Living in the Middle of Two Cultures

Fleeing Cambodia

In 1982, a Cambodian refugee couple and their four young children who had escaped the Khmer Rouge, were resettled in Olneyville, a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island after living in camps in both Thailand and the Philippines. Life was hard and work was difficult to find, but eventually the couple found work as housekeepers at a Marriott Hotel in nearby Massachusetts. They often worked overnight shifts, with their oldest child looking after the others.

Liz was born in 1983, just a year after her parents arrived in the U.S. Her parents had planned to give her up for adoption as they had no idea how they would feed and take care of an infant; a local priest had agreed to adopt the baby. When Liz was born her mother couldn’t let her go, she would keep the baby girl. The understanding priest had one request: that she be named Elizabeth.

Growing Up Fast

The family struggled to make ends meet. Life in the U.S. was not easy for the family or the small Cambodian community that connected them to the culture of their birth. They had to learn a new language, new culture, and a new way of life. Liz, the first in her family to be born in the U.S., assumed a lot of responsibility as a child.  She remembers as a child having to translate what her pediatrician was saying to her mother. Liz started working at 13 during the summers at some of the local jewelry factories who weren’t asking for age and social security number in order to help support her family. 

By 1998 Liz was as much an American as a Cambodian feeling the constant pull between the two cultures. Her oldest sister had gotten married and moved out by age 18. Liz, like any other teenager, was hanging out with her friends, and hiding from her parents what she knew they would not approve of her doing. 

15 and Pregnant

At age 15 Liz  got pregnant. After the initial shock, her mother was adamant that Liz would bring the baby into this world.  Liz’s familial support was very important during this time as she was caring for herself, her family and her baby.  They did the best they knew how without knowing all of the risks of teenage pregnancy.   

On December 17, 1998 Liz’s son was born at full-term, weighing 5lbs 10oz. To this day she remembers kicking everyone out of the delivery room, her mom, her sister, her sister’s husband, and the baby’s father. She said it was chaos, different doctors and nurses coming in constantly, she felt like a science project “the young teenager having a baby.” 

Doing the Best for Her Son

Liz dropped out of school after her son was born. She lived at home with her mother for a year and then moved out on her own. She started working part time and attending the Sawyer School in Providence, successfully earning her GED at age 18. Liz’s son is now in college studying computer science.

Despite the stress of growing up in poverty, living in the middle of two cultures, and getting pregnant at 15, not to mention all of the other burdens she has endured along the way, she has persevered. What Liz has is personal agency, the belief that she can take action, be effective, and assume responsibility for those things important to her. 

And what is Liz doing now? 

Luckily for us at BIF, and the LunaYou program, Liz now works at the Business Innovation Factory. Liz will be serving as the LunaYou Program Coordinator, leading our recruiting efforts as we enroll women in the program, planning our in-person events, and generally providing support, from assisting with the technology to managing complex assignments; she does it all. What I admire most about Liz is that she does not judge others solely by their actions, but considers everything that makes a person unique, she embodies compassion. No judgement and plenty of compassion are in perfect alignment with LunaYou.  

Do you have your own birth story you want to share? Liz is a great listener! You can email her at liz@bif.is We will frequently be featuring the stories and diverse voices of women throughout the next 12 months of LunaYou.