boys loved that song and we belted it out, most likely to either the amusement or disdain of the bus driver.
And boy did I love to sing. But I was very shy about it. Not that I have a bad voice, because many of my friends can testify that I have a lovely voice. Although I have never had trouble making friends, I have always had that introverted trait of wanting just enough attention but not too much. When I sang, people stopped to listen. I rarely sang for attention. I sang because it made me feel good. Which is why it took some guts to join Riverton Elementary’s chorus group. My guy friends all made fun of me when I told them we should join (I didn’t want to go alone). But one of my friends went along with me. I think it was the Chinese one, although I’m drawing a blank on his name. He was Chinese and didn’t live in Riverton with us but joined our group of friends when we figured out he had Pokémon cards. But before that, he endured our consistent bullying when, on the first day of school, we found out he ate cereal with orange juice. Like, who does that? But eh, let’s consider it a sort of initiation or initial hazing so common among boys AND men.
That aside, I had my share of childhood mischief. Well, I should say we, the Riverton boys, had our share of mischief. Learning to slip Pokemon cards up our sleeves after asking to sift through another kid’s deck. Sneaking in the 7/11 and stealing Pokemon card packs. Playing in a small sandlot and accidentally setting it on fire while playing with matches.
The most infamous memory was when one of the few white boys in the community, who were of middle school age, enticed my group of friends, a bunch of Asians and Africans, to hit up the junk yard for bike parts. When we got there, the white boy found a bull dozer with the keys in it. I was with my uncle Salut (remember, he is a year younger) sifting through a pile of odd parts when the white boy came around the corner with the bulldozer – crashing left and right into piles and piles of junk.
We ran as fast as we could, diving underneath the tall fence we had dug under. We turned one last time to see if he had given chase and for a split second saw him crash into the very fence we had escaped under. The adrenaline was at its peak as we booked it back to Riverton Park.
Later we found out that the white boy had done considerable damage to the junk yard and for the next few weeks, we all scattered every time a Portland police car would roll through the community – knowing full well that one of them was searching for the junkyard culprits. My friends and I already feared the Portland Police.
In fact, every time we would see one approach, we would go out of our way to avoid the cop car. Running into the woods, jumping into the little marsh and hiding among the cat tails, or climbing into a culvert underneath the road. In part, it was a child’s game. But the anxiety was also there. To us and the community we grew up in, they were the kind of authority we feared.
Pile on top of that the fact that we had been at the junkyard and that the Portland Police were looking for the group of kids who were a part of the incident, my anxiety was through the roof. In the coming week, the white boy squeaked and claimed us all as his compadres in crime.
Riverton had a community liaison – who I remember also translated for my mother at certain times. She was Asian, although I do not remember of which nationality in particular. Somehow she had gotten wind of our mischief and made it a point to reach out to us and let us know that everything will be ok as long as we cooperated. In fact, she even arranged for us to get out of town and got us tickets to ride on the Songo River Queen in Naples.
It was 2000. I was eight at the time. It’s odd thinking back now that, at the age of 8, I visited the very town where I would spend my adolescent years living with my adoptive family. A few weeks after that ride on the Songo River Queen, the police couldn’t locate one last “culprit.” A DHHS caseworker had shown up one evening and my sister Tanya and I were whisked away to our first foster home.