Serendipity Stories — Episode 6: A Dream Built by Bricks & Chance Encounters
Listen to the Serendipity Stories Podcast on your mobile phone (Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, TuneIn) or on your browser (RSS Feed, Website, Soundcloud). Here’s the transcript for Episode 5 with our host YeSeul Kim and guest Chhaiya Im.
Chhaiya: At night, we could not sleep well because sometimes we need to keep ourselves safe in a big hole under our house in order to to make sure we are safe from the bullets just raining down.
Welcome to the Serendipity Stories. I’m your host YeSeul Kim, here to share the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments.
In this episode, Chhaiya Im grew up during the Cambodian Civil War and faced tremendous adversities. But learning a special skill and a chance encounter with a tourist changed his fortunes forever. It was just an ordinary day….
Chhaiya: My family is from Kompong Tom, the middle province of Cambodia. Actually, I myself don’t know when exactly I was born. So I am now let’s say 31 or 32. I’m not sure what is my exact age. Because after the war time, you know, 1989 the war in Cambodia did not finish yet. So when people were born, their parents didn’t even take note of the date of their child.
Chhaiya is referring to the armed conflict between the Khmer Rouge and the Kingdom of Cambodia. It’s a war that began in the 1970s and lasted until 1991. An estimated 300,000 people were killed as a result of the war.
Chhaiya: I was about five or six years old. I remember, you know, the gunfire. Still haunted me at that time. A lot of tanks behind my house. At night, we could not sleep well because sometimes we need to keep ourselves safe in a big hole under our house in order to to make sure we are safe from the bullets just raining down
Chhaiya was born at the tail end of the chaos. Not only was he unsure of his birthday, but he was also almost given up for adoption.
Chhaiya: Well, I was born with six fingers on my right hand. And I don’t know why, but I just was born with that. My mother told me that she wanted to give me to a general because the general had six finger on his right hand as well.
It’s a story that Chhaiya would hear about much later as an adult from his aunts and uncles. Apparently, some superstitious people considered his extra finger a birth defect and a curse. Desperate, Chhaiya’s mom looked for a hail mary. She thought that if a man in a position of power who also had six fingers would adopt her son, the stigma might go away. She wrapped her son in a blanket and presented him to a general she had never met before.
Chhaiya: So the possible reason is it might be my mom wanted me to have a better life because as you know, in the war time, maybe the whole family… I’m not sure if they can 100 percent protect their children. And if, let’s say they gave me to the general and definitely I would have a better life than what I have right now.
In the end, the general refused to adopt Chhaiya. His parents did their best to give him a good life, even moving to a bigger city in search for better opportunities. However, when they arrived in the city, they were conned by a distant relative out of their life savings.
Chhaiya: We just lost everything. My mother and my father worked so hard in order to survive. I remember when I was six years old, that’s the time I started to help my family. I had to get up very early in the morning. Let’s say five o’clock to help my mom get things to the marketplace to be sold. And then I came back home. I got ready for school.
It was hard for Chhaiya to make friends. His schoolmates would stare and make fun of his sixth finger. He was also penniless. During break time, other kids would use their pocket money to buy snacks and socialize. Without an allowance, Chhaiya always stayed back.
Chhaiya: When I was a child, I was a really, really shy because of my sixth finger. I usually hide from people. I sometimes feel I am discriminated by my friends. I was so isolated, during break times, I didn’t even leave my my desk to go outside and play with other people. So most of the time, I just stayed at my desk and being alone and sometimes I just read books.
Despite the hardships, Chhaiya stayed focused on doing well in school.
Chhaiya: I come from a very poor background. My family did not have enough money to send me to a good school. And my father usually told me that he had nothing for me, but only education. And that’s the legacy that he think he could give me just to send me to school.
After the break, we find out how Chhaiya’s fortunes changed when he crossed paths with a monk and an American businessman.
Chhaiya Im was an impoverished kid trying to survive the civil war in Cambodia. But even in the face of adversity, he never stopped dreaming. He wished to be an engineer so he could start building roads and buildings in his war torn country. But he couldn’t afford his education….
Chhaiya: One of my teachers, he taught chemistry. He ran extra classes in the morning and I went every day. Normally I paid only about ten cents for the normal class. But on that day he charged 50 cents that I could not afford.
Chhaiya wasn’t able to do well in tests because he couldn’t pay for the extra lessons. He vowed to fix the broken education system.
Chhaiya: And that’s the only thing that still haunts me today. And that is also one thing that has always encouraged me to do what I am doing. Because I need to change this. I don’t want to see my people fail because of this system.
But where could Chhaiya start? He was unable to afford his own education and didn’t have many friends that could help him. He knew he had to learn a practical skill that would help improve his life. He would go to the library in a Buddhist monastery to study. One evening, he peered through a window and came across a classroom that he’d never noticed before.
Chhaiya: They were learning English. I never studied English before.And I just used my both hands to ask the monk for permission if I could study with him. Since 2008, I started to learn English with the monk.
Chhaiya began with an elementary grade level English textbook. After a few months of lessons with the monk, he became fluent. Learning English suddenly opened up a lot of doors. He got a job as a hotel receptionist and became an English teacher for a local non-profit. Then, one day, he saw an ad for a more lucrative job opportunity.
