The following essay by Tooch Van explores his journey from a young child in Cambodia to an adult and father in Lowell today. Guest essays are always welcome here. Send yours to DickHoweJr@gmail.com.
From Phnom Penh to Lowell: A Journey of the international student from Cambodia: This I believe I can learn
by Tooch A. Van
When I was about five years old, I was left alone in this world to fend for myself. The Khmer Rouge soldiers took my parents and nine of siblings to be killed after they found out my father was a university professor. I moved from one foster family to the next in search of a refuge. Often I was beat up and emotionally abused by the foster family after the genocide. In that process, I believed I learned how to cultivate survival skills to live and to move on in life.
At 15 years old, a classmate of mine who asked me to tutor him and four other kids in math in exchanging for food and a place to stay. I learned to be a tutor. With this opportunity, I believed I learned how to put the education into practice. I started to realize that if I only worked hard and determined, I could use my education to get out from the poverty as well as to help others so much.
In 1995, I met Frank Falcetta, former Associate Provost of Middlesex Community College. He was in Cambodia to search for a candidate who deserve a scholarship to study at Middlesex. A number of Cambodian politicians tried to persuade Frank to take their daughter or son. Frank did not listen to them. But my name was recommended to him. Over the dinner, Frank asked me,
“Did you know how to write in English–”
I answered… “I did not know but I could learn …. “
Frank smiled & said nothing at that moment.
I thought to myself “Tooch!!! You screwed up… & you should to tell him… you know how to write English.” The sense of shamefulness danced in my mind.
However, at the end of the dinner, Frank gave me his business card and told me to write him an essay… “why did I want to come and study in America..”
A year later, I received a scholarship to study at Middlesex Community College. My dream came true to finally see America. I had many difficulties due to my English and to cultural barriers. I did not know how to write and read in English properly. I did not know how to analyze or put things together as a project. Culturally, I could not understand most of what people said and did here, particularly American jokes and sarcasms. In classroom, whenever the teacher told a joke sometimes, the entire classed laughed out about but I could not understand what they were laughed about….
But through hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, I managed to graduate from Middlesex Community College, went on to get my BA in International Studies and minor in Humanitarian and Social Justice from Trinity College and a Certificate from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University, and a Master from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University…. You can see, I believed I could learn how to get the college degrees here in America.
To fast forward my story, these days, everyday is a gift for me that I am surrounded by educators and friends at work and at home. At Middlesex Community College, I have learned to work with my colleagues professionally to teach and empower our students to take pride in their own learning as well as to try their best to reach their potentials in life. Also, I am learning how to give compliments to my female colleagues in the office in an appropriate way without viewing as a sexual harassment, biases or anything. In Cambodian culture, a man never or barely gives a compliment to a woman. But I believe I can learn to do this.
At home, I am learning to be a good husband and father. I have learned that is okay if I sometimes lose in negotiations to my wife. In Cambodian culture, while is a male oriented society, a man always gets his way. I grew up in that culture. Sometimes, it has been very challenging for me to hear when my wife says, “No” to what I want. For example, it has been always been a dream of mine to have a big family. So I have been negotiating with my wife, using all negotiation skills that I learned from the Fletcher School Law and Diplomacy with her.
The proposal was to have four kids, so they could play together in a big, fat and happy family.
But my wife said “no way”… she continued.. two are enough for you …
So it is very difficult to accept it,
But I believed I learned to accept the answer “NO” from my wife.
Let’s me close with an anecdote about my four years old, son Winston Van. We (my wife and I) have trained him: whenever he coughs or sneezes, he should cover his mouth with his arm. Boy! This four years old kid came up after me: every time, I coughed and I forgot to cover my mouth. He keeps reminding everybody in the house and our guests including my wife’s uncle visiting from France (that was a story behind that, too).
Another tale of Winston is when he turned 4 four in April 28, he walked around and told everybody in his preschool including teachers. My birthday is today and my dad & mom will have my birthday celebration for me. One of his teachers asked. “How old you are”? Winston replied “I am four.” Teacher continued asking “how old is your dad?” Winston replied “He is four and half.” You can see, Winston is not afraid to take risk in his life at all. I personally always encourage and support Winston’s initiation, courage and creativity. With these opportunities, I believe Winston one day, will come up with his own original and authentic idea on how to live his life rightly.
My life is a journey where my struggles & triumphs become a personal power to a life full of countless learning opportunities. And my educational journey has empowered me to learn how to navigate my life with ability, integrity, creativity, as well as a moral responsibility to see the world and how it runs.
@Tooch A.Van, 2013