Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 13 – Tuit’s Story

The villagers in Pom Prei call him Tuit, which translates into something that refers to being small. His real name is San Sab, and according to Asian tradition, San is his family name and Sab his first name. Part of the sound has to be sucked in and shortened, the other part sung out and elongated. No matter how hard we try, we cannot pronounce his name correctly. Left with no other choice, we continue to call him Tuit. Even though the Khmers drop the final “t”, we are just thankful there is a consonant on which to hang the two vowels.

As a village boy, his life was difficult from the beginning. His father died, leaving his mother to raise five children, three boys and two daughters. His oldest sister is now 22 years old but when she was very young, a nail became implanted in her brain, which arrested her development. Today, she sits on a wooden platform requiring constant care as she can do nothing for herself.

From a very young age Tuit was responsible for taking care of his younger brother. As older children do, he fashioned a sling out of a krama (the traditional Khmer scarf, made popular by the Khmer Rouge) and secured his brother onto his back. If the family was fortunate enough to have a water buffalo, which they did not, that too would have been his responsibility. The clothes he wore were handed down to him from his older brother and would eventually be worn by his younger brother. The odd assortment of pants and shirts probably originated in the bundles of used clothing sent into Cambodia from surrounding countries and purchased in markets for 500 riel, 12 ½ cents. As we have seen, the family shared their shoes, with not enough for all of them at one time.

At the appropriate age, he was required to help out during the rice planting season. The paddies are flooded and as
he waded through the fields, the water would rise up to his knees as his toes squished through the mud. Leeches would attach themselves to his legs, sucking out his blood until they could be burned off later. Without the presence of a father, he was required to do many other chores leaving his hands calloused way beyond his years.

They live in a family compound surrounded by his mother”s sisters and a collection of cousins. In the dry season they live in the dust with the mosquitoes and in the wet season they live in the mud, still with mosquitoes. As I have stated before, these people live a primitive life without the benefit of running water and electricity and all which that implies. However, in 2005 his family was discovered by an NGO and they were provided with a well and a one room concrete box, which serves as their house. In addition, they began to receive an allotment of rice. Tuit”s job was to scour the fields searching for ways to enhance their dinner and when he was lucky, he found land crabs, toads, and grasshoppers. If we had not “discovered” Tuit, he would have faced the future with very few options and chances are he would have become a rice farmer or an alcoholic or both.

Briefly repeating from Part 2: Of all the children in the village, Tuit stood out as the most special. Tuit started making models of Donald”s plane from found objects, things discarded in the fields. Not satisfied with his first model, he would study the plane and return with a more refined copy. He surprised them when he showed up with a propeller attached to a battery powered small motor and by connecting the proper wires, he made the propeller spin. In Part 2, I also described how we were able to place Tuit in a school in Siem Reap. For a small fee, Tuit was allowed to sleep in a small building on the school grounds and for another small fee, we paid one of the teachers to watch over him. We paid for his English language classes and paid a restaurant to serve him three meals a day and to do his laundry. We left money with Bruce and Kethana Dunnet, owners of the famed Sugar Palm Restaurant, as they agreed to pay the rest of his bills as the year progressed. When we left, we had everything in place that revolved around money but we knew there were many social and cultural issues, to which we were not privy, that were working against him. Tuit had been plucked out of his element and placed in an alien environment, like a moment balanced on the edge of change. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope he would make the adjustment, stay in school, and make good grades. As time passed, we understood that he was enjoying his new life, was doing well in school and had outgrown his clothes. Maybe that is what happens when one gets to eat three meals per day.

As soon as we had settled into the hotel, we walked down to his school, anxious to see him. We asked a teacher and found out he was on “holiday”. On what we asked? This was during the weekend national celebration commemorating Vietnam”s ” liberation” of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and he had been invited by a friend to visit Kompong Cham and would return on Monday.

Returning to the school on Monday afternoon, we knocked on his door. He knew we had arrived in Siem Reap and when he opened the door, we were not greeted by the little boy we had known last year but by a handsome young man. He had grown up and filled out. A whole year of experiences stood between us and since neither of us had command of the others language, we invited him out to have ice cream, just as we had done in the past.

