The Give and The Take
How caring for children is helping me reckon with my own childhood abuse.
Why are you interested in working on issues of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual assault?
My fingers hovered over my keyboard as I considered the words onscreen. I had decided that morning, the day after the 2016 presidential election, to sign up to volunteer for the New York Asian Women’s Center, a local nonprofit that now goes by Womankind.
It was a big, heavy question for me. How could I boil down my experience — my childhood stay in foster care, the decade of domestic violence that my family endured, my history that I’d buried for 20 years — down to a few sentences fit for a stranger to read on a volunteer application?
After some thought, I tapped out my answer, frank and restrained: Advocating on behalf of Asian Americans is important to me. I’m a child who survived domestic violence, and I’m passionate about protecting women and children.
More than two years have passed since I sent in that volunteer application, and in retrospect, I see that second sentence as an act of radical honesty:
I’m a child who survived domestic violence.
It was in that moment, when I was stunned that my country had elected a perpetrator of violence against women as chief of state, that I felt l could act on my truth.
I saw myself as I clicked through the pages of the Womankind website, in the photos of women and children with skin tones in golden, chestnut and espresso, nearly all of Asian descent. These clients were people like me. Perhaps, as one of their own, I could do something to help them.
The state of Florida took me and my two sisters into custody in 1995, when I was 9 years old. The police came in the night and snatched us from our beds, while my mother choked out sobs of Korean that neither we nor the white officers could understand.
My sisters and I received no warning that we would be going into foster care, but somehow, my father, who faced child abuse charges, knew to stay away from our dingy, sandy-beige apartment that night.
In adulthood, my memories from foster care remain the faintest wisps that seem to slip through the cracks between my fingers. I can’t say with confidence how long my sisters and I were in the state of Florida’s custody. My guess is that we were gone for a few weeks.
When I told my therapist of the gaps in my childhood memory, she explained that it was common for survivors of trauma to repress especially painful memories. It was a survival mechanism, she said. But I’m strong enough now to confront the truth, and together, my therapist and I probe the recesses of my memory and search through my personal artifacts and family records for clues.
As a child, I kept a detailed diary from the age of six, and I recently returned to its well-worn, Hello Kitty-printed pages to see what I could piece together of foster care. I was searching specifically for details to jog my memories of my sisters and our interactions during that time. While I remember them being with me in the foster home, they feel like shadows in the periphery, and I can’t recall any of our conversations back then.
In my adult life, my sisters still feel like peripheral shadows, dropping into my Facebook inbox only sporadically, and I wonder if the past can help explain why.
But when I cracked the spine of my old diary, all I found were two, very brief entries of our time in foster care, with no mention of either sister.
This is the first entry:
5. 8. 95
I am in a foster home. I’m going to a different school. It is called G.F. Folsom. My teacher is Miss Schoppman. She knows Mrs. Brooks.
When I compared this entry to surrounding dispatches, the flatness of its tone stood out. While I relished signing off on almost every other entry with quips like “hugs and kisses from ’95, Hannah”, “♡, Hannah”, or “Lots of love, Hannah”, this time I didn’t sign my name.
In the displacement of foster care, I didn’t document any thoughts about my parents, nor discuss my sisters, who laid in the bunk beds next to mine in the foster home. Nobody in my family felt like much comfort. The only tie back to home that I could bear to acknowledge was my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Brooks, whom I had left behind at my old school when authorities pulled me from my parents’ home. To me, these sentences read noticeably, painfully numb and sparse compared to the preceding entry dated just one month before, which was much more typical of my gleeful childhood ruminations, peppered with exclamation points and a reference to my best pen pal.
“We Want to Grow Up,” read the banner hanging above a wall packed with children’s colorful drawings at Womankind’s Brooklyn community office. I was there for a volunteer assignment, to photograph a press conference to mark the opening of this expanded center in Sunset Park. It was my first time visiting this neighborhood, where storefronts advertised globos, ESL classes and SAT prep, a few subway stops south of my apartment.
On the wall, one drawing depicted a carefully drawn rainbow hovering above a rotund yellow bird with shining eyes.
“I don’t have any wishes because now I am returned to mom,” read a typed-out caption pasted below, crediting this line to an 8-year-old Chinese girl.
A hint of tears tickled at the corners of my eyes as I felt an affinity for the author of this hopeful message. Her youthful drawings felt so sweet, and so vulnerable. Like me, this little Asian girl had been separated from her parent, then returned.
I snapped a photo, even though it wasn’t part of my photography assignment that day.
While flipping through the pages of my childhood diary, I noticed curious jumps in timing and spacing — the entries jump from May, to August, to November, then somehow back to May.
This was my second dispatch from foster care, dated Mother’s Day, 1995:
Today I visit
Here, my handwriting and line-spacing are unusually messy. As a fourth grader, I was definitely old enough to properly form the lowercase “m” that I botched in this entry. Even though I wrote in pencil, I didn’t stop to erase or fix my mistakes. It’s as if I gave up on staying within the lines. Absent is any sense of excitement or comfort over the prospect of seeing my mother on this holiday.
