Resilient: A Story About Poverty, Sexuality, Race, and Overcoming Adversity, Part One - By Marpheen Chann
I fit into most everybody’s image of what a young man should be: smart, driven, and on the path toward success. They may see it in my being the first of both my biological and adoptive family to graduate from college and make it into law school. They may see it in the way I speak or write. They may see it in the way I walk, dress, and carry myself.
But underneath all of this, they may not see the years of pain, hurt and poverty that I endured as a child, or the constant transition between foster homes, or the many, many years I spent as an adolescent struggling with my sexuality in a deeply religious household.
I want to make it clear that my story is no justification for those who believe that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It is no justification for those who say that poverty builds character.
My story, instead, is justification for my belief that we, as a society, should do better to lift people out of poverty – not to simply chide them for being lazy and belittling their struggle. That, as a society, we should do better to limit the adversity wrought by political negligence and bad policy.
Poverty is harsh. It hurts. It’s hard. Even more so if you’re a kid who has no control whatsoever in what family or circumstance or privilege you are born into or what skin color or sexuality you are born with.
To simply make a blanket statement that “poverty (or adversity) builds character” or that people should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” is an outright lazy way of saying that you don’t have the time or heart to care about anyone but yourself or the problems that run rampant in our society.
I am living proof that poverty and adversity is a painful and traumatic experience and struggle that no one should ever belittle or wish upon anyone else.
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 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.
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 think back sometimes to one stark memory of my godparents asking me, before they moved to Texas, whether I wanted to move with them or stay with my birth mother.
I was reminded of this when I visited my godparents for the first time in almost 15 years on a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2012. My godfather retold the story and how it was important to him that I made the choice for myself, despite my being a 4 or 5 year old.
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, Maine, 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.
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 at the same time.
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 that two bedroom apartment 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). But alas 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.
Shortly after moving there, Seyya and Brandon’s father ended up leaving and 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 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.
So, no, it was not some noble morality that drove my anger. It was a feeling that I had been replaced.
And 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 “white 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.
Eventually, however, things reached a point where the “white people” 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 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.
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 was 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.
Part Two Coming Soon.
Candidate for Portland City Council District 5.
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