Rex “Raksmeymony” Yin: Creating spaces for Asian and queer communities

Rex Yin — Rex Raksmeymony Yin headshot

May is Asian & Pacific American Heritage Month. Designated as a time to pay tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success. New York State Rep. Rep. Frank Horton first introduced legislation to designate this month as such and then it was signed into law in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter as APA Heritage Week, which was then extended to a month in 1990. To celebrate and learn about what’s happening in the community, we spoke to Rex “Raksmeymony” Yin, one of the officials at Philadelphia Asian & Queer (PAQ). Yin is a 1.5-generation Cambodian American queer educator, passionate about education equity, social equality, and community healing. He’s been a science teacher, lecturer and advocate. He also serves on the boards of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, the Asian Mosaic Fund, and Mifflin Square Neighborhood Coalition.

Tell me a little about yourself.
My family comes from Cambodia. I’m one of triplets, in addition to the two brothers, I have a big brother and sister. We were all born in a refugee camp in Thailand. When we were infants, the family immigrated to the US.

Ooh, I’ve interviewed twins before, but never trips! Did the family come straight to Philadelphia?
No, we had a bit of a journey. From Thailand, I think the first stop was Paris, and then to Silver Springs, MD, and after a year there, we moved to Philadelphia and settled in the Logan/Olney section and that’s where we really started our lives in America! 

OK, now tell me a fun triplet thing.
My parents used to have to color code us so that people could tell who was who. I’m the youngest of the three and I wear blue, the middle wears red and the oldest wears black. The colors come from the Power Rangers, we were really inspired by them as kids. We learned that when they were not in their Power Rangers suits, they still wore their colors so you still always knew who was what ranger. So for us, the colors were a way of helping people know who we were as individuals and it was an homage to the show we were passionate about. It’s actually carried through to our adult life. We continue to wear our specific colors. For me, it helps me be a lot more efficient when shopping! Blue and I’m done. 

I love it!
My parents and our older siblings had a number of things they did to help tell us apart. We wore distinctive necklaces or bracelets. And it was important to us to have agency over how people saw us as individuals, so being able to choose our own colors or accessories gave us some independence. 

Could your parents tell you apart?
We have traits that separate us a little. One has a thinner frame. My cheeks are a little fuller. But it was probably difficult when we were young. 

Ha, you could actually be the wrong brother by accident.
That’s completely valid! We may have to do a DNA test someday to figure it out. 

From what I understand — from my extensive law background of watching crime dramas — twins and triplets have the same DNA, so if one of you killed someone, they wouldn’t be able to charge you based on DNA. Not that I’d suggest that…
No, no. We were good. Even growing up in school, everyone used to suggest that we at least switch classes, but each of us had and have unique mannerisms and a different style of dress in addition to our colors, so there were always cues to tell us apart. 

Are you the only gay one?
Yes, that’s one place where we differ! 

Who did you tell first?
My older sister. She was one of my biggest supporters growing up. She’s the one I would go to for advice. She’s the one who drove me to college. If I needed someone to reflect with, she’s the person I’d call, so when it came to coming out, she was the one I wanted to tell first. Even now, with the accomplishments I’ve had, she is still the person I aspire to be like. She’s a vice president at a financial company. If we had time, I’d tell you about all the brothers, as each of them are really accomplished in different ways. 

And what were some of the things that you were into as a kid?
We grew up in the church Christian, and we were involved in a children’s ministry so Sundays after church, the kids would all play soccer. It was part of the experience — church then soccer. In the summer, they would organize swim trips to a school in Glenside, so that was the next joy. We did that all through my childhood. When I was in college, I became the coordinator for the swim program and each summer, we went camping with the church. I always looked forward to that chance to leave the city for one week to play with my friends and meet new kids from other groups. 

Who was your favorite teacher?
It was Mrs. Niblack. She was my junior year English literature teacher. She was very frank and direct until we got into the subject. It was like when she opened a textbook, she switched personas. She became very passionate and was really a critical thinker about whatever we were reading and it got me more into the English language as well. Growing up, I always felt that my English wasn’t as good as my native speaking peers, but she would encourage me, “Rex, you have an ear for literature and the critical thinking needed when we read these novels or poems or plays. Let’s explore that further.” 

Her belief in me gave me the confidence to have an English minor in Literature when I went to college. She taught me to use literature as a way to understand the world. I’m one person with a finite amount of time, I can’t explore every part of our world, but a book lets you explore all sorts of places, persons and things. Adjacent sidebar: It’s also what got me really into early childhood literacy. In college, I started a program that would recruit students on campus to go into daycares, community centers, and classrooms to read to children to help cultivate an excitement for reading in the little ones.

What was your major in college and where did you go?
I am a graduate of Gettysburg College. I got a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Intercultural Studies through Education) and had two minors — English Literature and Sociology. I also have a Masters of Education from Eastern University. 

Not too shabby. What do you do now?
I’m the deputy director of content development and learning strategy at the SPARK Quality Support Center, which is a Shine Early Learning project. I pretty much handle the professional learning and development opportunities for Philadelphia’s city-funded pre-kindergarten program called PHLpreK. It has more than 180 early childhood education providers throughout the city! We provide quality support for the Mayor’s Office of Children & Families. We do coaching, training, technical support, etc. to help ensure that the providers who are part of the program are turning out high-quality service whether it’s in the classrooms or with other engagement. I handle everything from professional development to content solutions, teacher initiatives, and so on for about 200 PreK providers. 

