From the photos above, I looked happy. And in my darkness days, I cling on to that hope. I think memories are a funny thing. They serve as vehicles for us to reflect, and on the opposite end, without them, they serve as a mental wall to protect us from trauma. My therapist told me that when I was 15. And I fully understood what she meant 10 years later. I have two prominent memories as a child: 1. being accidentally kicked between the legs while swimming in a river by my grandfather’s house in Vietnam, and 2. feeling the cold tiles against my cheeks while laying on the ground with someone hovering over me saying – don’t tell anyone about this, even grandma. I was around 5 years old.
My family and I immigrated to America when I was 8 years old, and from this point, my memories are vivid and bright. I saw a squirrel for the first time, tasted cherry tomatoes for the first time, and fell in love with sour string candy. I remembered my walks to school, my corner seat next to a carousel of hardcover fairytale books, and a boy in my class who looked like Superman. I learned English from school and also from watching I Love Lucy.
I always loved school. Not only was it a place that fed my curiosity, it was also an escape from home. At 15, the conditions in my biological home became unsafe and I was removed from my parents. With my belongings in a trash bag, I went from a home I knew very well to a group home.
At the group home, our rooms had windows lined with metal bars and we all wore gray uniforms labelled ‘AG’ for adolescent girls. The staff called us by numbers, and we knew if we cried or had an emotional day, they would put us in the “padded box” which was a small room with a lightbulb and walls lined with padding. I had two roommates and we grew very close. We always joked and called what was beyond the walls of the group home the real world. We just felt like we were living in between worlds and escaping the conditions of one world, we were waiting to be placed in a better world. Or at least that was our hope. I was at the group home for 6 weeks and 4 days.
After the group home, I was placed in a foster home. My foster mother was kind. She made sure all of us (she had 3 foster placements total) had food and that we understood the rules and curfew. And one of the rules is that we had to leave the day we turned 18. We got a visit from the foster care agency once a week and I saw my social worker about once a month. On one of the visits my social worker said, 30% of you will become homeless, 30% pregnant, 30% incarcerated, and only 10% of you will make it. Of that 10%, only a handful will go to college. Who do you want to be Wendy? After hearing the statistics, I desperately wanted to be in the 10%.
To be honest with you, I was set on college not because I wanted to pursue higher education. I wanted to go because I didn’t want to be homeless. I knew some colleges offered dormitories and that was my path out of foster care. I held three jobs in high school and applied to every UC college.
All of the colleges operated on a quarter system with their first day of school in late September. Except UC Berkeley. They were on a semester system with their first day in late August. University of California, Berkeley start date that year was August 28. My birthday is August 28. I emancipated from the foster care system and went straight to UC Berkeley on the same day.