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September 1, 2022 54 mins

Putsata was an infant when she and her family fled from war-torn Cambodia on an escape boat. When the captain saw that baby Putsata was ill, he suggested that her mother—Ma—throw her overboard. Ma couldn’t do this; she believed her baby would get better, and sure enough she did. Putsata grows up feeling indebted to Ma for saving her life. The weight of this debt gets heavier and heavier over time, causing Put to bury large and important parts of her true self.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of I Heart Radio. Mat
had made a myth out of me, spending so many
stories about my travels and adventures that some of her
friends did not believe I was real. Is this the one,
one of them said. As I sat in MAT's kitchen,
tucking into a bowl of noodles, I was. I'll leave

(00:22):
from a journalism job in Cambodia, always choosing to go
home when I had time off rather than on holiday.
Matt's friends smiled and squeezed my arm as if to
confirm I was not a ghost. Is this your baby
girl with the big job and all the money, the
one who almost died on the boat. Matt smiled and nodded.
Her friend turned to me. Your mother talks about you

(00:45):
all the time, she said, still holding my arm. She
says you are special. That's puts out O Rang, journalist
and author of the Sea Ring memoir Ma and Me.
Putsada's is a story right from the start of overcoming

(01:06):
staggering odds. It's also a story about familial loyalty and
cultural expectations, and the strength it takes to become one's
truest self. I'm Danny Shapiro and This is family secrets,

(01:33):
the secrets that are kept from us, the secrets we
keep from others, and the secrets we keep from ourselves.
I was born in a seaside town in Cambodia called
the Bung Sum, in a hospital right in downtown near
an open market called Salo, and I have no memory

(01:57):
of where I was born, although when I was a
teenager I went for the first time to visit, and
immediately I fell in love with this beach community. I
could smell the briny air and feel that the sea
breeze pushing through my hair, and um, there was something

(02:17):
very idyllic and peaceful about it. But I remember about
the first time I visited Kabung Soud, Cambodia, were so
many palm trees and just absolutely everywhere coconut trees, just
a landscape that was so very different from anything that
I ever knew growing up in America. And it's one
of those things where you you see a place for

(02:39):
the first time with clear eyes and with new eyes,
and it just steared in my heart as I felt
so proud to be from this bland cut through with
such a pure light and um, just everything about where
I was born engaged my senses, the size of sounds,
that smells, to feel every thing, you know, sand between

(03:01):
my toes. They're on the beach and seeing the beautiful,
gorgeous sunsets Um they're in Kabung Sum. It's something that
just never leaves you. It was a bit of paradise.
So it's hard to equate that slice of paradise with
the reality of my country, which is the dark history
of genocide. It was four when I was born in

(03:24):
Kobung Sound, Cambodia. Most of Kimbodia had already been overrun
by the Camarouge communist regime, and so by then I
imagine um and my mother has the memories of this,
that Kabung Sum, this place that I saw for the
first time in a in a time of peace. Back
then in seventy four, when I was born, it was

(03:45):
actually a period of terrible chaos. It was a quiet
kind of chaos. As my mom describes that she could
feel a particular energy in the air and a certain
heaviness in the air. Kbung Sound, my mother tells me,
had been a place for the ultra wealthy and tourists

(04:07):
to come in and play with a playground for the
wealthy and during the war, and it specifically in nineteen
seventy four when I was born there suddenly it was
absolutely quiet. Nobody was on the streets, there were no taurists.
So my mother felt the weight of that moment and
what was about to happen. I don't think that she
actually knew that our country would truly fall to the

(04:29):
cammarriage at that moment in time, but she certainly felt
that something, something terrible was on the horizon. My mom
gave birth to five children, one of whom her second child,
died as a baby. All of my parents children were
born with a midwife at home, but something different happened

(04:51):
with me. When I was in my mother's room, she
felt nothing through the course of her pregnancy, no movement,
no eggs, nothing. It's almost as if I wasn't there.
And she worried that this baby she was carrying was
possibly dead. And so she made the decision with my

(05:12):
father that for the first time, she would go give
birth with trained professionals at the nearest clinic or hospital
to where my family lived in Realm, Cambodia, also on
the coast, about a twenty minute drive away. She entered
the clinic, pregnant, intending to give birth, and she was

(05:32):
absolutely convinced that something was wrong with me when I
was in her room, because I wasn't moving. You know,
she got zero sense that she was even pregnant at all.
She only believed and was convinced that I was alive
when she did give birth, and the doctor held me
upside down and smacked me on the butt, and she

(05:55):
heard a very tiny little ink, a little cry come out,
and that's when she knew her baby was alive. And
you were four and a half pounds when you were born.
I was I was very little. My mother believes that
she had about of hemorrhoids when she was pregnant with me,
and she took medicine that had an alcohol base, and

