In part one, we flashed back to the horrific suffering that Monica’s mother experienced in Cambodia’s “Killing Fields.” In this post, we chat with Monica about her own childhood and coming of age in Long Beach’s Little Cambodia.
“God, you must not like my family,” a six-year-old Monica thought as her family struggled to survive the poverty and gang violence that wracked their neighborhood. Her mother’s sentiments at the time were similar: “I came from the Killing Fields to this. There’s still no break for me,” Monica recalls her saying.
Just several years before, in early 1979, Monica’s mother, elderly grandfather, and three other relatives had fled for the Thai border – and freedom – as the Khmer Rouge regime crumbled in Cambodia. But though they escaped the insanity of the Killing Fields, they did not find freedom from the poverty that had shackled them from the moment they were forced from their homes.
The journey from the refugee camp to America had begun well enough, full of hope and promise. An American church sponsored Monica’s mother and relatives to travel to Kelso, Washington, where she eventually married. The couple finally settled down in Long Beach, joining the thousands of other displaced Cambodians who had congregated there. But their family, which soon grew to include Monica and the first of two brothers, now had to endure a constant struggle to provide for life’s most basic necessities.
Finding shelter was just one of their challenges; one night, they even resorted to sleeping in an office building. When they did have a regular place to stay, the family of four crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, though that didn’t provide them with much security. “We were robbed at gunpoint in our home – and they stole everything that we didn’t have!” she says, laughing softly at the tragicomedy of losing what few valuables they had. “And there would be shootings. My family would move every two years or so because we couldn’t afford rent, or the neighbor died in another drive-by shooting, things like that.”
Her mother tried to protect the children from anxiety and fear by helping Monica and her brother to make the best of their situation. Monica recalls that at the time, “My idea of a vacation was taking the 7th Street bus – which did not go through a great neighborhood – down to the mall to window shop.” Her mother would then buy a Carl’s Jr. Famous Star burger for her to share with her brother. “We didn’t get our own; we shared it,” she explains. “And still then I was like, ‘Oh, treat!’”
But even with government assistance, they barely got by. She says, “We couldn’t get out of the cycle. When you’re living in poverty, you can’t really get out because you’re not given the resources. We didn’t even know of the resources, because my mom didn’t speak English.”
And as she got older, Monica began to feel the sorrow and shame that frequently characterizes impoverished youth. She remembers that on one occasion, after someone in the family made a reference to Santa Claus, her mother softly said to herself, “‘If Santa only knew to get us money for food.’” Monica reveals, “At six years old, I knew what that meant, and I felt bad.”
Still, Monica’s mother persevered. “There’s a Cambodian word, pronounced thaw-soor, that means ‘strive.’ You strive, no matter what,” Monica says, explaining the core principle that kept her mother going. “She had two kids and she had to take care of us. No matter what, come hell or high water, her kids would be taken care of. She was like, ‘My kids will eat; if I don’t eat, they will still eat.’”
Her mother’s strength would be put to the test many times in the years that followed. Monica observes, “My mom always tried to provide as much as she could to give me a ‘normal American life.’” When Monica won a place on her high school cheer squad, distinguishing herself so much that she was named squad captain, her mother faced an even larger financial challenge due to cheerleading’s inherent costs. But she was determined that a lack of money wouldn’t prevent Monica from participating. Her successful efforts amazed Monica and impacted her deeply. She affirms, “My mom has always made me feel like I’m worth something.”
Possessing a confidence nurtured by her mother, Monica attended and graduated from Cal State Long Beach. But soon afterward, a message from an unexpected source helped her find a fresh purpose in life. This life focus would begin to bring a small, yet meaningful measure of redemption to her mother’s years in the Killing Fields. It would also land Monica in the 2013 Miss Long Beach pageant.
We’ll hear about that message, that new life focus, and that pageant in our next post. Click here for the conclusion of our visit with Monica Samreth!