PORTLAND — I am a first-generation Asian-American who has had the privilege of growing up in both a poor Cambodian-Chinese immigrant family and a white working-class family. I am the first of both families to graduate from college, and I will be attending the University of Maine School of Law in the fall.
My story is one of those warm and fuzzy American stories that people like to hear.
I was born in California in 1991 after my biological family had sought refuge there in the late 1980s. They had sought asylum in the United States during a period of great unrest in Cambodia, where they had lived through a genocide that wiped out 3.3 million people – nearly a quarter of the population.
We moved to Portland around 1996 and lived across from Portland High School until my mom decided to part with my grandmother, uncles and aunts and move to Riverton Park – a low-income housing development.
By then, she was a single mother raising four children. She was dealing with some mental health issues, so parenting tasks often fell to me, an 8-year-old boy. I remember having to learn how to cook rice on the stove and how to cook eggs; one of the few treats I had was mixing a little sugar with milk.
Throughout this time, I always remembered that white people would visit our home every now and then. I remember a guardian ad litem appointed by the court. I would see my mom handle odd pieces of paper to purchase food and visit offices on Forest Avenue and Marginal Way to fill out papers for aid.
Little did I know then that such aid was what kept me and my siblings from starving and helped to keep us in a decent home.
Eventually, though, my mom couldn’t meet the standards set by the state and one night, shortly before my ninth birthday, I remember a nice white lady came to pick up me and my sister (the two younger ones had already been placed in foster care) and told us, “We’re going on a trip. We’re going to take you to a better place.”
A few hours later, we arrived in the driveway of a big and beautiful home, and I realized what was happening. Every step I took toward those doors was a step that changed my life. No matter how much they hugged and held me tight, I still cried. A lot.
My siblings and I were all in foster care until I turned 12, when a family that had been taking care of my two younger siblings made it their mission to reunite us. We lived with them for two years before the state gave the go-ahead for our adoption and we legally became a part of the Berry family.
I remember our vacations to Florida and our road trips during the summer. I remember trying baseball and basketball, but the only sport I loved was soccer. I remember that the minute I turned 14, my adoptive father helped me land a job.
I remember taking drivers ed with one of my best friends and failing the test three times before getting my license. I remember getting my first car, graduating from high school and packing for my first year of college.
I remember when I made the decision to transfer to the University of Southern Maine. I remember meeting Sarah Holmes (USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity coordinator) by chance, and I started my journey of coming out and accepting who I really was.
Now, I’ll be attending the University of Maine School of Law. Like I said, it’s a warm, fuzzy American story. So my question to Gov. LePage is: Where would I have ended up had my mom not received housing subsidies, food stamps and General Assistance?
If the cuts the governor is proposing now had been in place back then, I could have become a statistic, spiraling down into a life of poverty, crime, drugs and prison.
General Assistance and other aid help keep those who need it from falling through the cracks of poverty, crime, drugs and prison. It keeps them hoping that, tomorrow, they will be better educated, have a better job and have a better life.
Unlike me, not every immigrant child has the luxury of being adopted by a white, working- or middle-class family.
— Special to the Press Herald