(06:16):
she believed that it was the medicine that she took
this sort of left me drunk and debilitated in her
womb and therefore unable to move or or not unable
to move. But but that I didn't move. It's almost
as if I was just, you know, sleeping, waiting for
my day to arrive in the world. When she brought
me back to the naval base where my family lived.
My father was an accountant in the Cambodian Navy. The

(06:39):
women of the village rushed to her to get a
look at my parents latest baby, and they weren't convinced
that my mother was carrying anything at home, because they
didn't see me for a while until they kind of
pilled back the layers of they called it Grandma, which
are which are sort of like computy ubiquitous scarves. And
once they peeled back the layers and saw there was

(07:01):
indeed a baby there, everybody was satisfied. But my mom
tells me, and has always told me, that I was
born sort of the kind of like the rent of
the family, the smallest, the weakest, the one who always
got sick. And so that's the story that I believed
about myself because that's the one that I heard most consistently.

(07:25):
But this isn't the only survival story that defines Putsada's
early life. When put is just a year old, it's
no longer safe for the family to stay in Cambodia,
and her parents, Ma and Bab decide to make their escape.
During that difficult journey, puts life is very much in
danger again. So in there came a point when my

(07:51):
father went to work and there was a lot of
chaos happening that day, and he was listening with his
coworkers to radio communications with their headquarters in Kimbodia's capital,
kunot Bing, and their colleague in kunot Bing said to them,
the Communists have arrived in punot Bing. They've taken over.

(08:14):
If you can get out, get out, go and good luck.
And that was it. The radio went dead. It was
April seventeen ninet and so my family rushed to the
docks to escape the only way we could, which was
by sea, and because of the fact that my father
worked for the Kimbodi Navy, we were allowed to get
on board one of four naval ships that were docked

(08:38):
at Real Naval based on the coast of Cambodia. In addition,
my father was able to go back to our neighborhood
and collect other family members, and so in total there
were fourteen relatives that were able to get into this
boat before my father ran out of time. My parents
tell me about that time that nobody on the boat,

(08:58):
including my parents, believe that we were going to be
leaving our country forever. There was always a feeling of
we're just going to go out to see for a
few days, wait till things calmed down. You know, with
the help of the Americans, we will prevail against the communists.
That was the prevailing attitude among my father and his
colleagues and the military wise at the time. Well, of

(09:21):
course that didn't happen. So suddenly these boats get thrust
out to see. And these boats, they were built for
a crew of sa to thirty men. Suddenly you have
more than three people on board each one. The way
my mother describes it, there was no room to sleep.
You just kind of sat the whole time and then

(09:43):
took turns laying down at night. On April seventeenth, n
it was actually ten days to my first birthday. And
from the time that I was born up until the
time my family left the shores of Cambodia, I had
not been doing very well healthwise. Um I was still
pretty small. I had not been growing robustly in the

(10:05):
way that my older siblings had been growing, and so
by the time my family got thrust out to see,
I was already a bit of a disadvantage in the
sense that I was already I won't stay sick, but
I was certainly, you know, in need of more nutrients
than what we ended up getting on the boat. So
when I turned one years old, about ten days after

(10:27):
our escape, I stopped moving and I stopped crying. There
wasn't very much to eat on the boat. There wasn't
much water to drink. And you know, as you can imagine,
a mother who was lactating needs nourishment to continue to
lactate and to provide milk for her baby. But my
mother didn't have that, and so she had no milk
in her breast to feed me, and so I didn't eat.

(10:50):
And she had tried to spoon feed a canned milk
into my mouth, but I wouldn't take it. I was
so malnourished that I just became very life list. As
my mother describes it, um I made no sounds, not
even a cry on my I didn't move. She described
me as being heavy, because she had been carrying me

(11:11):
all these days um at sea already NonStop. And I
remember asking her, how is that possible that a baby
could be heavy, especially one who was born premature, and
also a baby who was very malnourished. And I realized
now looking back, that when she described me as heavy,

(11:31):
it was perhaps more of an emotional feeling than a
physical feeling that this idea and this absolute fear and
terror that perhaps my baby is not going to make
it on this journey. So what happened was there was
a day that the captain of the ship walked across
the bow and throughout other parts of the ship to

(11:54):
sort of assess his passengers, and he came across my
mother and bent low to her, and apparently, as the
way my mother tells the story, looked at my mother's
baby and saw that this baby looked dead to him,
and he essentially told her, if your baby dies, you

(12:16):
need to throw your baby overboard. Do you see all
these passengers on this ship if you're if your baby dies,
your baby is going to contaminate all these other passengers
on my ship. Even though I've I've heard this story
so many times, I've told this story myself so many times.
I've written about this story so many times, and I

(12:38):
still get emotional about it because I am not a mother. However,
I can imagine what that moment must have been like
for my mother. When somebody tells you your baby is dead,
you have to get rid of this baby. It's like
it's it's nightmarish, and it's like really literally the stuff
of nightmares. So what does she all the captain. My

