My First Job: MAYE Center Executive Director Laura Som

With Labor Day coming, we got to thinking about that often critical, sometimes comical first job we’ve all had—and sometimes had to endure. We asked a few locals who’ve journeyed on their own interesting career paths what that first step/job was like. Laura Som is the founder and executive director of the MAYE Center in Cambodia Town and is now preparing for her seat as a commissioner on the city’s new Ethics Commission.

Laura Som’s first job coincided with the first English sentence she ever learned.

“One chicken leg, please,” a 10-year-old Som would ask an employee at the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen on Long Beach Boulevard before handing over her hard earned cash.

The fast-food restaurant was just around the corner from the garment shop she worked at with her mother. Today, the location is a parking structure for St. Mary Medical Center, right across from the Superior grocery store.

Som’s job was to cut leftover threads at the end of pants or shirt sleeves.

“I felt so proud of myself,” she said.

While the job was very easy, Som remembers having fun and focusing on the quality of her work.

“It was a process of just being in the moment of working and the joy of earning an income and taking pride in that,” she said.

At the shop, which housed about 20 to 30 employees—the majority of which were Cambodian refugees like Som and her mom—the elders knew to be careful with the quality of their work under Som’s watchful eye. If not, Som would have a pile of garments waiting for them to fix.

“There’s stuff that I would catch and say, ‘You have to redo that!’” Som recalled with a laugh.

Som and her mother were able to land the job through a friend of a friend nearly two weeks after arriving in Long Beach from Cambodia in March 1992. Som didn’t know her ABCs yet. With no age requirement or background checks, Som said work at garment shops sometimes were the only jobs available and easy to obtain for immigrants.

Earning a few dollars at a time, Som worked six hours a day, five days a week; getting picked up by her mom after school, arriving at work by 4 p.m. and leaving by 10 p.m.

So what did she do with the money she got, besides ordering chicken legs?

“I had a little piggy bank and I would put all my quarters and dollars in there and then I would buy my backpack and back-to-school clothes,” Som said.

Som ended up working at that shop for five years, until 9th grade, when she transitioned to a donut shop.

Laura Som, Executive Director of The MAYE Center, sits at a sewing machine while at the center in Long Beach Tuesday, August 27, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

While she never made clothes after that experience, Som’s work as founder and executive director at the MAYE Center in Cambodia Town—which focuses on meditation, agriculture, yoga and education to heal past trauma—has brought her work life to a full circle.

“I’m learning how to sew,” Som revealed.

After the elders at her wellness center asked for the heavy, industrial sewing machines they were accustomed to using long ago, Som obliged about two years ago.

Now, the elders are teaching Som how to sew—but this time she’s learning how to make a complete garment.

“With the factory style, they divided the tasks so you could never learn how to make your own shirt,” Som said. “One person would sew one sleeve and the other person would sew the main portion of the body of the shirt, but we would never have the skills to become a tailor.”

At a launch party for Equity for Cambodians earlier this year, Som even sported a dress handmade at the center with fabric purchased for $10 at a local Cambodian fabric shop.

“People looked at that outfit and thought, ‘Oh my gosh that must be hundreds of dollars!’ and I was like nope, we made it for an art class.”

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Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.