Note: This column was republished with permission from Represent Magazine: The Voice of Youth in Foster Care
When I was 15, my older sister Te-li and I were taken away from my mother because she was mentally ill. We were first placed with my grandma, who wasn’t the kind to hug me or tell me she loved me. Instead, she ordered me to do things for her and constantly told me how worthless I was and how she was the best grandma for taking Te-li and me into her home. Afraid of having no home, I let myself believe her words.
Te-li and I together made the life-changing decision to go into foster care with a stranger. Te-li contacted our lawyer, who told us to start packing. The Children’s Services workers were shocked at our grandmother’s treatment of us. One worker told us that they didn’t have any Asian families to send us to, as if she was trying to warn us. But we had no other option.
On moving day, a red van pulled up to my grandma’s apartment building. A middle-aged black woman in a T-shirt and jeans got out. It was Ms. Tate, our new foster mother. She was so tall I had to lean my head back to look up to see her face. I noticed she had an accent; later I found out she was from Ghana. We drove away from my grandmother’s without much conversation.
Her house on 110 Unconventional Avenue looked better than what I expected. It was a typical New York City rowhouse, with concrete instead of a front lawn. Ms. Tate led Te-li and me to a room where she said her biological twins used to live. The room was a big mess and she began to fix it up and told her older son to put up the bunk bed. I wondered why they hadn’t done this sooner, but I was happy to share the room with Te-li only.
Ms. Tate had six biological children, but I only saw three that day. Counting Te-Li and me, there were four foster children. The others were Hope, who was 16, and Linda, 18. They were both African-American. Her biological children, Ms. Tate explained, lived in another house with her mother. I wondered why she didn’t live with her own kids.
Cold and Hungry
As Te-Li and I unpacked that first day, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. I decided to take a shower. I adjusted the water to warm in the lower, tub faucet. When I turned the knob for the water to go up into the shower head, only a thin stream of water came down, practically touching the wall. To get wet, I had to press my body up against the wall. This was disgusting: If I was doing this, then others must have too, yuck.
The only way to get more water pressure was to make the shower ice cold, so I did. But some people don’t have any showers, I rationalized as I shivered. And this is not my mother. If I say something, I might get kicked out and moved somewhere worse.
On our first night in the house, Ms. Tate introduced us to a chubby, middle-aged man with a full head of white hair. She said, “Mr. Williams is also a foster parent for the agency and he’s my backup when I’m not here. He sleeps here.” At first I thought he was Ms. Tate’s significant other, but I am still not sure of their relationship. She didn’t seem interested in him; on the other hand, her biological children called him “Dad.”
Mr. Williams’s bedroom was right next to our kitchen, and one of his responsibilities was to keep track of what foster children took out of the refrigerator. He reported to Ms. Tate everything we ate—usually ramen noodles or a TV dinner cooked in the microwave and washed down with a glass of tap water. When we asked for more food, he told us there wasn’t any more.
I only saw Ms. Tate a few nights a week, as she seemed to spend most of her time in her room in the basement. She did spend more time upstairs with us on Sundays: Maybe she got a reminder from God, as she attended church for three to five hours. She would cook a big dinner over the stove after church, and then on Monday we could eat leftovers. To make up for the rest of the week, on Sunday and Monday I would eat until I felt ready to throw up.
‘It Could Be Worse’
Ms. Tate guarded her food like gold but her rules about staying out were very easygoing. She allowed me to sleep over at my friend’s house or stay out till 2 a.m. Ms. Tate told all four of us, “You know, most foster parents wouldn’t let you stay out so late.” The implication was that she gives us freedom, so we shouldn’t report the strange living arrangements to the foster care agency.
I never reported the lack of food, the cold showers, or Ms. Tate never being around. I was always afraid of the “what if’s.” What if I get put into a worse home; what if the other foster mother is meaner; what if the new home is filthy.
During my three years at Ms. Tate’s, I felt isolated from everyone but Te-li. We were the only Asian people in the neighborhood except the Chinese restaurant workers, so Te-li and I got nasty comments about “eggrolls” constantly. I got that abuse in my own home: My foster sister was always saying “Chinese people can’t dance” and how ugly Chinese girls are because of our tiny eyes and flat chests and butts.
Ms. Tate kept the basement locked and only Mr. Williams and her biological kids were allowed down there. “Go to bed,” she’d tell us before heading downstairs. But then out the window I’d see her get into her red min-van and drive off. Her car was always gone by midnight. She hardly ever woke us up in the morning. When she did, she would arrive though the front door dressed in the day’s outfit and looking sharp.
