Acton, ME, 1999.
I fidgeted in my seat. As if I was feeling the seatbelt slowly transform into a shackle. A sort of feeling as if there was an impending doom. There was a churning like a sea of turbulence in my stomach. A tensing as the chords in my shoulders and neck began to draw tight – as if my body was trying to cut itself off from my mind. But in actuality, I was losing breath and, with every passing minute, the glimmer of life began to fade as I was overcome with feelings of unwanted change.
I didn’t look out the window. I didn’t look anywhere but at my hands. Fidgeting. As if I were trying to clasp and cling to what was becoming a distant memory. As if the air between my fidgety hands would somehow whisk me back to what I knew: My mother; My home; My family; My friends; and my neighborhood.
As if the way in which my hands turned and turned upon each other would turn back the clock of time and rewind. As if it would turn the car back around, and turn my life around. As if it would return the tears tha had already been shed.
It was dark. It was night. The silhouette of trees haunting as they guarded the road that stretched ahead. Black against the dark blue of the night sky. Their hands stretched upward and waving as if wailing to the murmur of the wind. So dark that not even the stars or the moon could overcome the solemn procession.
I began to feel the cold creep into his heart. That icy fear of the unknown. Of uncontrollable circumstance. That cold, unfettered fear of helplessness and abandonment. Of utter loneliness in the chasm of unwelcome change.
I know, almost for a fact, that the DHS caseworker had picked me and Tanya up in the evening, because by the time we made it onto the road it was starting to get dark. I usually pride myself on having a sixth sense about things, but I really fell for this one – at least for a while. The caseworker, when she had shown up at the door, had said something along the lines of “we’re taking you to stay somewhere else for a while.”
In my little head, that didn’t register as forever. I more interpreted it as perhaps a sleepover or something. Then again, I was used to being away from home. Once, I had opted to stay with an elderly couple who had lived in Freeport. They first met my mother at Freeport Baptist Church and soon took an interest in me. I remember they bought me a firetruck for Christmas. Eventually gifts turned into a hard invitation to stay with them for a while. I don’t remember how long I stayed with them, but I remember the Christian school they sent me to very well. There was a mean teacher there who would pinch me when I would get something wrong. That said, I woke up one night and started crying because I missed my mother. I ended up back home shortly.
But I digress, somewhat. All I was trying to say was that I was used to this whole bouncing around from one home to the next. For most of the trip to this “better place,” as the caseworker had called it, it didn’t really phase me or dawn on me what was in fact happening. But there was a point along the way that I began to feel and get a sense of what was going on. I may have been an 8 going on 9 year old kid at the time, but I was pretty darn smart. Many of my teachers saw this in me, despite their constant chiding to do better and apply myself.
You see, I began to connect the dots. We were being taken “to a better place” for a while. That place, measured by the immense amount of time I spent on my butt to get there, must be pretty far from Riverton Park. The environment couldn’t have been more fitting. It was getting darker and darker. The sun had set and the trees once green and friendly now turned into dark shadows with wailing arms. They were like a funeral procession mourning the end of the life I had lived up until that point in time.
Eventually, we slowed and turned into a driveway. A light appeared at the end of the open-aired tunnel of night. Was it the spark of something new or was it more a burning reminder of what was lost? I don’t quite remember the answer.
Out on the porch stepped a couple, Mark and Debi, and the caseworker walked my sister and I up the stairs, doing her solemn duty to deliver these two children into the loving care of a foster home. But despite all the reassuring words and love that was being showered on the both of us that night, heartbreak set in as we met our foster sisters, Heidi, Erika, and Alexis, the two dogs, and the cats. The floodgates opened even more as we shuffled into our new bedroom.
I lay there sobbing, staring at the nightlight. I was crying “mommy, mommy,” until my voice grew hoarse and lost itself, at which point it seemed like my very soul and body sobbed the words with every heave of my heavy heart. While it would seem that life thus far should have prepared me for the inevitable separation, given the many times I was separated or distant from my mother, it is as if my whole being knew that this was, in fact, the separation to end all separations. That there would be no more back and forth. And while the custody battle continued far from our view and behind the scenes, and while there were many more transitions ahead, we would never live with my mother again.
