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‘Most of my childhood memories were tragic events’

on April 8, 2010

Editor’s note: The following essay was submitted by 19-year-old Richmond native Phon Chanthanasak. His parents emigrated from Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He graduated from Kennedy High School in 2008 and is now in his second year at San Francisco State University. Chanthanasak is also a regular at the RYSE Center in Richmond, a youth empowerment program that teaches local youths multimedia and communications skills. He still resides in Richmond.

Growing up in Richmond, violence always felt like it was a normal thing to see. Most of my childhood memories were tragic events.

I remember at the age of four hearing police sirens just after many rounds of gunfire.

At age five, when I was in kindergarten, I got jumped by two kids at the park in front of my dad.  I didn’t know what was going on. Didn’t know how to react so I ran to my dad’s car. That was my first time getting jumped.

In ninth grade I remember walking home from the park with my girlfriend and one of my close friends. We didn’t know we were being followed, Then a car slowly crept up to the side of us and rolled down the window. The driver yelled, “Hey cuz’, what you bang?”

Being with my girlfriend I didn’t even notice the car or the person at the time. Then my friend told me they were talking to us. I looked and saw the driver pull out a gun.

I was in shock and could not move. He asked me again and again what gang I was in. I kept replying that I was not affiliated with any one or any gang. After asking several more times, someone got out of the car.

It was a familiar face, someone I had run into before. The guy asked me my name again, and as I replied, he punched me in the face.

Falling down, I looked at my friend and girlfriend, hoping they would be safe. I thought I was done for. I saw more guys coming out the car.

Luckily, I was saved by a man who told them to stop or he would get his gun. The man was the owner of the house right next to where I was being beaten.

After they took off, I was so angry and embarrassed that I ran after them with a brick that I picked up from the ground. I was ready for whatever, forgetting that they had a gun. But I was then stopped by my friend and told to let it go.

After that incident, I joined a gang.

To me, my gang was a brotherhood, a second family, and protection. They had my back.

And so I decided to try to get back at those who attacked me. I went to my older uncle and asked him for a gun. He didn’t give me one. Instead, he and my gang brothers told me to forget about it, because it could have been worse and I shouldn’t think about revenge.

They said jail is not a place I want to go to.  They told me to “never search for your enemy, just wait until you catch him slipping.”

Knowing that my friends and uncles had my back, I wasn’t scared anymore.

Because I listened to them I am still here, and not in jail. Today, thanks to that event and many helpful programs, like the outreach of UC Berkeley students who mentor me, I got onto a path to become somebody. I have been lucky to have some positive role models to motivate me to achieve higher education.

These are just a few of the many experiences from my childhood in Richmond that I still remember today. Looking back at my life, it’s hard to say whether those events were good or bad. Everything must happen for a reason and I believe those experiences shape me as a person. And now, as a young adult, I believe that I must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Education is the only way to escape this cycle of violence. And because my mind is growing, I am beginning to understand that violence is not a normal part of life. It’s a problem in our community, and we must talk about it, and we must pay close attention to youth so that they don’t see violence as a way of life. I must try to become a better person not just for myself, but also for the younger generation.


  1. Lex on April 8, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Glad to see and hear the words of Richmond residents directly. I’ve met Phon before and he is an amazing guy–keep on inspiring others to find what you found!

  2. Would your father have done this? on April 8, 2010 at 11:09 am

    […] 'Most of my childhood memories were tragic events' – Richmond … […]

  3. Khmu510 on April 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks you Robert for letting me share my story. I also want to give thanks and a shout out to Southeast Asian Young Leader (SEAYL), SASC of UC Berkeley, Sever the people (STP), youthworks, Ryse and the many other Youth org out there in the community.

  4. Dan on April 9, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Phon is a true leader in his community! I feel fortunate for the opportunity to work with him on a consistent basis. He really is the positive of Richmond and I’m glad he got the opportunity to share part of his story on this site.

  5. Gloria on April 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I was particularly touched by Phon’s words, “…it’s hard to say whether those events were good or bad.” He really understands that judging the events isn’t the important thing; but rather learning from them and moving forward in a positive, growing way is what counts. Keep up the good work, Phon.

  6. […] Photo & Video « ‘Most of my childhood memories were tragic events’ […]

  7. Carah H. on April 12, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Robert and Phon — wow. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s hard to imagine that people actually grow up surrounded by such violence. I appreciate your honest perspective and I hope that you continue on a positive path, helping others as you succeed. God bless.

  8. Robert Rogers on April 12, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Thanks so much to everyone who read and responded. Thanks also to Phon and the RYSE Youth Center for sharing with the community.

    We hope this is the beginning of a more robust effort to attract and publish input from community members on, especially for local youth.

    Robert Rogers

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