(13:01):
mother is so clever and smart. She understood that she
had to sort of find some commonality between her and
the captain, and the commonality it was religion. They are Buddhist,
and so she told the captain. You know, she said lok,
which is a term of reverence in the language. Please
let me keep my baby. We're Buddhist. Please let me
keep my baby until we reach land and I can

(13:23):
give my baby a proper burial. And that was the
strategy that worked. My mother was able to keep me.
When I think about it now, I can't imagine the
fierce determination it must have taken my mother, just absolute
steely determination. It took her to face down somebody of

(13:43):
authority in our culture where we are always told, especially
as women and girls, too respect authority. Um, you know,
we don't have a right to request anything, or to
talk back or anything like that. And yet she did.
She did it in the name was keeping her baby
and saving her baby, saving me. In Puts memoir, she

(14:09):
quotes the poet wars on Shire who once wrote, you
have to understand that no one puts their children in
a boat unless the water is safer than the land.
This couldn't ring truer from Ma and their tumultuous experience
at sea. There is no predetermined destination. The ship docks

(14:30):
at the naval base in Subic Bay in the Philippines.
For over three weeks, Ma has seen only sea and sky.
When she finally sees land, safe land, she weeps. By
the time the ship docked, my mother had a single
and very narrow mission in mind. She was going to

(14:52):
do whatever she could to save me, truly, because she
herself wasn't fully convinced that I was still alive. So
when the ship sure as a big bay nettle base,
she thrust me into the arms of the very first
white man she saw, who was a soldier there on
the base, And that soldier pointed her to a building

(15:13):
with a red cross on It was the American Red Cross,
and so my mother went there. My mother had no
English words whatsoever to explain that her baby was sick
and she needed help, and so she passed me off
to the nurses there. And it was in that moment,
for the very first time, that I think my mother

(15:35):
could actually take one true deep breath because she no
longer was carrying me in her arms, and that she
felt safe now that she was with you know, she
was in a facility of doctors and nurses that could
help revive her baby, and indeed they did, you know,
immediately doctors and nurses hooked me up to an IVY trip.

(15:59):
My mother there ended up laying on the ground underneath
my hospital bed and and I'm certain, out of sheer exhaustion,
just fell into the deepest sleep. I just think about
that time. I just can't imagine. Here's this young mother,
thirty years old. She has carried her baby for three

(16:22):
and a half weeks in the middle of the ocean,
fleeing her war torn country, and unsure of what her
future is, holding an issure of even where her family
is going to end up, and her single concern is
keeping her baby alive. And that the moment she's able
to release her baby into the arms of medical professionals,

(16:44):
that is the moment that I could imagine, like one's
body just gives in as she just the way she
described it, she just you know, I can't translate the
word correctly, but but them my word is a lot
and I think the closest translation I could come up
with is the you faint, We'll be right back put

(17:19):
recovers at the Red Cross. And after this temporary stint
in the Philippines, the family finally makes it to America.
They settle in Corvallis, Oregon, where they are among the
first Cambodian refugees brought into this community. There's this perfume
in the air in Carvellis, Oregon that I am certain

(17:42):
has to do with all of the crops that grow
all up and down the Willamet Valley. You have strawberries
and raspberries, blackberries, any kind of berry you can imagine
grows in the Willamette Valley. And so every summer the
air is just filled with an absolute sweetness. That is
something that I think of and I smile whenever I

(18:03):
think of my hometown. Um there in Oregon. So my family,
I grew up in a I would describe our neighborhood
as sort of a lower middle class neighborhood. Um, and
you know, we we live. My family lived in a
in a ranch style house. It was a three bedroom
to bath house, constantly overrun with kids. Because not only

(18:25):
were my parents raising myself and my siblings, but they
were also raising one of my cousins and then over
the years more of my cousins. Immediately, the family embarks
on the project of rebuilding their lives. Those a landscape
is lush and welcoming, the transition is far from seamless.

(18:46):
Ma and Boss struggle to find work. My dad went
from wearing a navy uniform with three stripes on his
a pelts and feeling very proud of who he was
working for the Kimbootan government, now suddenly wearing an apron
and flipping burgers at our local diner in downtown Carvella
Is called m Burton's Diner. And my mom she had

(19:10):
to convince my dad to go out and find work.
Because my mom is a very prideful woman and though
she accepted the help of our church sponsors and Carvallis,
she didn't want any anybody in America to think that
we were dependent on Americans to survive. She wanted to

(19:31):
prove that we were independent and that we could survive
our our own So she worked as a janitor, scrubbing
toilets and vacuuming and mopping floors at the Student Health
Center at Oregon State university and it was essentially media
labor when we first arrived in Carvallis, and um, you know,
I never I remember growing up and not really seeing
them that whole much. In essence, we were raised And