Where was she going and what was she doing every night? I wondered. Why don’t her kids sleep here? Why would a mother want to stay in a foster home and put her biological kids in another house? I began to feel like Nancy Drew or someone from CSI investigating Ms. Tate.
I’d been living there about a year and a half when Ms. Tate told me to bring up some frozen milk from the basement refrigerator because she was having back problems. Mr. Williams and her bio children were not around. Going down the steps, I felt privileged to enter this mysterious territory. I saw sodas, Gatorades, apple juice, and snacks, things I had never seen upstairs. The only familiar thing I saw was the frozen milk she served the foster children to drink.
I snooped around. There were no towels or toothbrushes in the bathroom. Ms. Tate’s room just had a bed and a lamp, and only three items hung in her closet. I don’t believe she ever slept at 110.
I started to feel shocked at how she treated us, even more so when I realized she kept us in this lousy place and snuck off to her real home. Soon afterwards, during one of those icy showers, rage grew in me for the first time. As my teeth chattered and I gasped for breath, I thought, “This is abuse and exploitation.” Ms. Tate got four foster children’s checks and she couldn’t afford hot water for us? Yet I kept quiet because I was still afraid of being moved to a different home with worse conditions.
Then Ms. Tate took in a 9-year-old girl with a disability who shared the room with me (my sister Te-li had gone off to college). Ms. Tate had to keep the little girl with her more, so she’d seen the other house, 205 Luxe Lane, where the biological children lived. The girl told me everything about the other house: how the shower was hot and steamy, how the food was fresh, plentiful, and tasty. I seethed thinking of all the times she complained to us foster children about how much we ate and how much hot water and electricity we used.
I started to rebel. I stayed out late more and spent weekends at my friends’ houses. I stopped calling her “Mom” and called her “Ms. Tate.” One weekend Te-li was home and Ms. Tate called a family meeting. Te-li spoke out against her unfair treatment of the foster children and told her she was just using us for the money.
Afterwards, Ms. Tate said to me, “I can’t have your sister living here and I would like you two to leave my home by your 18th birthday.” (Which was five months away.) It hit me that Te-li was right: Ms. Tate stuck us in a place she wouldn’t let her biological family live. I started packing and didn’t wait for my birthday to get moved to another foster home.
Now I am older and have been away from her about a year. When I first started writing this story I felt guilty because Ms. Tate was kind enough to have a home for foster children to live in. Before I always tried to look at the positive side of people and made excuses for their inhumane treatment of me. I was grateful for the scraps people gave me and never took a stand. I was a pushover.
But as I write about it I realize that Ms. Tate’s treatment of foster children was unacceptable. Nowadays I know that I deserve what everyone else gets. I will no longer allow myself to be put down or treated differently because I am a foster child.
I Deserve Better
Several things made me realize I deserve better. My current foster parent treats me well. Going to college has helped too. My courses on psychology and identity helped me understand myself better, including as a Chinese person. In English 101, we read essays about self-identity that showed the spirit of individuals who have had to overcome how society labeled them.
At Ms. Tate’s, it wasn’t good to be Chinese, so I distanced myself from that culture. I had no Asian friends; I shopped where African-American kids shopped and never wore anything with Hello Kitty on it. Now I’m more proud of my heritage.
I also started therapy, and that has helped with my self-understanding. As a foster child, you start out with low self-worth because of the neglect or abuse from your biological parents. And then in care, you get messages that you’re inferior. No foster mother has ever treated me the same as she treats her biological children.
But it’s not my fault that foster care is my situation. So I tell myself that there are advantages. Kids with parents are more dependent because they get more; not having resources makes us foster children independent. We gain more survival skills to prepare us for the adult world.
That doesn’t mean that Ms. Tate’s abuse was all right. I know now that I’m no better or worse than a kid with parents. I find my self-esteem partly through my performance and achievements. I wanted to do high school in three years, so I pushed for it; I wanted the 90 average, and I got that too. I wanted to win a medal running track—that I didn’t get, but I tried. (I blame it on the nutrients I didn’t get from the food in the foster home, but maybe I really didn’t try hard enough.)
Even though I was going through adversity in foster care I was able to achieve the goals I set for school. I look back and admire how strong I’ve been. I have gained a voice and learned what I am worth. Furthermore, I learned that I could enhance my value through education and self-love.
But before I could do all that, I had to get angry in that cold shower. Only when I could name what was done to me as abuse could I stop believing that I deserved it.
Note: The names in this story, other than those of the writer and her sister, have been changed.