But what resentment and anger I woke up with the next day, was slowly softened over the coming weeks and months by the love my new family gave in abundance. Mark, the father, was kind and nurturing. Seldom was he stern. Even if I had committed some childish act of disobedience or disrespect, even if I was met with sternness, it soon faded.
In a visit with my first foster family, Debi retold the story about how the authorities investigating the dump wrecking incident eventually found me. We laughed quite a bit as she told me how I used to want to answer the phone every single time someone called. But this time, Debit answered first and a voice came on the line, “Hello, this is the Assistant District Attorney, is there a Marpheen there?”
As there conversation continued, Debi said my face grew pale and I began to shake my head vigorously. I had been found. And from the looks of it, then, Debi was in cahuts with them as she explained that she agreed that I needed to face the consequences of my actions. The day arrived that I was scheduled to appear before the judge and the owner of the junkyard, which Debi described as painful for her as she watched how anxious and nervous I was getting. But she stuck to her guns and saw this is a good learning and disciplinary opportunity. The parts I remembered from that meeting or hearing or whatever you want to call it, was me sitting in a room with a bunch of grown-ups. I remember repeating, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t mean to.” And somewhere in that conversation remembering someone mention that it didn’t matter, that I was an accomplice, that I had trespassed and had been on the scene when the incident happened. At this point, I just bawled. I sobbed uncontrollably, most likely sniffling out sad arguments of it being unfair and all that jazz.
The crying must have done the trick, since I was not sent to juvenile hall or prescribed community service, as was done for the other kids. My guess is that, in light of the circumstances with me being in the home environment I was in at the time, and being transitioned into a foster home, the judge must have decided that it was not in my best interest to send me to juvenile. I don’t even remember if there were any serious repercussions from that. I chuckle now because I say that was my first victory in a court of law (although, I don’t remember actually being in a courtroom; I think it was the judge’s private chambers). Afterwards, Debi took me out for an ice cream. And you know what? I totally agree that she did the right thing then and the ice cream must have worked, because it took her retelling the story for me to remember how awful it felt.
My one of my fondest memories was with Mark, one that makes me chuckle to this day. It was an afternoon on the lake (or pond) and Mark and I had taken to the water on a kayak. I remember it was a pleasant summer day. The sort of pleasant where you feel like every breath was easy, as if you were breathing the very breath of life for the first time. The sun, golden and warm, setting the ripples and waves ablaze with dancing light. The trees on the shore, serene and waving, as if begging us to come back to land to wave with them; they too seemed to glow with summer.
I was at the front of the kayak. So pleasant was it that I stopped paddling and closed my eyes. Listening to the sounds of the parting water. The sound of seagulls far from the sea. All I could see was the warm glow of sunlight through my eyelids. And there it was, a sigh. Un sospiro (the title of one of my favorite classical pieces, composed by Franz Liszt). It felt like I was slipping into a trance. As if I was falling.
SPLASH. Indeed I was falling… sideways into the water. After who knows how long, it felt like infinity, I had fallen asleep and had tipped the kayak over. Everything went overboard. Including Mark.
But what I heard was the oddest thing. Laughter. He was laughing! Of all the things you would have expected from such an incident, he was laughing. Despite him losing his wallet, and everything being soaked, he was laughing. Next thing I know, I was laughing too. We both laughed all the way home in the truck. The whole family laughed when we endured fits of laughter trying to relay the story of how we ended up getting soaked. We would continue to remind each other of that incident, and laugh some more.
Another hilarious incident that Debi reminded both me and Mark about, was when Mark was following the GPS with me and Tanya in the car. We were driving along, when all of a sudden, Mark veered toward the right and off the road into a field. The tiny Honda was bumping along until we rolled to a stop, at which point, we all burst out laughing. Who knows why. It was that darn funny! And being told that story again brought back all those cozy and warm feelings I had at the time.
Life was different like that for us there. Both my sister and I were truly allowed to be kids, without having to worry about being cold or hungry or neglected. The home was always filled with warmth and the comfort of the wood stove (thanks in small part to my newly acquired skill of wood stacking). We were introduced to a whole new array of food, American food, which I admit was a little bland compared to my grandmothers cooking (many Asian dishes are spicy). But as long as I had the black pepper shaker within reach, the blandness was somewhat tolerable. And boy did I learn to love pepper. All joking aside, Debi’s cooking was phenomenal! Homemade mac and cheese. None of that fake, boxed stuff. Meatloaf. Pies. You name it, she made it. And I ate it.
