Strength, Courage and Wisdom: An Interview with Life Survivor Sotheara Yem

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Coming from a childhood of neglect and severe child abuse, Sotheara Yem knows what it’s like to struggle. The Cambodian American left North Carolina shortly after graduating high school and arrived in San Francisco on his own, hoping to build a new life.

With earnings from his work at a fast food restaurant, he settled in, found work at Macy’s but a few years later was laid off due to downsizing. He became homeless but not hopeless. He found support from local non-profits: Tipping Point, Larkin Street Youth Services and Opportunity Nation. The assistance given to him specifically by the Vietnamese Youth Development Center was cardinal to his survival – leading to his eventual discovery of Year Up, which trained him for work at the San Francisco based IT company, Responsys.

He is currently a Resident Manager for Urban Pioneer and Outreach Coordinator for Year Up which provides young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.

Sotheara’s story and tenancity has been mentioned in TIME, The San Francisco Chronicle and on Bloomberg TV.

Amidst all of this, Sotheara (nickname, So) took a break from his busy schedule to give AsianWeek an interview.

Sotheara Yem

Sotheara Yem

Did you ever try to be a different person or take a new name to fit in?

I was raised in Stoneville, North Carolina where it was predominantly white. Our family was literally, the only Asian family that lived there. They gave me a label. Either I was Mexican or Chinese. When I told them I’m Cambodian they didn’t understand.

Growing up, I was looked at as an outcast. Caucasian kids would call me Chinese and Mexican. When I told them I’m Cambodian they didn’t understand where I was from or who I was.  I was made fun of because of my eyes, my dark brown skin, and simply because I was different.

Middle school was really severe. I got beat up in a locker room, because I was trying to stand up for myself. People were just watching and laughing while I was on the ground getting punched and kicked to the face.

As I grew older and realized that situations like this go on and are still going. Trying to adapt or be like [bullies] is not the answer. Instead I try to stand up, and embrace who I am so so I can educate them and tell them who I am in a confident way. Make them understand. This is me. Accept me for who I am.

What do you think is one of the biggest ailments that plague young people today?

Something I see that’s very infectious, and that’s molding a lot of young folks’ minds is that they’re consuming the negative things that the media is feeding them.

They know who Kim Kardashian is, and who she’s divorcing and dating. But they don’t know about what happened during the Cambodian genocide, they don’t know the immigration laws or where to register to vote. They know these little things that may seem important, but that’s not the case.

What to you is a successful person?

A successful person isn’t the one with the most money in his wallet, but the one who gets the most out of life. Dr. Cornel West said – “It’s not about the superficial things but the substantial things, truth, love, power, and peace.” I really admire that.

Future goals?

My goal is to have a family of my own and to be able to provide for them, and to provide them the basic things – to love them unconditionally and to be a good father.

What does being Cambodian mean to you? What do you think a lot of young Cambodians or just young people in general, can do to find positive self-definition?

Being Cambodian means strength, resilience and determination to be and do better. My people have been through a lot during and after the Cambodian genocide. We’re talking about a country that was robbed of its freedom, over 2 million people were killed during Khmer regime for them to still keep moving and making a life for themselves out here in America after all that has happened amazes me.

I love my people. I love my culture. And I love the food, and I just love everything about Cambodia. My people are beautiful. I’m proud to be who I am. I’m glad I’m not anything else.

It’s a good feeling.

Young Cambodians can find positive self-definition during these trying times by really looking back at the struggles that their parents and their grandparents overcame during the Cambodian genocide. And how they came to the U.S. for a better life. Use that as a motivation and keep moving forward, keep doing the right thing.

You’re here. You can start a legacy here. Build a reputation for Cambodians and pave the way for your kids and keep moving forward.

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