Is there a student or moment that stands out from your time teaching in the classroom?
Yes, I was teaching science to third and fourth graders in North Philly and I had a student who was displaying a lot of challenging behaviors in the classroom. No fault of his own. He had a very difficult home situation, and had had varying levels of educational experiences prior to being in my classroom. To me, a misbehavior is just a sign of communication. It’s showing a need, so I never take it personally. He was very aware and self conscious about his academic shortcomings and one day, someone made a joke about him and he grew enraged. My first response was to acknowledge his feelings. I said, “Hey, I see you and I know you’re upset.” I took his hand and said, “I want you to hold my hand and squeeze it to show me how upset you are.You don’t need to talk, just squeeze my hand. Don’t let go if you’re still feeling upset.” So he sat next to me while I was still doing a science lesson and held my hand very tightly. Slowly, he eased up but was still holding on. But by the time I got to the experiment part of the lesson, he let go. He turned to me with joy on his face and joined the group, not caring anymore about what was said. I was so proud of him. [Laughing] Teaching physics to third graders can be interesting! 

That’s beautiful. I also read that one of your focuses in school was research on the unique challenges that Cambodian Americans are facing. Can you describe a few?
Language access is big. In Philadelphia, the schools don’t have translation or interpretation resources available for parents and caregivers of children in the schools. It’s a huge problem. And residual trauma — many of our parents or grandparents came through horrific situations. I could detail our family’s journey through the killing fields of Cambodia, surviving the refugee camps in Thailand, migrating to the United States, and overcoming myriads of cultural and social barriers. However, we are defined by so much more than just our pain. My family could also detail their joys of finding a Cambodian community safety net, having their own home and land to do gardening, and witnessing their children thrive. But it is important to be cognizant of the long-term ramifications of war and genocide including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance use, and many more mental health conditions that plague the Cambodian community. 

I’m sure. Let’s jump back a little, what did your folks do?
Like many of the Cambodian immigrants that settled in Philadelphia, both of my parents worked in factories. It was usually that or in the fields picking produce. My mother worked in a fabric workshop and my father in a machinery shop. He actually retired when I was in fifth grade, so my mother was the primary provider. She worked the night shift so we didn’t see her much and when we did, she was often tired. They both worked long hours. So my dad was the one who was there when we came home from school. 

How did you end up getting involved with the LGBTQ community and Philadelphia Asian and Queer (PAQ)?
Because of being raised in the church, where I was taught that being gay was a sin, the first thought was to repent and forget — to try to pray it away, but I soon decided I wanted to accept who I was. After coming out to my sister and later my brothers, who are devout Christians, I fully embraced who I was. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was queer, but by chance, I went to an LGBTQ+ networking event and met someone who was part of PAQ. They invited me to some of the social events and it was like, “Wow! There’s a queer Asian community in Philadelphia!” It was a chance to explore different parts of my identity. Because I’m someone who gets passionate about being a part of community and being of service, I got involved with the organization right away and now I’m the Operations & Organization Lead. I love it because I can now help other people looking for community. 

What are some of the events you have coming up?
We just had a sold-out tea ceremony in May and also did a cooking demonstration last week. Sunday [May 26], we’ll be doing a tour of the Southeast Asian Market in JFK. In June, we’ll be part of the Pride March on the 2nd, and on June 22, we’re having a Pride Barbecue. We’ve been partnering with Miss Saigon, which is a new restaurant in the Gayborhood to have monthly drag shows that feature API drag kings and queens. We also do book clubs, and an Afternoon Tea and Discussion group which is a closed community support space for queer and trans Asian/Asian-American people. We have resources and info on housing and the arts, you name it. We also do conference presentations and workshops — all sorts of things. 

Nice, let’s do some random questions. What’s a fun family tradition?
Cambodian New Year! It’s my favorite. My mother would take us to the Temple. We’d offer prayers and there would be a plethora of Cambodian foods to eat. As kids, it was traditional to throw shaving cream and baby powder at each other for the New Year celebration. It was a free-for-all, we’d smear it on each other and have so much fun. My dad is Christian so he would take us to church where there was also a plethora of Cambodian foods. It was a time to celebrate our heritage. 

Did you have a stuffed animal as a kid?
I did. I had a stuffed mouse. 

A pet peeve?
People making noise when they eat.

If you could have a feature from any animal, what would it be?
Let me first say that my favorite animal is the great white shark. Part of it is because of the way they operate, always moving, always driven and that’s the way I pursue my dreams and goals. And they have strong teeth, and I do enjoy eating so that would come in handy. But I also have almost no sense of smell, so some animal that has an exceptional nose would be good too. 

Favorite picture?
There’s one we found that means a lot. It’s our first birthday in America and the three of us and our older siblings are surrounding a big cake — a nice moment — but if you really look at the picture, you can see that there wasn’t much in the home at the time. It’s pretty barren. It’s a reminder of the beginning of the journey we had. We came here with nothing, but what the joy in the picture shows is that what we had was each other. And seeing how far we’ve all come reminds and inspires me to do better, not just for myself but for my community and everyone around me. 

For more information, visit

Newsletter Sign-up