This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
B. Touch was barred from having a cell phone, dating boys or hanging out with her friends. After school every day, she was required to work at her family’s doughnut shop.
“I didn’t live like a regular teenager,” said Touch.
Her parents and brothers emigrated from Cambodia in the early 1980s when they were rescued from a refugee camp. In Philadelphia they opened a doughnut shop. Touch was born here in 1988 to a mother who was nearly 50 at the time.
“It was hard for them to adapt to the American ways,” said Touch. “They were raising me how they were raised in Cambodia … when I see the total opposite everywhere else.”
Her only escape was cutting class every day.
“During those eight hours, it was the only time that I got to express myself,” said Touch. “I can’t really explain it. It’s the only freedom I had … because after school hours, it was straight to the doughnut shop, straight to work.”
Her school, Bartram High, contacted her parents and suspended her for cutting. Her parents began dropping her off and picking her up at school each day, but she would leave right after they did.
“I probably went to school once or twice a week.”
Touch knew she was smart and had gotten straight As until high school, where she didn’t find the work challenging. So when she was told she would have to repeat the 10th grade, she was angry.
Her parents sent her to live with her brother, 20 years older than she. He lived in the University City High School region. There she tried 10th grade again but felt like “I was wasting my time in school” and rarely showed up.
Frustrated, her parents sent her to Cambodia “to get a better understanding and be grateful for what I had.” And to squash her Americanized ways.
“I was mad, I wanted to report them, I wanted them to get locked up. How you gonna send a minor across the world like this?
“The lesson wasn’t taught,” she said, jauntily. She used her parents’ money to go “partying.”
She did grow close with Cambodian relatives, but missed home and returned to Philadelphia, and the doughnut shop, after 10 months.
Unwilling to be “another teenager dropout” and confident of her academic skills, she took the GED.
“Academic-wise, I knew everything that was being taught to me. I could grasp it well,” she said.
But then she got pregnant. The baby’s father was Black, not Cambodian, so her parents disowned her.
“I don’t really blame them for how they treated me when I was younger, keeping me working. … The only thing I still have resentment and anger toward is how I was disowned,” she said
She moved in with the baby’s father, now her husband. Just six months later though, he was arrested on drug charges and spent two and a half years in jail.
Touch, now 22, has regained contact with her family and works at Nu Sigma Youth Services, helping other at-risk youth stay in school.
“I can have an impact on these kids. I was once cutting class, a dropout, but then I learned from all of that, got my GED.
“I love what I have. I don’t regret nothing right now.”