(19:54):
when I say we, my siblings and my cousins were
raised by my older sister Cineow. She was oldest in
the family. She was eight years old when we escaped Cambodia,
and she was the one that cooked our dinners, and
she was one the baby sat us and walked us
to school and whatnot. And I think that this is
one of the things as a child of immigrants, but

(20:14):
specifically a child of refugees, um that I've come to
learn and appreciate and be extraordinarily grateful for for my
parents is that there's that kind of silent sacrifice that
parents do. You know, when one leaves one's country by force,
and in the case of my family, because of a war,
you end up in another country, you do absolutely whatever

(20:37):
it takes to do to survive. Tell me a bit
about them expectations culturally regarding familial duty and what it
means to be a member of a family, and particularly
what it means to be a female member of a
family to be a daughter in my culture and my culture,

(21:02):
when you were born and if you are born female,
essentially your life is going to have one path only,
and that path is that one day you are going
to get ready to a command man and you are
going to be a stay at home mother and or
you know, work in the rice patties, if your family
happens to own rice patties. But you know, for for

(21:25):
girls and for women in Cambodia, there's no sense of agency,
there's no sense of independence. It's almost as if you
belong to the men in your family. It's a very
patriarchical society in that way. And so in America that
was really difficult. Indeed, it was a culture clash in
my family and specifically for my parents and even more
specifically for my mother, because so much of what America

(21:49):
is for for being a woman is different than how
it is to be a woman in Cambodia. And so
on the one hand, though my mother went out and
worked outside of the home, she wore pants, she ended
up learning how to drive, She did all of these
things that my women don't do in Cambodia. But we

(22:11):
were not in Cambodia. We were in America and they
were starting new lives, and so she understood she had
to operate in a different way. However, she still held
onto those cultural codes of what it means to be
a girl in my culture, because that's the way that
she raised my sisters and I. One of the things

(22:32):
that I grew up hearing as well as my sisters
was one day, when you grow up, you're going to
have a husband, and when you do, you have to
have a hot meal ready for him when he gets
home from work. I'll never forget that. She told us
that so many times. It just steered into my into
my entire being, and so I had a very narrow

(22:52):
vision of what it meant to be a my daughter.
And at the time, one of the things that's so
hard is that an American culture, in American society, it's
already hard enough to be a teenager and figure out
how to fit in, but then to have this added
complexity of being a Cambodian refugee in American society and

(23:13):
added familial pressure and cultural pressure of adhering to and
maintaining a fidelity to my own Cambodian culture while also
navigating this American culture that was an extremely difficult place
to be and to navigate those two worlds. It was
a real challenge, and not just for me. This is

(23:36):
something that you know is repeated with among many refugees
and among many immigrants. Though Ma imposes many of these
Kami conventions upon her children, she herself had flouted them
when she was a teenager growing up in Cambodia. Ma
was raised in a very traditional family and she was

(23:58):
expected to fulfill all the duty of a perfectly obedient
to my daughter. But she bristled, she pursued an education,
and when her marriage to Put's father was arranged, she fled.
She literally ran away. So she had this history of

(24:19):
really not wanting this, but nonetheless, you know, fulfilling her duty,
and that becomes a huge part of her story, and
then a huge part of her story with you, that's right,
and then it became my story until I met my wife. Essentially,
I often feel that as a child, we come across

(24:40):
these moments in our lives, where would we get a
glimpse into our parents before they were parents, Like they
were actually people, they they were young people, they were
kids also, they had dreams, they had ambitions. You know,
they fought with their parents away. You know I fought
with my parents. You know, they were their own people,
because when I'm when I was growing up, I only

(25:02):
ever sought my parents as just parents. And so there's
this whole other life that they had before they had
children and before they made a family together. And so
for my mom, when I learned a story about how
she ran away because she didn't want to get married
in an arranged marriage, what I understood about her was that,

(25:23):
oh my gosh, all this time I felt that my
mom and I had been always in conflict with each other,
always fighting with each other, and all this time I
thought it was because we were so different, when in fact,
what that story tells me, the story of my mother
running away rather than getting married, is that we are
actually so similar. And when you were a kid growing

(25:50):
up and your mother was saying, really, essentially, you know,
your job is to marry my man and have a
hut dinner ready for him at the table, you didn't
know any of this. And you know, I think our
parents often protect us from this knowledge, or protect themselves
from our having this knowledge when we're children. That's right,

(26:14):
In addition to secrecy. Put also grows up amidst violence.
Bah her father has a temper, but it's not until
well into her adulthood that Put realizes why he was
so often angry after enduring the war and trauma of
escaping Cambodia. Like so many survivors, Bah had PTSD. I

(26:37):
think some of wider lens about this idea of writing memoir.
There's always this question that comes up of you know,
what do you put in and what do you leave out?
And on the topic of my father's violence, I really
struggled with that because I still wanted to protect him.
I still wanted to protect our family and that and
that's the power of secrets. And yet a bigger part

