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Chanbopha Himm arrived in Maine the young bride in an arranged marriage. How this Cambodian-American adapted and evolved within tradition.

Chanbopha Himm was born in November 1980 at the Khao I Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand, to a Cambodian-born mother, Yorn Un, and a Chinese father, Song Kry, who had spent much of his life in Cambodia. Her parents had already survived the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, her father by pretending not to be educated, and by saving morsels of food for his family while cooking for the regime. After three years in the camp in Thailand, her older half-brother, Kimly, sponsored the family to come to America. They arrived in Attleboro, Massachusetts via the Philippines, with 50 cents to their name. Chanbopha means Moon Flower, but going to American schools, the little girl in the new country went by Chan to make things simpler while her younger siblings were given American names: David, Jennifer and Michael. She also has three older half-siblings, Kimly, Sophan, Heng.

This is her story of adaptation, arranged marriage and becoming an advocate for herself, for her career and for her Cambodian community in Maine, as told to Maine Women Magazine. It begins with her as a 7-year-old in Attleboro, serving as chief translator for her family and the community. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.

Chan Himm outside the Watt Samaki Cambodian temple in Buxton, with a trio of monks behind her. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Both my parents, especially my father, were very strict on me, I couldn’t go out and play like normal kids. Afterschool activities, lacrosse, track, what not, I couldn’t participate in any of these. My dad would walk me to school in the morning and walk me home in the afternoon. When I got home I would do my homework and I would also teach my brothers and sisters. I would do my best to try to educate them and at the same time, in between school, when there is doctor’s appointments, Social Security interviews for disability, I would be taken away from school for an hour or two and translate for my community.

It made me grow to the person I am right now. I am a caring, outgoing person. I will say “Hi” to anybody. I am not afraid. I am very approachable. I am really blessed that my dad did all this for me. If he hadn’t shaped or conditioned me in the way that he did, I wouldn’t be who I am now.

But at a certain age I was hoping that I could live my life. When I graduated from high school I got accepted to UMass Amherst, but I didn’t get a chance to go because that is when my father introduced me to my husband. I met him one day and I honestly thought he was going to be marrying my half-sister because technically she is supposed to be married first. I was like, “You will like my sister!’ Then he was like, ‘What is she talking about?’ [A month later her father told her she was about to enter an arranged marriage with Channdara Himm, the son of one of his friends who lived in Maine. She moved to Maine in 2000.]

God bless my husband because he is such a great guy. He gave me my space. For three years to get to know him. He said, if you need longer just let me know. So for three years we just became friends…And then finally, here we are, with two kids. The first one is Nathan (11) and Natalie (4). The first born son is always the luckiest…in Cambodian culture a boy or girl is just as good, but in Chinese culture it has to be a boy. You need to at least have a boy and if you have the first boy you are amazing. [In those early years, the larger family wondered when their first born would come.] So much pressure. Everybody kept asking. We just said that we weren’t ready. I was really trying to build a career foundation.

Chan Himm at the Cambodian temple in Buxton. “I was brought up to go to temple. I was brought up to wake up early in the morning on New Year to make the cakes for the celebration. To set the table a certain way, to honor our ancestors.” Photo by Heidi Kirn

I was studying accounting. Before going to school I did the work behind it first to find out if I liked accounting or not. I started working at The Thomas agency, processing receivables, and afterwards I worked for Stanford Management..they are like Section 8 what not for people, government housing, I was their accounts payable, I was their accounts receivable and then I was their corporate accountant. I worked my way up, even without having a degree at that time. I finally realized what my passion was, which was numbers. I worked at Unum, in short term disability, and then I worked at Nichols Portland as their staff account for a few years.

I have been at Wex about three years. I did an entry level [job] for finance and now I deal with fleets over $1 billion, domestic and international fleets on the receivable side. I love Wex. It is truly a great place to work. They welcome a lot of multi-culturals. I’m in the Wex-Pats. [The group has about six members, hailing from Russian, Brazil and other countries.] What we are trying to do is, whoever is coming to Wex, we want them to feel like they are at home. We want them to feel welcome. So they can say, ‘Hey Chan, how do you grow within Wex? What are your techniques? I’d like to grow into this department.’ And we are getting them out there in community events.

My ultimate goal with where I am working is to become management. To become that leader that I would like to be. Not just for my career, but I would love to expand it into my community. That’s why I decided to become part of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine. And to be part of Wex-Pats.

Chan with her husband Channdara, daughter Natalie and son Nathan. Courtesy photo

I look back now, our system from back then [when she arrived in America] to now has grown significantly. Like people now care so much. Before, when we came, we didn’t have supporters. Now there is nonprofit groups, even financial groups, that are willing to teach them how to take care of their finances. When we came to America none of that was here. We would be assigned one person who would have like 1,000 families.

I work with the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition, with the Congo immigrants. I have been working with Mufalo (MIRC’s executive director Mufalo Chitam). I want to reach out to all Cambodian women. To set them up a little bit more to get out of your comfort zone, to embrace what you have, you’re in America. Try new things. Like for the past two years I have been into pageantry, and in 2018 I was a Ms. Maine with the American Women of Service. I was awarded Ms. Maine in 2019 and then I was just featured in two beauty (pageant) magazines as a cover girl, world wide. The reason why I ran was to build more confidence in myself. When I came here I didn’t have any confidence. Now I want to share it with the Cambodian woman out there.

Cambodian men are probably a lot like many men; they expect their wife to be home cooking, doing the household chores, not going out, speaking, and trust me, I know because my husband was like that. Recently, within the last three to four years I would say, I have been able to break him of that. How? I just kept going. No marriage is perfect, we had our ups and our downs. At one point during that time my husband wasn’t happy because I kept putting myself out there. I was working more, I worked a lot later. Now that I am the breadwinner of the family he now understands why I am doing this.

I love the outdoors. I love skiing, jet skiing, snowmobiling, water skiing, tubing, hiking. My first hike was at Old Speck. It is one of the most rugged trails in Maine. We started at 9 in the morning and we didn’t leave Old Speck until 9 at night. I loved it. I wanted to go hiking again; my husband was like, ‘Hiking is dangerous.’ My first time camping was at Chimney Pond. I wanted to go up to Katahdin but we only made it to Chimney Pond. This was one of the first time I was able to step away, I went with friends, he let me out with friends, overnight. First time ever. I think it kind of grew on him that I am just going to do it, with or without your approval.

Chan Himm at the Cambodian Temple in Buxton. Photo by Heidi Kirn

I believe that every woman has their voice and that women should empower women. That we could all become great leaders, only if we are able to break free with this certain wall. We can be great, we can be stronger than a lot of men out there and my husband in a way I think, kind of realized that. It took him a long time though. It has been quite a haul. When I married him I was very obedient. I obeyed, just like I obeyed my father. I honored, I was respectful, I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for my tradition, which was stay home, come home, be at home. It’s just home, home. But he is now supporting me a lot more. He finally realized that okay, ‘She’s on to something.’

Someday I would like to be financially free and I told him, this is my dream: I would like to retire and travel with you. He is finally at this point, we are finally in agreement of it; this is what we want. And to set an example for my kids, especially my daughter, and have her realize that she can too be the breadwinner of the family, she too can be the woman that she wants to be. My timeline was already defined for me, when I was born, at birth, that this marriage was getting arranged. But I broke free. I changed my timeline into something different.

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