“This I believe” by Tooch A. Van

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

Winston and Tooch Van

9 Responses to “This I believe” by Tooch A. Van

  1. Heidi says:

    More stories like this should be shared. So many poeple need to hear that there is a way to strive and have hope.

  2. Linda Copp says:

    There is something within each of us, call it spirit, call it soul, call it heart or call it mind, whatever name you give it, this undefined bit of mystery contains both our humanity and our aspirations to be and to grow. Tooch Van is a shining example of someone who has suffered inexplicable loss and a depth of violence and grief that would break most people irrevocably and yet, he not only endured this horror and loss but moved through the animus and the disdain of further prejudices to not only survive but to inevitably soar to a height of such significance; he, now a man has become the teacher. Yes, a teacher, teaching all of us on so, many levels. We with our own stories and our own struggles may not have endured the kinds of grief nor level of despair he has endured: yet. may find that he encourages us, inspires us and hopefully leads us all to our better place.

    Tooch Van, as a traumatized child, was able, against all odds, to struggle through loneliness, rejection and fear to fight his way back from that desolation and despair because he sought a better place, some place where he could just be. His need to be in this world, instead of giving up on it and himself and succumbing to hopelessness forced him through his struggles because he had a strength that met courage and that courage drove him to seek that better place, that life beyond his present and that better place, is what hope is all about. Hope is what drives us, inspires us, to go on to seek, to reach out. The yearning inside of us all is very human, it connects us, for we not only yearn to just be, but to be of something, to belong and to hold our future in our own hands. The independence we seek and yet, the community we wish to belong to and what kind of society it will be is what drives our discussions and our struggles in this world.

    Tooch Van it is truly a testament to your strength of character, the force of your spirit, to have endured alone for so long. Your ability to identify education as the key to your survival and then your future became both your sword, moving forward and then your shield in sheltering your life. Discovering your ability to tutor, to pass on what you learned to others brought you to the point you were ready for the providential meeting with Frank Falcetta, former Associate Provost of Middlesex Community College. Mr. Falcetta saw in you an inquisitive and strong young man with an ability to teach. His ability to identify the strengths of others and to assess character made all the difference to your life and every student whose life you have touched. Mr Falcetta has like yourself, effected change in this world.

    The Cambodian people have suffered at the hands of so, many. It is heartbreaking to review the history of how they have been savaged. Yet, I have always found them to be a gracious, gentle, giving and loving people. A complete contrast to how they have been treated, far too often, by others. Tooch Van thank you for sharing your story! It resonates and it will affect many of us, I am sure, in our own lives and deliberations in the days to come. I wish you and your family well. You have taught us by example and deed, as I believe you will continue to do, thank you!

  3. John Wooding says:

    Wonderful and moving piece Tooch. Thank you. There is much I did not know about you and this history. It is important that we understand this.

  4. Pagna YOUT says:

    It is an inspiration story to me. In life, we always face two hard choices either to move on or give up. It is awaken me that I need to dream big and start step by step. I appreciate this story a lot to the respectful writer, BONG TOUCH.

  5. Tooch Van says:

    Thank very much you Hidie, Linda, John and Sovanna, Pagna for all your kind words. It took me so many years to decide and share my story to the world. It’s very hard for me every time I share it, but at the same it empowers me and a healing process for my soul/heart as well as a responsibility of mine for parents,brother and sisters and my two kids now for me to do this. When I wrote “this I believe” essay, there were a lot of memories brought back and a lot tears rolling down my chins, but there were some moments that I had sense pride and accomplishments, which they inspired me to write the stories down. It seemed I relived my past experience and continued living my life now which I crafted the story that connected the history of family to my own family. That was the reason worth of living and that was the reason worth of sharing my story. Thanks for your listening. TV

  6. lauren shaw says:

    This is a wonderful story that gives me much more understanding about your history. We all need to share our stories; it brings us all into an international community. Thank you for sharing this. The courage and tenacity of the Cambodian people is remarkable. Hope to see you soon. All the best, Lauren

  7. John Ting says:

    This is an absolutely inspirational and deeply moving story – I’m glad you shared this with “the world”.
    As one that has only interacted with you on the squash court, I am honored to be among those you call “friend”.
    And this I believe – that the world is better for your presence in it, and that your positive influence in the world will continue to grow.

  8. marieke slovin says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Tooch. I am thankful to know you and your wonderful family here in Lowell. ~ Marieke “Ranger M”