Cambodian Journal, Part 4 – The Conclusion of Tuit

There were still a few issues to be arranged when Donald and I returned to the school and picked Tuit up as he waited for us by the gate. I wanted to make sure all was arranged at the restaurant but when we suggested lunch, he told us he had already eaten, so all was well there. We had found out that he needed the name of the school embroidered on his white shirts and when I suggested he go to his room and pick up his shirts, he pointed to his shirt where the name of the school was spelled out in blue thread. He must have asked the lady who ran the restaurant as it was her daughter”s business and she had set up shop next to the restaurant. That left us with one last item, he had to know how to go to get to the Ponheary Ly Foundation office because they had promised to take him home on the weekends as they passed his house going to the school they monitored in his village. This required a walk down Wat Bo Road where we pointed out the guesthouse that doubled as their office. On the walk back, we stopped at a photo shop where I had the name cards of all the people involved with Tuit laminated and placed on a key ring so it would be easy for him to find. We then stopped at a small shop and bought him a wallet in which to keep his money and thinking all had been done, he pointed to a beauty shop. We rightly guessed he wanted a haircut. He went in with a full head of hair and one dollar later, he walked out with a buzz cut and looked like a different kid one who had just been scalped. Apparently, this is what he must have wanted. As we were crossing Wat Bo Road to take him back to school, we saw a policeman waving to Donald. This was one of his favorite policemen from the village and after they hugged, which meant the man bowed grabbing Donald around the waist, we pointed to Tuit who the policeman remembered. Now the policeman on the corner knew Tuit was in school.

It was late afternoon when we returned him to the school. Pointing to his watch and making the number six with his fingers, Donald told Tuit we would come back at 6:00 to pick him up and he should wait for us in front of the school. When we arrived in the tut-tut, we found him dressed in his new jeans and tee shirt and he looked like any other kid, not one that had been plucked out of a village two days before. We brought him to the hotel and sitting down at a table on the patio, I motioned to one of the waiters and asked him to translate. It was agreed that Donald and I would share an Angkor Beer and Tuit would have a dish of mango ice cream. For the last two days, we had been totally amazed by Tuit”s ability to handle his new situation and maneuver through all his new life was requiring of him. Placed in a more formal setting than the restaurant by the market, he knew to place his napkin in his lap and held his spoon in the proper manner.

I asked the waiter to tell Tuit how important it was for him to do well in school and that we would be back next year at the same time. On his own initiative, the waiter told Tuit how lucky he was to be able to attend Wat Bo school because he knew many children in Siem Reap who wanted to go but were not able. Tuit had a delightful time eating the ice cream and translating through the waiter we found out this was the first time he had ever eaten ice cream and he liked it very much.

We brought Tuit back to the school and told him we would be there tomorrow to pick him up at 12:00.

Tuit would not begin English classes until the following Monday and for the remainder of the week, Donald and I picked him up after his morning session and took him to various places in Siem Reap. Each time he road in the tut-tut, he was very conscious of his surroundings and where he was, as this was his new city and he planned to get acquainted with it. Each evening we picked him up at 6:00 and either brought him back to the hotel for more ice cream or took him on excursions around the city introducing him to people we knew. At Ms. Wong”s Bar, we introduced him to Dean and I asked his Khmer staff to reinforce how important it was for him to do well in school and to reiterate that he could go home any weekend he wanted, he just had to tell the people at the Ponheary Foundation. One night we kept him out past dark and when we returned to the school, all the lights had been turned out and the fence was locked. Donald and I looked at each other, silently thinking now what, when Tuit took a key out of his pocket and unlocked the fence. How did a kid from a village where there are not even doors or doors that lock know how to use a key and also, why would the school have given him such a key in the first place. Cambodia never fails to confound us and the next thing we knew, Tuit was relocking the fence, waving good bye as he disappeared into the dark. This was all too much for us to comprehend.

Tuit is twelve years old by our reckoning, thirteen if a Khmer does the counting because they are considered to be one year old when they are born. His real name is San Seb Sok and Tuit, meaning small, is his nickname. There is no way to compare his experiences with any child growing up in America today. There are several people involved in his support system but except for the teacher who is being paid to look after him, he is basically on his own. That means he crosses busy streets, decides what he wants to eat, takes his own dirty clothes to the laundry, etc. No American child I know comes close to being allowed to have such power over his own well being but then no American child has ever had to confront life in a primitive village. Not only is he sleeping in a bed for the first time in his short life but never before was he able to eat three meals a day and be allowed to eat until he is full. He no longer needs to forage the countryside for frogs and grasshoppers.

Thea, the Khmer wife of Dr. Gene, who also just became a doctor, has visited him and reported he is doing well. Kethana, the wonderful Khmer woman who along with her husband, Bruce, own the Sugar Palm restaurant, the best Khmer food in Siem Reap, volunteered to be the pay master and without their help, this would not be possible. She is responsible for paying all of his bills and happily would take him home when they visit their country place and when more money is needed, it is wired into their account. Donald, not having children of his own, treats him like a son. Eddie made the original contact and I am just the enabler and the one who has written about him. He is known in the school as the American child and when we parted, each of us hugged and kissed him. He hugged back.

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