(27:00):
of me felt that I absolutely needed to write about
my father's violence as a way in which to show
how complex of a person he is, and also a
way in which to show how war has a very
long tail. War impacts people in such deep ways that

(27:23):
that manifests later on and manifest across generations. And this
is something that I think so much about now, especially
when I see on the news the war in Ukraine
and I think about, Oh my gosh, all the men
in Ukraine, how many more families are going to be
like mine, where the fathers don't have an outlet for
their PTSD and it manifests in very violent ways, or

(27:47):
either violence towards family members or violence towards themselves. Um
and um. You know so much of what I experienced
growing up with my father's short temper and his violence,
and ultimately how he had a nervous breakdown and ended
up being admitted into a psychiatric ward. I can look

(28:07):
on it now as an adult and look behind me
and look with compassion, But at the time, when you're
in the middle of it, all I had was anger
towards my father. I just felt so angry at him,
like how could you hurt people you love? How could
you hurt your own kids, your own wife? And that
anger for me manifested in me stabbing my father with

(28:29):
a pencil when I was four years old. I was
just thinking about that your weapon, your weapon was a
number two pencil, exactly, and and intervening in the dynamic
between your parents, intervening in the violence between your parents
as a four year old. Yeah, I had to stop it.
You know. I have always felt that my duty was
to protect my mother. It's something that I felt was

(28:50):
an intrinsic part of me that I was I was
put on this earth to protect my mother, and that
indeed also she was put on this earth to protect me.
And so in that sense there was always existing this
very symbiotic relationship between us and or you know, one
would say co dependence, which is also very true. The
difference between my relationship with my mother and my siblings

(29:11):
relationship with our mother is that story on the boat
and the fact that my mother saved me, because what
it meant was that, already being female in my culture,
I was saddled with this notion of debt and duty
I just culturally being female in Cambodia. On top of
that we add the extra dimension of the fact that

(29:33):
my mother saved me. It just compounded my sense of
duty to my mother that I owed her everything. I
thought at one point I owed her my life, and
so in essence, I felt like every action that I
made had to do with protecting her, preserving our relationship,
preserving our reputation, making her happy. Everything that I did

(29:58):
was focused on her. And in that kind of dynamic,
there's no me what a profound and telling way of
viewing oneself there's no me in this dynamic. As a
young girl put struggles with her identity, she doesn't have
language for it. Who is she? I think I knew

(30:22):
since I was a little girl that I was different.
I didn't have the vocabulary. I didn't know the word
gay back then, but I knew it was different. I
knew that I liked girls in a different way than
I liked boys. And yet, because I was so confused
by that feeling, I did absolutely everything that I could

(30:45):
to tamp that feeling down because I just thought it
was just it was so weird, and it was very
disorienting to me because I thought, you know, I'm not
supposed to like why why do I feel something, you know,
beyond liking, you know, my female friends? What is this
other feeling that I'm feeling? And it was kind of
just this. I can barely articulate and describe it other

(31:06):
than to say it was just this depth of emotion
for certain female friends I had when I was growing up.
That and I did not have that feeling at all
towards boys. And you know, I could look back on
and out so obvious I was crushing out on, you know,
my my girlfriends. When I was a kid. But then
there was another piece of it to I understood I
was different. My siblings, they always used to call me

(31:28):
tomboy because I dressed like my brother. I wore jeans
and T shirts always. I hated wearing a dress. I
still do now. But where things really I think I
sort of became clear to me, or a feeling that
got really worded in me, was when my mom also
started calling me tomboy. My siblings and my mother saw

(31:51):
who I was before I saw who I was. I
felt who I was, but I couldn't see and admit
who I was, which is that I was gay. And
that's one of the things where when I look back
what we do to try to figure out our own identities,
it's almost like that there's a self sabotage. I just

(32:11):
didn't know that there were things I hid for myself.
There were things about myself that I didn't want to acknowledge.
And then and the big thing was that the fact
that I was gay, and so that was a secret
that I that I kept to myself, even when I
did have the word for what I was feeling toward women.
And do you attribute that to what it was going

(32:33):
to mean? For your mother to know that. Absolutely, I
knew that if I were to admit in my family
with my mother that I was gay, it was going
to cause a rupture, an unbelievable rupture that that we
may never recover from. I was certain of that, Um,

(32:56):
and indeed the rupture did happen. We'll be back in
a moment with more family secrets. Put is sixteen years

(33:23):
old and her family has opened up their home to
over a dozen relatives from Cambodia who had survived the
genocide and fled. The house is just full of traumatized
family members, all of whom have, as Put describes it,
genocide eyes, eyes that are glassy and opaque, eyes that

(33:43):
taken no light and let none out either. This is
the year her mother takes her on a trip to Cambodia.
I had no idea what was about to happen. I
didn't know anything about my country. I grew up an
American kid, and so at the tail end of that trip,