Debi was the mother of all mothers. Mark, who served in the military and was a plumber when off duty, was soft spoken, a man of few words, and was not afraid to be emotional and shed a tear once in a while. So, in my mind, Debi had to compensate for Mark’s lack of sternness. But she also had the biggest brat to deal with, yours truly. I was strong-willed and stubborn as an ox. I still am. But, you know, all the “your grounded” verdicts or timeouts they would give were also given with more than the requisite share of love. And I think that is how discipline should work. It should teach a lesson, but one where a child later reflects more on the love with which judgment was rendered, rather than it being a clash of wills or a war for dominance.
I also had to adjust to a new school, Acton Elementary School. And what an adjustment. Just months before arriving at my first foster home, I was a second grader in the Portland Public School system, which served the most populous and most diverse region in the entire state of Maine. At Reiche and Riverton Elementary, there were Somalians, Kenyans, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Lebanese, etc. It was a melting pot. And I didn’t feel out of place at all.
But at Acton Elementary, my sister and I were like grains of sand in a sea of white. I mean, it was a school that served one of Maine’s quintessential small towns. I felt out of place. I felt shy, it seemed, for the first time. There were no others like me, other than my sister. It was hard enough being the new kids in a new school in a new town. On top of that, we were “the Other”. We weren’t like everyone else. We had different skin. Different eyes. Different hair. And even if we were met with kindness, stereotypes and biases still exist for many who grow up in predominately homogenous communities. Those stereotypes and biases make a showing when someone that doesn’t quite look like you shows up.
But what is a kid to do other than to drift along with the current of change, having not yet acquired the sense of self and strength of will to be master of one’s own fate. And thus I drifted into the sea of white, a grain of sand drifting about. Perhaps dissolving. Perhaps changing. Perhaps morphing. Perhaps growing stronger.
My assimilation into whiteness didn’t come without bumps in the road, however. In my mind, I may have begun to talk white and act white and dress white, but I still possessed the immutable characteristic of being brown. And I remember quite clearly during my third grade year at Acton Elementary, in the middle of a white, wintry recess, those feelings of being different than everyone else, having different skin, different eyes, when I landed a fist in a white kids face – giving him a bloody nose. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that moment of being the only brown kid; that moment of being the only kid from the “projects”.
But along with those bumps in the road, there were some smooth patches as well. For a tiny, predominately white town in Maine, there were some more progressive streaks. In conversations with Mark and Debi shortly before I moved to D.C., they reminded me of how an entire elementary school in Maine organized a Cambodian New Year celebration to help my sister and I feel welcome. Debi recalled fondly over some lunch at Honeypaw (an Asian fusion restaurant in Portland, Maine) that during that time, I became proud to be Cambodian and started to own that part of me.
Despite this, I was no longer surrounded by my Cambodian family and friends. The language and culture I was born into and grew up with leading up to that point in time began to slip. Something I deeply regret to this day is that I no longer know a single word in Khmer. It makes it extremely difficult to converse with my biological family members, especially my grandmother and birth mother and father.
But I am jumping ahead slightly. My transition into foster care and a new life was fostered by my foster parents, who encouraged me to try baseball and basketball. I was OK at baseball (I was much better in 5th and 6th grade playing for Gorham Savings Bank in the Babe Ruth league). I didn’t like basketball much. I got too many finger jams. One thing I did like was music class. I had always loved singing. I was shy, but I loved it. I remember quite clearly the Christmas concert we put on for our parents and how I discovered one of my favorite songs, My Favorite Things. I still hum it sometimes to this day.
Since we’re on the topic of Christmas, this was my first American Christmas. It was our introduction to new family traditions and was indeed a magical time for us. From venturing out and finding our Christmas tree, making strings of popcorn, decorating our own ornaments, and arranging all of the lights, my sister and I were truly enamored by everything. We had an upright piano in the living room and learned Christmas carols, sat by the fireplace, and had Christmas Eve dinner. I remember not being able to sleep that night, having heard the stories of Santa Claus and the gifts he would bring.