Here is what I can piece together from this disarray on paper: Early in foster care, I wrote the first entry. Then I left a full two pages blank before writing once more, six days later.
Maybe nine-year-old me left those pages blank, intending to fill them in later with more reflections on foster care once I was ready. And maybe I couldn’t bear to write about the horrible days in between. I had wanted to forget.
I know that not long after May 14, the state of Florida returned me and my sisters to my parents, because I distinctly remember finishing the school year at my original school with Mrs. Brooks. But I kept no record of our return to our parents in my diary, which means I have no memory of that day and how it proceeded. If it had been a joyful, momentous occasion in my nine-year-old heart, I’m sure I would have written about it, with lots of exclamation points and a heart or two. But I didn’t.
In the following months, August, then November, it looks like I went back to fill in those blank pages left between May 8 and May 14 with my usual enthusiastic internal ramblings about school and gossip about my classmates.
Was this an attempt to literally write around the trauma that I still didn’t know how to name or process?
Now, at age 33, I have been estranged from my parents for more than five years, so I can’t ask them to fill in any blanks.
When my sisters and I are in touch, I’m afraid to ask them what they remember from our time together in the foster home. One sister has been in and out of hospitals and rehab after her most recent suicide attempt. She has never been able to shake the hold of suicide that has pulled at her since her pre-teen years. My other sister seems to contact me only by Facebook when she’s in crisis as she faces a constant stream of financial and legal troubles. I step gingerly around them and keep my distance as a means of self-preservation. Both of my sisters remain in contact with my parents, and they slip in details about our parents’ lives occasionally: they lost their home to foreclosure. Our mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. My father suffered verbal abuse from a customer.
Years ago, I made the shrewd decision, some would even say cold, to hold up boundaries around my sisters to avoid getting sucked into the chaotic spiral of my family members’ lives.
On the wall of kids’ art at Womankind, another piece of art showed a perfectly round smiley face the color of mango flesh, beaming at blocky figures holding hands, a girl and a boy.
“Hi I wish i have a good big brother. I WISH,” read the crayon-scrawled words, each a different color. The artist, a 10-year-old Chinese girl, according to the typed caption, used bigger letters, red this time, to add: “thank so much.”
I wish that I had a good big sister, and a good little sister. And I wish that I could be a good sister to them, too.
I never imagined that I would take on a child care role at Womankind. Everything about this type of volunteering fell outside of my comfort zone: Before Womankind, I never thought I had a reason to visit Sunset Park. Before Womankind, I had babysat only once, and I still don’t feel fully at ease taking care of clients’ children, even after many months. Luckily, there’s always backup from staff who know just how to soothe an inconsolable infant.
But giving of myself is not about only doing what is comfortable, it’s about putting someone else’s needs before mine. At Womankind, child care is one part of the equation for clients — by knowing that their children are in safe hands, parents, usually mothers, can do the hard work of extracting themselves from violent situations and healing their traumas with the help of Womankind’s social workers and client advocates, professionals who look like them, speak their languages and understand their cultures.
It’s a huge contrast to my family’s experience with child protective services in Florida, where no one — not the police, not the foster parents, not a single social worker — was of East Asian descent. None of the authorities spoke Korean, the language most comfortable for my parents.
When I am at Womankind, my job is clear: I’m just there to take care of the kids. I never pry into what the parents do behind closed doors, and I do not try to get the kids to open up to me.
This is the opposite of the work that I’ve done in my career as a journalist, where I deploy interviews and questions as my tools. When I’ve interviewed a subject about a sensitive topic, it’s felt like shucking a stubborn oyster. With each question, I’ve slowly slid my shucking knife into the gooey heart, trying to get my subject’s defensive muscles to relax, working around the edges of the topic before that hard shell is ready to pop open.
As I’ve learned to be soft and gentle, though, it’s been surprising to see how quickly many of the kids bond to caregivers, how easily a dumpling-like baby will settle into a carrier strapped to my chest, how a black-haired toddler will want to hold my hand and lead me around the playroom within the span of a few hours.
As a fellow Asian American, I wonder if they feel comfortable around me because I look like them and their mothers. I wonder if I see myself in them.
It hurts now to dredge up my past.
For 20 years, I tried to cover it up, to lose the memories, to dissociate from the abused child that I had once been. I refused to consider her a legitimate part of my identity.
That’s not me, I told myself, ashamed of my trauma. I wanted desperately to believe that lie.
My immigrant parents, for their part, tried everything they could to forget, to push forward. Not once did they try to help me and my sisters make sense of our disorienting, damaging stay in state custody. We never spoke of it.
This silence allowed my family to erase our history without ever learning from our mistakes. And so we broke, again and again, with continued abuse, with untreated mental illness, with a constant plague of legal problems, until I decided I needed to escape that life.
But there is so much more to living a new, full life than simply escaping the old, damaged past. To truly free myself, I’ve had to learn to understand myself. To heal, I’ve had to hurt all over again while probing into these dark places. I’ve had to do the hard work of recognizing that abused child inside me. I’ve had to tell her that I see her, and that she is a legitimate part of me.