(34:04):
when suddenly there was a line of young men outside
our hotel door with their mother's asking my mother to
issentially set up their sons in an arranged marriage with me. Um,
I was just absolutely filled with panic, And suddenly I
was thrust into the scenario where there were these young

(34:26):
men my age, my men, I should just call them
what they were, teenagers, they were boys. I was a
girl waiting to, you know, have their mother's marry marry
them off to me. I grew suspicious of my mother
because I thought, oh, my gosh, is this why she
brought me with her? Is this why she chose me
to come to Cambodia. Is she's going to leave me
here to get in and marry me off? And she

(34:48):
didn't do that. That it certainly sparked a deep fear
of me. Looking back, I can't say that that was
part of the grooming, that that was part of the
conditioning that you were going to grow up and marrying
a commin. And this trip triggers something input and when
they return home, she begins running away. Of course, put

(35:09):
doesn't know this at the time, but running away is
what her mother had done too all those years ago.
Running away is part of her inheritance. When she graduates
from high school, she runs to college, where she continues
to struggle with her identity. She is recognizing that she
has feelings for women, but she stifles the feelings, and

(35:30):
so she runs away again, this time from her very self.
She busies herself to the point of exhaustion, anything to
avoid her truths. That was a really hard time in
my life, you know, when when I got to college.
I think because of the family in which I came from,
I was already used to working, and not just working,

(35:52):
but overworking, and so I really overextended myself by trying
to graduate college in three years at the University of Oregon.
And there was a lot of pressure in that. But
also there was a pressure building inside of me that
I knew I was gay. I knew I had attractions
towards um, towards women, and towards female friends in particular,

(36:16):
and yet I didn't know how to express that. I
felt like I couldn't be who I was because if
I were to admit that, the consequences in my family
would be too severe. And so in college I tried
to outrun my own feelings by overworking myself. I had
two part time jobs, I took the maximum number of

(36:38):
class credits that I could um at school. I just
did everything I could to not think about this deeply
unsettling feeling in myself that I was gay, and um,
what I realized only looking back is that how foolish, right, Like,
we can never outrun ourselves, we can never outrun who
we truly are. Um, it's going to come up at

(37:02):
some point and we're going to have to face it.
And indeed I did and and had to and wanted to.
I think that part of one search for identity is
wanting to be free ultimately, and I wanted to be free.
I didn't know how to get there. I didn't know
if I would have the courage to live as I am,

(37:22):
as being you know, lesbian, as being gay, but I
definitely wanted to get there because it was so heavy.
That's it's interesting that word, you just use it heavy. Yeah.
You write at one point that perfectionism was the price
for affection with your mother, And you know, it just
strikes me that you were gay. You knew you were gay.

(37:46):
You wanted to be able to fully live. You know
who you were and who you are and what you're
You know what your desires are and what your identity is,
and you know, maybe just maybe if you did everything
else perfectly, maybe that would be okay, that's exactly right. Yeah, Yeah,

(38:06):
I thought if I could be perfect, that that would
be enough for my mother, that I would shine enough
to balance out this ugly truth about me, which is
that my mother had a gay child. When Put graduates
from college, she pursues journalism. She quickly has success in

(38:29):
the field, and by her early twenties, she's working as
a professional journalist and writer. When she's twenty five, considered
really old in her culture, Put makes a second trip
to Cambodia with Ma. Given her geriatric age of Put
receives a lot of pressure on this trip. Nobody in

(38:51):
the family understands why she's not yet married to her
husband and cooking him dinner. When I was a teenager
years earlier, meeting my cousins for the first time, we
were all the same age and they were working the
rice patties. I was working in the strawberry fields of Carvals, Oregon.
But then flash forward and I go on my second

(39:12):
trip to Cambodia, and I am twenty five years old, unmarried,
and yet here are my the same cousins. They are married,
toting babies on their hips, and they thought, what is
wrong with you, Put, Like, do you have a They'll
never forget all my cousins crowded around me and just
started peaching me questions, do you have a husband, don't

(39:33):
you have children? How old are you now? And I
think that that actually, that trip brought a fair amount
of shame to my mother, because I saw my mother
making excuses, um, to my relatives of why I was
not married and why I did not have children, and
she was saying, you know, put, she's got a career,

(39:54):
she's a journalist, and you know she'll she'll meet somebody eventually,
but right now, she's focused on earning money and and
saving up. She wants to buy a house. Like just
the excuses were just piled on thick because she didn't
know and I knew but didn't yet tell her the
real reason. So when you return home, you do tell her.

