Finding a smile and highlighting beauty after a childhood of tears

Tina Fine can typically be found around the beautiful women she outfits in garments from her store, Tina’s Fine Lingerie and Swimwear in Middletown, Conn.

And as these women turn to Tina for advice on these garments, whether in the store or at a fashion show that she has organized—such as the recent Halloween fund raiser at Mezzo Grill in Middletown to benefit breast cancer research—she’s smiling.

But dig deeper into Tina’s history, you will see that her life epitomizes the old adage, if she didn’t laugh, she’d cry.

Tina was born in Cambodia, and she was one of six siblings.

However, in the mid-1970s, leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the southeastern Asian country. And the Khmer Rouge began a reign of terror throughout the nation with the sole purpose of sending the nation back to the Stone Age in order to rebuild it from the ground up.

Tina said the Khmer Rouge killed millions. If you were an intellectual of any kind, you were a target. Even if you spoke English, said Tina, you were a target. If they heard you speak a word of English, she said you would be shot on sight. “No questions asked.”

After Pol Pot’s ascent to power, said Tina, there was starvation for her and her family. They ate whatever they could get their hands on.

“I had no childhood,” said Tina.

Eventually, everyone in her family perished, including her parents, perished in the war.

Tina is the sole survivor.

Tina ended up in a refugee camp, among other Cambodians. She waited for her number to be called in a lottery that would give her the green light to come to the United States.

In 1987, Tina said, that opportunity to come to America arrived. She was brought to Connecticut and placed in a foster home in Rocky Hill.

“I came here with two sets of clothes, a book, and a bag,” said Tina.

Tina said she was enrolled in Rocky Hill High School. But it was an immense struggle in that suburban town because she didn’t speak any English. (There also was the struggle of being different. She changed her given name—Peou—to Tina because of the way the American students mocked her Cambodian moniker.)

In time, she moved beyond life in high school, studied fashion merchandising for a few years at Central Connecticut State University, and began eying the possibility of opening her own business.

Tina explained she was no stranger to retail. She worked for other people, always putting in the extra bit of elbow grease at each job. And she was loyal to each employer, putting in years on the jobbefore moving on. “That’s who I am.”

The idea of a lingerie shop was planted in Tina’s mind when she worked in a lingerie shop of a friend while she was pregnant. The idea of having her own business, however, had long been a goal of Tina’s. When she arrived on these shores, she knew she wanted to open her own boutique.

In time, she had three businesses. But, like many who enter the world of retail, Tina found the seas were rough and shuttered two of them.

But her shop on Main Street in Middletown remains.

And if you stop in, she is more than likely at the register– smiling.

“Life is very important to me because I didn’t have a childhood,” said Tina, explaining why she always seems to smile. “I’ve had a very difficult life.”

“It doesn’t matter how difficult life is here in the United States,: said Tina, “the way I look at it is it’s not as hard as the years I went through.”

Tina Fine, center, with some of the models from her Halloween fashion show to benefit breast cancer research.

Tina Fine, center, with some of the models from her Halloween fashion show to benefit breast cancer research.

The models from the Tina's Fine Lingerie and Swimwear Halloween fashion-- which was a benefit for breast cancer research.

The models from the Tina’s Fine Lingerie and Swimwear Halloween fashion– which was a benefit for breast cancer research.

“It’s not that bad, I have food; I have a house; a store; I have a car,” said Tina. “How bad can it be compared to how it used to be when there was no food, no school, and most of all, no parents.”