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Q&A | Marpheen Chann: From Foster Care to Community Leader


Author Marpheen Chann

Marpheen Chann is a public servant, writer, speaker and advocate in his home state of Maine. But his journey to reach these achievements was anything but easy. Marpheen’s memoir, Moon in Full, details his youth as a child of Cambodian refugees who was adopted by a religious family in rural, western Maine. Chronicling the process of becoming his authentic self as a young gay man of color, the book has been praised for its honestly, clarity, and freshness. We were fortunate enough to ask Marpheen a few questions about Maine, his life, and the experience writing his memoir. Keep reading to see what he had to say.

 

Tell us, what do you love about being a Mainer?

I’ve visited many places, but every time I return to Maine I’m reminded that this is home. I think a lot of that has to do with our degrees of connection to each other. For example, in Maine you can run into someone and immediately strike up a conversation or find out that you have something common. And it’s not transactional. You don’t have to offer something to gain a new friend or make a connection. I also love that we’re on the doorstep of some of the cleanest, most beautiful woods, waters, rivers, hills, and mountains in the world—and no billboards!


What do you perceive to be the biggest challenges facing immigrants and minorities in Maine?

I would say that if Maine is to grow and prosper, we need to broaden the definition of who is a Mainer. The faces and backgrounds of Mainers have changed since statehood. Maine has been built by folks that were considered immigrants and minorities in the 1800s and early 1900s—specifically the Italians and French Canadians. The arrival of new immigrants and minorities is not a threat to that story, rather, if we allow folks to truly feel at home, welcome, and treated as neighbors, it’s a new chapter. Maine stands to benefit and stand out in a world that is increasingly global and interconnected. And, as climate change continues to wreak havoc, Maine will be seen as a safe haven. We need to prepare for that and, in order to do so, we need to start with a fundamental reimagining and redefinition of who is a Mainer to include those “from away”—including those from other parts of the country.


You are a first-generation college graduate and a public persona. Where do you find the inspiration and motivation to keep doing it all?

I am inspired and motivated by the love many people have shown me along the way and by the Maine way of life—of loving your neighbors, of treating people with fairness and dignity, and of the appreciation for nature and wildlife. I am also deeply motivated to show foster kids, adopted kids, and Asian American kids that they, too, can make a difference if they believe in themselves. Lastly, I am inspired by both Buddhist and Christian thought. I have a sense of justice and duty that my role in this life, despite the suffering and pain I’ve endured, is to work toward a better world where fewer kids and families have to go through what I went through.


This is your first book, and it’s a memoir. What was it like revisiting your past like this?

It was a cathartic experience. Writing is a form of contemplation and reflection. While I had written about my life in broad brushstrokes, writing this book involved bringing out the colors, details, and emotion that fade with memory and time. It felt very much like the restoration of an old painting. And granted, digging deeper and diving back into some of the traumatic periods of my life felt exhausting at times, but it’s necessary to share that with the world and to let others know that they may feel broken but that they’re still beautiful, still human. Being vulnerable, both in loving, living, and writing, is being authentic. I think the world needs more authenticity and sincerity, especially in an era so driven by social media.


You experienced a variety of upheaval in being removed from your mom, then one foster family, and then into adoption. Has the Department of Health and Housing Services (DHHS) learned since then? Has the process gotten better? What do you think is more important: keeping families together in similar cultural communities despite potential risks, or separating young kids and allowing adoption out of culture of origin?

I think there have been some positive changes at DHHS. For instance, they have started to move towards a model of trying to keep kids with their parents. Of course, that runs up against the recent news stories of child deaths. Don’t get me wrong, DHHS social workers and caseworkers are human, they have their own families, and they are caring people. It’s the system of child welfare, foster care, and adoption that they are stuck working in that is the problem.


Overall, there needs to be more due diligence and cultural competence. One example is cleanliness. American culture and companies sell the idea of spick-and-span stainless steel appliances, polished wood floors, and clean and bright paint. But the idea of cleanliness is different in different cultures. So if a DHHS worker walks into a home and it doesn’t fit in their idea of cleanliness, that counts against the parent of a different culture.


Moreover, regarding family separation, why weren’t my siblings and I placed with my grandmother first—who we loved and who always fed us and provided a place to sleep. What supports, beyond the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and general assistance, were available to my mom? So just more due diligence in my opinion. Family separation should be a last resort. And when it involves kids of color, it needs to be measured up against data of whether families of color are treated differently than white families.


How does Cambodian culture feel about homosexuality? How does this compare with what you have experienced in American culture?

Generally speaking, they don’t really care much. I think a lot of concerns from Cambodian parents, and families from other Asian countries, is whether their children can take care of them when they are older and whether they will be happy (and free from persecution and discrimination). At least my Cambodian family, all they want is for me to be happy and to prosper and to be part of the family—which means pitching in and helping to take care of each other.


American views on homosexuality are so weirdly twisted and tied in with fundamentalism and religion, and the conception of the nuclear family (a dad, mom, two or three kids)—which destroys a more expansive view of who is considered family in cultures across the world.


What would you like the reader to take away from your book overall?

We all need to do a better job at being our authentic selves, of sharing our stories, and of loving and taking care of each other. This translates into the systems, governments, services, and things we build around us to support the things we value. But no great change can be achieved if people don’t talk to each other, if they don’t listen and don’t share what kind of world they want to see and build, together.




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