(40:15):
I did. I came out to my mother, UM when
I moved to California and I wasn't dating anybody at
the time, and I knew that, UM, I wanted to
tell her myself that I was gay. So my mom
flew down to the Bay Area where I was working
to visit me one weekend, and UM, I'll never forget

(40:37):
just how stressful that moment was, because it in my mind,
it was to make it or break a moment my
mother would either accept me or she would abandon me.
In that moment, that's what I felt was on the
line um and she did something that was unexpected when
I came out to my mother, when she came down
to California for a weekend visit with me, she on

(41:00):
me for the very first time, I love you. Going Now,
in my culture, we don't communicate things like I love
you and I'm sorry. It's you know, the emphasis is
more on actions as it is on language and expressing
through language. And so that was the first time she
told me I love you, and I thought, in that moment, oh,

(41:21):
the worst didn't happen. She's actually going to accept me.
And just to make absolute sure she knew what I
meant when I told her I'm gay, I piled us
into my Honda Civic and I drunk this across the
Bay Bridge, right into the heart of the Gay districtive
San Francisco and the Castro And it's just this moment
that I'll never forget for all of my life, in

(41:43):
which my mom is you know, we're going through the
Castor and my mom is just seeing things that she's
never seen before, including two men and leather chaps with
their bare behind hanging out, and she presses her cheek
to the window and points at them. And she turns
to me and she says, put, put that to gay.
And I said, Mom, yes, that's the gay. Stop pointing

(42:04):
so embarrassed, And in my very naive mind, I thought,
she gets it. She knows who I am now, and
so I thought, Oh, we're done. Don't need to say
anything else more about who I am. She's accepted me.
She has seen what what gay life or gay culture is.
In this one short drive we took down the castro.

(42:24):
But actually we weren't done. We were very far from
being done on the topic of me being gay. Flash
forward to two and Put and Ma still aren't done
getting to know one another on a deeper level. They're
not estranged exactly, but they're not sharing intimate details about

(42:46):
their lives either. Then, in this same year, gets a
call from her mother a has had a heart attack.
Put puts her work on hold and rushes back to
Oregon to help her mother to protect her. When she's there,
her mother begins to tell her stories she's never heard before,

(43:07):
stories about whom was before she was mom before she
was married and had children. When I think back on
my life, I always think about it in terms of
these moments where there's a before and then after, and
very clearly my father's heart attack was one of those moments.
There was the mother I knew before my father's heart attack,

(43:30):
and then the mother I knew afterwards when she began
to share stories about her life, and an interesting thing happened.
The more she began to share stories of her life,
the more I began to reflect on my own, and
also that sort of magnified my own need to want
to live as I am and to have much more

(43:51):
clarity around the fact that I could try all I
could to find and marry at least a man, if
not a comman man, but know that in the end
that would not have been my true self, that would
not have been the true put rain. So I think

(44:12):
that I did enter relationships with men trying to convince
myself that I could do one last thing for my mother,
which is to marry it Matt. But in the end
of the day, I couldn't do it. That just wasn't me.
I wouldn't have been happy, he wouldn't have been happy.
I could tell it what you know would have been
a miserable life, because who wants to live in a

(44:33):
cage when you already know who you are? And so
I think that that's when I was got back into
a corner and I really had to reckon with myself
and what was I going to do? How was I
going to live my life? And how was I going
to live it? For me? No longer for her? And
it's so interesting you know what happens when finally there's

(44:55):
no place else to go but the truth. M hmm,
that's right. And by being backed into that corner, and
by ironically by your mother letting you see her in
more layers of her complexity, that just liberates something in you.
Doesn't make it any less tortured, but it's just it

(45:17):
liberates it, that's right. Absolutely. It's only then that put
finds herself falling head over heels in love with a
woman that she'd met years before, but the timing hadn't
been right. Her name is April, and now they begin
a relationship. They move in together, and they plan to

(45:41):
get married, but will not be marrying a command man
or a man at all. She will marry April. Finally,
Put feels aligned with her identity. She and April begin
to plan a large and celebratory wedding. Friends will be
coming from all over the world. Puts siblings will come,

(46:01):
but at a certain point in the planning, but realizes
that her parents are not planning to be present. They
know she's gay by now, but they just cannot accept
the finality of her marriage to a woman. Oh, that
moment left a hole in my heart. It still does.
Um that whole is still there. I've reconcile that whole

(46:25):
and I have filled that void in other ways and
with other love. But it's hard when your own mother
is the one who is absent at your wedding. For me,
it was the most important day of my life because
it was the proudest moment of my life. I had
finally met somebody who I love and who I was
in love with, who I felt saw me for who

(46:48):
I am and accepted me for who I am. And
what happens when you meet that person. You want to
share that person with your family, you know, with your parents,
and in my case, I wanted to share that joy
and happiness I had with my mother and it she
couldn't be happy for me. And that's when I knew.
I talked about this and I and I and I
still think about it, that a part of me had

(47:10):
to die so that the rest of me could live.
The part of me that had to die was the
baby on the boat finally had to die, the story
of the baby on the boat and what that baby represented.
That part had to die so that the rest of
me could live, and I could finally live for myself
and find joy and happiness for myself, and not live

(47:32):
for my mother and because of my mother. After it
Puts wedding to April, she and Ma rarely speak. BA
will occasionally fill her in on news when it's necessary,
but in general there is very little contact for quite
a while. And then in puts beloved father in law,