Tuit attends Wat Bo School, considered the best primary public school in Siem Reap. There is an enrollment in access of 5,000 students and they attend school on split shifts. Tuit attends class here in the afternoon and English class at Future Bright in the morning. This school charges $35.00 per quarter and uses textbooks from the Oxford system set up in the UK. However, the books the students use, which they pay for, are just bootlegged copies. This school, as well as most booksellers in Cambodia, have no respect for copyrights and are not setting a good example for the future. Even though Tuit had spent almost a year studying English at Future Bright English School, we did not expect him to be conversant in English when we returned. In order to learn English, a Khmer speaker has to first master our Latin alphabet and our numbering system as their language and script is based on Sanskrit and was developed over time in ancient India. As per the name of the school, it will be in the future when Tuit has command of the English language. But his hand writing is excellent and he has a vocabulary, as per his books, of about 300 words.

We fitted our time into his schedule and every afternoon at 5:00 we went to the school to pick him up. Similar to home, we waited with the other moms and dads for the school bell to ring. The only difference is here they pick up their children on their motos and not their SUV”s. We would meet Cinnamon in a restaurant close to the school and spend an hour teaching Tuit English. We would review the words he had learned in school and teach him the names of everything around him. In order to learn verbs, we would act them out. He would look up the new words in his dictionary and he and Cinnamon would discuss them in Khmer.

Along with dictionaries and grammar books, we bought him several English-Khmer story books. Tuit can read the words and sound out new words but at this stage, he is not yet proficient in comprehension. In one short story, a baby rabbit losses his pencil and begins to cry and a nice big rabbit tells him not to cry because he will give him another pencil. I had a very difficult time explaining to Tuit the meaning of “lost” and finally I decided maybe it was the story itself that was “lost” in translation. In Tuit”s world, rabbits do not have pencils and when you cry, no one comforts you, and there are more important things to cry about than a lost pencil. Thankfully, Cinnamon joined us for these sessions and helped with the translations. By the time we left, we had Tuit making sentences out of the words he knew.

Tuit has an exceptional ability to draw and similar to last year, we bought him to a store and let him select his own supplies. He left loaded down with drawing paper, pencils in a rainbow of colors, graphite pencils in a variety of sizes plus an instruction book on how to sketch and shade. We took him into several art galleries to get an idea of what artists do and observed how intently he looked at the pictures, studying each brush stroke, trying to figure out how they were created. After spending time in one unimpressive gallery, Tuit wanted to know why the paintings were so expensive when they were so ugly. Tuit, my boy, that is a brilliant question to which I do not have a satisfactory answer.

We walked into one gallery only to find out it was an art school set up by an NGO to teach poor children drawing and painting. A Khmer art teacher holds classes on Saturday and Sunday. Tuit began his first art lessons and we left Siem Reap the proud possessor of his second drawing, a pencil rendition of a vase with green leaves complete with shading and shadows. Lori Carlson”s NGO, the organization that originally made it possible for Tuit to attend Wat Bo School, is organizing a fund raising program. They are providing art lessons for the children in a school in Tuit”s village. The paintings will then be sent to New York where they will be sold through a gallery with part of the money returned to the children. Tuit has been invited to partake. However, Lori”s art lessons are being held on Sunday, giving Tuit a conflict and he will have to figure out what to do. I suggested he continue with his art lessons and give his drawings to Lori.

After Khmer New Year in April, Tuit graduates from Wat Bo and will attend Angkor High School. We met with the new principal, made arrangements so that Tuit could continue to live at Wat Bo, and bought him a bicycle so he could get there easily. As a boy from the paddies, everything he has learned, he must have taught himself and we appreciate how observant he is. In the bicycle store he knew exactly what kind of bike he preferred. In the market where we went to buy after school clothes he expressed his own sense of “cool” and the jeans and shirts he picked out must have suited his own aesthetic. His favorite new item is his “hoody” with a stitched on appliqué of an airplane. I tried to explain the message behind the shoe with wings, but I think Mercury will have to wait for another day. We bought him a cell phone, rationalizing this would make it easier for anyone to contact him. Thinking Cinnamon would have to teach him how to use it, he once more amazed us by showing us he already knew what to do. On the days we did not study English, we went shopping, restocking his supplies of essentials, which included a new fan and new sheets and towels.

It is very poignant when he tries to express himself in English but due to his lack of words, he had to rely on Cinnamon to translate from the Khmer. Tuit is delightful to be around and as he developed the usage of more words, he turned out to have a sense of humor. He never asked us for anything and was just happy with what he received. The days of the week slid by and we arrived at Sunday, the day, we promised to take him home for a visit.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *