The audience cried and laughed with recent graduates of the Restoring Our Original True Selves (ROOTS) program as they told stories of healing generations of intergenerational trauma and jokes.
“For a lot of groups coming from refugee and war-torn situations that have strong disconnections with the generations before them, intergeneration trauma is definitely one of the keys to healing,” ROOTS Facilitator Roger “The Professor” Chung said.
ROOTS is an Asian Pacific Islander culture awareness group that focuses on teaching intergenerational trauma, domestic violence, LGBT tolerance and transformative justice.
On Jan. 21, ROOTS held a graduation ceremony at San Quentin State Prison hosted by incarcerated facilitators Phoeun You and Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong.
Those in the program housed in H-Unit couldn’t attend due to a lockdown.
Graduate Kevin “K” Neang, a 23-year-old from San Jose, shared a story that made many “eyes sweat.”
The ABC (American-Born Cambodian) lived a gang lifestyle that glamorized the streets and Khmer pride while not even knowing what that meant.
“All I knew was that Angelina Jolie loves our country,” Neang said. When the audience laughed, he responded, “What? She even adopted a baby K.”
He learned from ROOTS that he needed to know his history in order to heal.
“It allowed me to go back and call my mom and asked about her history—the Killing Fields,” Neang said. “I told her, ‘I need to know where I came from. You don’t have to hurt alone no more.’”
She visited and opened up about being a little girl run out of her home by Khmer Rouge, seeing kid soldiers killing, blood everywhere, finding her father with his throat slit, hands and feet cut off and chest opened, whole family being executed, and about her being tied to a tree, shoes taken, and beaten. She took off her shoes in the visiting room and showed Neang the scars on her feet.
“I couldn’t take the visit no more,” Neang said. “We were both crying. She told me, ‘Please do not have hatred toward Khmer Rouge because they too were victims.’”
When Neang called her after the visit, she said, “Thank you. I’ve been needing to let that out. I love you.”
Neang added, “That very first moment my mom opened up to me about her life is when I started living my own. Now conversations have begun throughout the family. Now we’re reconnecting with family in Cambodia. ROOTS helped my family get stronger.”
Graduate Si Dang followed with his quest to know his history. ROOTS sparked him to ask his mother about their family history. She told him about growing up in Vietnam during the war. Helicopters fired on her village. She saved a child, but that same child was killed a little while later—survivor’s guilt.
Dang, born in 1975, said his father was in a re-education camp until 1981.
In the United States, they were poor and discriminated against.
In 1989, a car accident claimed the lives of his father, two uncles and a pregnant aunt. Despite everything, his mother raised six children.
“I see courage, sacrifice and hope when I see my mother,” Dang said.
The Hawaiian community lifted spirits back up with a Haka dance performance.
A comedy routine by San Quentin News crossword designer Jonathan Chiu followed. The mixed crowd gave each other permission to laugh at his unique sense of humor.
The evening ended with skits performed by volunteers, graduates and facilitators.
The other graduates were:
Raven Jenkins, Yeng Lee, Wilson Nguyen, Ezequiel Roman, Sou Saechao, Vah Saechao, Satnam Singh, Glen Tufuga, Angel Villafan, Phouc Vong, Jimmy Vue, Tith Ton, Jerome Watts, and Vadim Zakharchenko.
Facilitators also received certificates. They were Rafael Cuevas, You, Pangthong, Moua Vue, Lamar “Maverick” Harrison, Lee Xiong, Chanthon Bun, Eusebeo Gonzales, David B. Le, Joe Hancock, Damon Cooke, and Kamsan Suon.
The day also marked the retirement of You and the return of Nighiep Ké Lam.
You, who had been with ROOTS since Eddie Zheng and Ben Wang started it in 2012, stepped down from the chairman role.
Ké Lam, known as “Mr. San Quentin” for participating in everything from baseball to ROOTS before paroling, visited.
“I cried the first time I drove by here because I miss y’all,” Ké Lam said. “I don’t have that same sense of brotherhood out there that I have here. A lot of people out there are still in prison because they never learned how to deal with their emotional trauma. We need more strong men to be role models, not just for other men, but for kids and people in leadership today.”
Ké Lam gives back to his community as an Asian Prisoners Support Committee reentry coordinator. He helps with getting identification, peer support, counseling, transportation, mediating with parole officers and picking people up from the gate on their release dates.
Many volunteers who came in to teach, learned in the process.
Cambodian volunteer Lina Khoeur added, “I never really had the experience working South East Asian identities. So coming here and learning about the trauma helps me bring that back to my family.”
Volunteer Xanh Tran, a jack of many trades, said, “All of our traumas are passed down from our families. If we don’t heal, the fruit will be rotten. If we can heal ourselves, we don’t have to pass down those rotten apples.”
Tracy Nguyen, who taught the LGBT segment, said, “If we really dissect our lived experiences as LGBT people and incarcerated people, you will find that our oppressions are similar—that is otherization from society, shame within our communities, policies that restrict our freedom. When we get in front of each other to share those stories, the unity and power we can build is part of the pathway to our shared liberation.”