The next morning, I remember shaking with excitement and wanting everyone to wake up. At long last, everyone did wake up and we all rushed to the Christmas tree. And there they all were. More presents than we could behold and stocking stuffed to overflowing! What a sight it was! We had never seen anything like it before. It was truly a time of joy and giving. Everyone was in good spirits. And everyone understood that it was our first Christmas.
With this new world came a lot of anger and resentment. In a conversation with my Mark and Debi, we talked about the winter of my first Christmas as one of breakthrough; a time when my bottled up emotions and anger reached a breaking point.
It was some time in March and it seemed that my foster sister, Alexis, and I were having an ordinary snowball fight. But one snowball landed on my ear and slid down into my neck. From what she recalled, I got very angry. So much so that she ran into the house and locked me out. This made me angrier. As bad as it sounds, this was a point where I expressed all the feelings that I had bottled up since being separated from my birth mother and moving to my first foster family. This “breaking point” was also a turning point in many ways. In letting my bottled up anger out, I also began to let go. I yelled and yelled repeatedly and eventually started crying in that angry crying sort of way.
I remember that, in that moment, I came up with one of the plans that many kids my age come up with when we are that angry: I’m going to run away and make them miss me and we’ll see how they feel now. I ran into the woods nearby and down toward a brook that I often visited. It flowed through a culvert under the road and snaked its way through the woods down past the house. I especially loved this one spot during the summer. There were big, huge boulders on either side of the brook that gave an onlooker a good view of the tiny brook. Sitting atop one of the bigger boulders and taking in the greenish-gold that filtered from the fusion of sun and leaf, accompanied by the soft hint of moss and forest floor, was a past time of mine. During my outburst in the winter, it became my “runaway spot” where I thought I would hide in order to make my foster family miss me.
But by now, you probably know that Debi knew just how to deal with me when she got home and heard the news. Not too much longer than that, I calmed down and my plan backfired. I missed them. So I went back. Debi remembers that this was a turning point. I held less of my feelings and emotions in and bottled them up less.
Church was important to my first foster family. I remember we went to a small church every now and then but we mainly attended Curtis Lake Christian Church in one of Maine’s larger towns, Sanford, ME. We went to Sunday school and family nights, bible camp during the summer, and I joined the children’s choir. I was a very shy singer and I am still to this day. This was also my first encounter with a fully produced Christmas pageant, where I got to see baby Jesus born and become a man and ultimately nailed to a cross.
But when spring came into bloom, our situation was beginning to change. As I have found out later, we were only supposed to stay at Mark and Debi’s for a few days, but it turned into a whole year. It was then that DHHS decided to transfer my sister and I to a group home in Windham, Maine.
Sometimes I wonder what was going through their heads when DHS decides to tear families apart. Not only that, but when they by chance happen to place kids in a good home, I also wonder how some administrative concern or policy seems to blind them as they, again, pluck kids from a good situation and place them in yet another new home.
DHHS at the time was being accused of racism. Of taking kids primarily from families of color and placing them with white families. Now, I get this. I understand that unconscious bias exists and most likely did lead the department to discriminatorily target families of color.
But here was where they were mistaken. Instead of adopting a new policy that would revamp the review process for determining when to rip kids out of their homes, and especially the policy that kids of color should be placed in other families of color, they committed a colossal fumble. Their first mistake was thinking that they could achieve this in one of the whitest states in the country. The second mistake was rounding up kids that they had initially placed with white families and throwing them again into the foster care, administrative hell-hole.
In my case, the Department had actually succeeded in placing my sister and I in a perfectly good and loving family. At a point when I was starting to heal from the initial trauma of being separated from my birth mother, at a time when I was learning to love again, the Department ripped us from our new family and placed us in a group home. Not in an Asian family… a group home.
The idea then was to either look for an Asian family or to try and get my birth mother to a point where she could take us back. But meanwhile, my sister and I sat in group-home, foster care limbo. Twiddling our broken hearts. And if I sound angry, I am. I can forgive and reconcile with people, but when it comes to a system or process or government, I am wholly within my right to be angry. And I am.
We packed up into Mark’s truck and we all rode up to the group home. As we drove into the driveway, the feelings hit us all like a mack truck. Saying goodbye to a family I loved and a family that had loved me was so much harder than being separated from my birth mother.