There have been few stories that I’ve been hesitant to write out of fear of doing a disservice to the individual. Tien’s story is one of those few. Her life is an extraordinary story of triumph in which my most eloquent of articulation will not provide her character with proper degree of justice. During my first meeting with Tien, I became encapsulated by her larger-than-life-bubbly personality. Her energy is higher than most, she has an uncanny playfulness that is unmatched by others, and when she laughs the whole room erupts. I distinctly remember a woman coming up to me while Tien facilitated a workshop in the United States saying, “Who is that ball of energy and can she be my friend?” She has the ability to capture the attention and the heart of anyone she interacts with within a few short moments of knowing her.
Yet, beneath her fun-loving demeanor lies a story of incessant obstacles trying to discredit, disqualify, and dehumanize her. Tien was born into a large family in a village northeast of Siem Reap. Her parents were both born before the Khmer Rouge and were impacted heavily- forced from their home, their eldest daughter’s life taken, and faced with a constant battle of survival. When Tien entered the world, she became the sixth biological child accompanied by two orphans whom’s parents abandoned them on her family’s doorsteps. Out of Tien’s sisters, five of them had never studied. Instead, they worked as builders or farmers to be able to support their family.
When Tien started school at the age of 7, she attended the local village primary school in which the majority of her classmates did not possess the most basic of necessities- shoes, school supplies, or a change of clothes. In order to earn money, she would go to
the nearby Lake Baray after school and sell ice tea to the tourists visiting the beautiful landscape that was the backyard to her family’s farm house. During this time, her curiosity for the outside world peaked. Through being exposed to various people of diverse backgrounds, a desire to learn English ignited. At the age of 15, as her adolescency lost its appeal to the foreign travelers, she outgrew selling tea to tourists and she adopted a job as a cleaner. During this time, her brother’s wife passed away and Tien took on the role of taking care of his home and his children. One day, as she was cooking for his kids, she was approached by some westerners from a local organization called Children Dreams Siem Reap. They had been watching her the past few weeks and wanted to know her story. As she shared, they decided to donate money to help her tend to her nieces and nephews.
Because of the compassion and financial help from Children Dreams Siem Reap, Tien was able to afford English classes. At 18 years old, Tien began learning English from a local farmer in the village that charged her 10,000 riel per lesson ($2.50). Yet, as her passion to learn strengthened, her parents lashed out. Tien shook her head remembering that moment in time, “After I graduated Grade 12, my mom could not understand why I kept studying. She would tell me that I was crazy and I needed to come back and work on the farm. She tried to arrange a marriage for me and threatened to kick me out of the house if I did not listen to her. She would call me lazy which hurt the most because I sacrificed so much. I barely slept. But she could not understand.”
Tien’s family was not the only ones who disagreed. Often, the elder men in her village would come to her house and scold her parents for allowing her to continue her studies. They would tell her parents that no man wanted to marry a woman that was smarter than him and that Tien was spreading bad ideas to the younger generations because she was not following the rightful duty of a Khmer woman. Yet, Tien persevered.
Tien earned herself a place in a well-respected hospitality program. From Monday to Saturday, she would wake up at 4AM and work until 2PM then go to the hospitality program from 5PM to 9PM. During this time, she started saving money for university with the hopes and desires of earning a bachelor’s one day. One day in town, she ran into the same volunteers from Children Dreams Siem Reap that had helped her financially the years prior. They were so inspired and impressed by Tien’s progress that they decided to sponsor her bachelors and offer her an English teaching assistant job.
For the following three years, Tien taught English at Global International School in the morning, went to University in the afternoon, and taught in her own house to the children in her village at night. Reflecting on teaching in the village, Tien stated, “Even as busy as I am, I can never give up teaching in my village. I did not have this option to be able to learn English. So now I have to provide it to these kids to change this generation. To encourage them to push through because I did not have anyone here that believed in me. And I want them to know I do.”
Even after 6 years, Tien is still teaching a group of almost 50 boys and girls in a little shack behind her house every night from 6PM-8PM. Tien charges each student only $1 a month and if they don’t have that then they can pay with produce from their farm or by cleaning the classroom. Today, Tien has a Bachelor’s degree, she is a Program Assistant and Coach for Kids Play International, her younger brother and sister are in university, and her mom is extremely proud of her. But more than anything- she has drastically changed the future of the children in her village.
When walking around Tien’s street, she is a local celebrity. She is well-respected, well-loved, and well appreciated. Despite the disbelief in her, Tien uses that as fuel to continue to transform and combat the dangerous stigmatized opinions surrounding gender and education. In 2018, she became the Program Assistant for the nonprofit organization, Kids Play International, which uses sport to promote gender equity in post-genocide impacted countries. Teary-eyed Tien says, “This organization is my life’s passion. Being able to work with girls that grew up in a village like me and to be able to teach them to persevere through obstacles is a dream job for me. And I get to educate boys on what gender equity is and how if we all work together with equal respect and equal opportunity then the world would be a lot better.” So we’ll leave you with Teacher and Coach Tien’s favorite phrase: Lady Can Go.