(47:54):
April's father, Jimmy, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Shortly
before he dies. Put In April throw him a party
at one of his favorite restaurants, a celebration of his
life where he can be surrounded by family and friends.
When my father in law was dying and insisted on

(48:15):
having a party to say goodbye to people in person,
um while he was still standing and walking and talking.
We ended up inviting my parents. I was skeptical that
they would come. My wife wanted to add minimum at
least just invite them, because I had told my wife April,
and only her and the subsequent years after we got married,

(48:37):
that I would never forgive my mother if she did
not meet April's father before he passed away. I could
not forget that. I could forgive my parents for not
coming to our wedding, but I would not forgive them
if they didn't meet your dad. That's what I told April,
And so April kind of took the initiative and she
emailed my mom and told my mom that her father
was dying and he was going to have a party

(48:59):
and would they come um And the most surprising thing happened.
I got a phone call on my cell phone the
next day and it was my mom. We hadn't talked
in months, and she said, April sent an email and
let me know that her dad is dying. We want
to join the party, but we don't know how to
get to the restaurant in Portland. Even though my mom
did say she wanted to go, I still wasn't sure

(49:20):
if she was going to show, whether she and my
dad were going to show up, and so similar to
what happened at my wedding. UM, I sort of glanced
up now and again to look at the door to see, if,
you know, they were going to walk through. And at
just the moment when I was going to give up
and think, oh, you know, they're not gonna They're going
to be no shows, just as they were at my wedding, UM,
there was a bit of a fuss at the foyer,

(49:41):
and I saw April over at the foyer of the restaurant,
and then I quickly saw, you know, I saw my
father in law quickly making his way over with my
mother in law, and next thing I knew, my parents
and my in laws were all hugging. And it's a
moment that when I think back over the course of

(50:03):
the years and the moments, the hard moments, and the
and the tender moments, that single moment of tenderness did
so much to call me and soothe me and kind
of rekindle the compassion I have for my mother, because
I also have to think about what it took for
her to make the decision to come, knowing that we

(50:26):
had been in conflict over me marrying a woman that
she did not accept having a gay daughter, and yet
here she was meeting my in laws. It was a
pretty remarkable moment. It's so astonishing when I think about it.
They were so much emotion that went into that moment,

(50:47):
both for my father in law and mother in law,
as well as my parents and and everybody else. My
wife and I continue to care for my father in
law for another month. He passed one month after that party.
And in the past, my mom was always the person
that I would call if I had good news, up

(51:08):
until the point of our rupture when I decided I
was going to marry a woman. Up until that point,
I always called my mom. If I got a promotion
at work, if I got an award in journalism, any
good news, I would call her. When my father in
law passed, I picked up the phone and I didn't call,
but I texted my mother. She was the first that
I thought to contact, and all I texted her was

(51:32):
he has gone and and she texted me back three words.
She texted me Matt sorry. And so in that moment,
I understood we can begin again. The old relationship that
my mom and I had needed to die so that

(51:54):
a new relationship could be reborn in its place, And
that's sort of where I'm at now with her, is
just trying to navigate a new relationship that's really beautiful. Put,
really really beautiful. She had to be careful there. I
felt the tears coming up. Yeah, and me too. Here's

(52:17):
put reading one final passage from her resonant memoir, Ma
and Me. As I drove north out of their subdivision,
past the same farm fields I had come to know
by heart, I felt a pounding between my ears. That
pounding traveled down in my body like a shot, piercing

(52:39):
that place in my heart. While had stockpiled pride, confidence
and self acceptance to buffer against a perennial depression that
always managed to sling me straight to the edge, the
realization I had was so clear. I cried. I had
lived my life a slave to sound good, but I
could never repay my mother. There is a moment when

(53:01):
you realize you are not the same person as your mother,
and yet the things she taught you, the imprint she
left remains. I no longer have moths food to go
home too, because I no longer could go home. So
back in Seattle, when I finally stopped crying, I went
to the kitchen and started cooking and didn't stop for
days and then weeks. Mats Montra repeated in my head

(53:25):
as I chopped, diced, and stirred. Always have a hotmail
ready for your husband. I substituted the word wife her husband,
and flourished ahead. If I could no longer go home
to eat moths food, I would make it for myself
and the woman I loved. Family Secrets is a production

(53:54):
of My Heart Radio. Molly's Core is the story editor
and Dylan Fagin is the executive producer. If you have
a family secret you'd like to share, please leave us
a voicemail and your story could appear on an upcoming episode.
Our number is one eight Secret zero. That's the number zero.
You can also find me on Instagram at Danny writer.

(54:18):
And if you'd like to know more about the story
that inspired this podcast, check out my memoir Inheritance. For

(54:52):
more podcasts from My Heart Radio, visit the I Heart
Radio app, Apple podcast, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

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