Fostering Hope: An Introduction


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. Our individual lives are like ripples which, when combined with all the ripples of the rest of us, turns into waves that push and pull the tides of what becomes our shared experience.

An Introduction

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. Our individual lives are like ripples which, when combined with all the ripples of the rest of us, turns into waves that push and pull the tides of what becomes our shared experience.

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.