Chhaiya: So end of 2015, that’s another turning point of my life because the Ministry of Tourism recruited candidates to be trained as tour guides. I decided to apply. So luckily, I passed the test. And I became a professional tour guide.
In one year, Chhaiya had made $4000 USD — two and a half times more than the average Cambodian. But money was never the end goal for him. He never forgot his dream to give back to his country. In fact, Chhaiya took out a loan from a bank and built his own school from the ground up.
Chhaiya: Every single brick has my fingerprint. Because I built everything from scratch myself. And even my school doesn’t look posh. I can guarantee that kids who come to my school, if they you try hard, I’m sure the quality given to the kid will be the best.
He created a bare bones school with four walls and a roof, and not much more. It wasn’t even a legal institution but it was free for any child who wanted to learn. He still worked odd tour guide jobs, to help cover the school construction fees. But As he was jumping back and forth between the two worlds, his tour guide friend asked for a favor. The friend was overbooked and needed Chhaiya to give a private tour to an American family.
Robert: We were thrilled actually, to have the serendipity or the luck, the chance to meet Chhaiya purely by accident.
That’s Robert Urban, the American health care executive Chhaiya met. Throughout the day-long tour, they got to talking about more than waterfalls and the history of Cambodia.
Robert: We had come to realize that, in fact, Chhaiya’s no longer really an active tour guide, you know. But he was doing it on behalf of a friend as a favor. And he spent all of his time building in and trying to develop a school community. We began to learn more about that over the sort of breaks of the day as we were spending more and more time together, only to realize at the very end of the day or close to it that, oh, a couple of his teachers were not going to be able to be there that night. And he was going to have to sort of do the best he could to be the teacher of several classrooms because his teachers weren’t available. And given it was the only thing we might have been able to teach, you know, in Cambodia, which was English. We asked whether or not do know any chance we might be helpful. And he said, well, that would be delightful.you know
Robert and his family had taken a quick detour from their holiday to volunteer at Chhaiya’s school for one night. Now, while most tourists would pat themselves on the back for doing a good deed and move on, Robert felt a kinship to Chhaiya.
Robert: It was a question of just how things might follow up that I think opened our minds, that maybe there’s more that we could do. But beyond today, you know, to be helpful for him know and most importantly, helping him think about what it means to build something. How do you lead? How do you how do you deal with these things that are, you know, somewhat of a more professional way or even a scalable type of way?
The gears were turning in Robert’s head. He asked for Chhaiya’s phone number and as soon as he came back to Boston, they began to write to each other.
Chhaiya: I never expected that he would keep in touch with me because a lot of tourists. who know me in Cambodia. They always you know, say, blah, blah, blah. OK. You are my good friend. And I’ll never forget you and I will keep in touch with you, something like that. But after they left Cambodia, you know. Just everything is just normal.
The chance encounter developed into a more formal business relationship. Robert legitimized the school’s operations from the government, set up a foundation to funnel donations, and mentored Chhaiya as he became the full time principal. Within a year of their first encounter, they relaunched Chhaiya’s school as Opening Doors Cambodia, also known as ODC.
Chhaiya: Well, I have learned a lot from Robert. He has helped, you know, fulfill my dream even faster. And I could never imagine that ODC can be what it is today. We now have, let’s say, quite good system. We have three hire teachers and I myself is paid for by a charity. And that I that’s what I never expect. That my school and I am paid. But because Robert always tells me that a good leader needs to have a good life and a good school needs a good leader like you Chhaiya. That’s what he used to tell me.
But as grateful as Chhaiya was to Robert, he emphasized that he would have pursued his dreams regardless.
Chhaiya: Even if I did not meet Robert. I [would] still live my dreams because, if you want to be successful, you have to be on the line. And you have to cut any other ways that can distract you from reaching that goal. And that’s why I decided to stop being a [tour] guide just to keep focus on, keep focused 110 percent on my school.
Chhaiya reflects on his childhood now and how his humble beginnings shaped him. He’s no longer the shy and embarrassed child that he used to be.
Chhaiya: You know I have six fingers on my right hand. And my finger is is one thing. You know, that keep me in the comfort zone, let’s say. But now I feel that I feel lucky to have this because just very few people have this. And that might be one way that I think I can just encourage myself not to be shy anymore because of this finger. And what I usually hear from people is that I am a very smart person born with this finger, and that makes me happy.
Chhaiya wants to spend more time studying in other countries, if the opportunity arises. But in the meantime, he’s focused on growing ODC, which is now serving 84 students and helping create Cambodia’s next generation of leaders.
Chhaiya: From now, what I wish for is the future of my country. I want to see how prosperous Cambodia [can be]. Because when I look back, thousand years ago, I feel pity on my country. You know, the 10th, 11th, and 12th century, Cambodia was one of the empires. You know, a dream of building up a country is not it’s not a small one. And I myself don’t want to get involved in politics and especially in my country. So what I can do now is to start up a school. And I’m sure if they come to ODC, they learn not only English, but the value of life. And then they grow up. If they become teachers, they can teach more people. I want to see the future Cambodia through the kids who come to ODC.
That was Chhaiya Im, principal and founder of Opening Doors Cambodia. Special thanks to Robert Urban. If you’re interested in donating to the school, please visit www.openingdoorscambodia.org. $10 will pay for the textbooks and stationery for 3 students while $130 will pay the salary of a teacher for a full month. Let’s help make a difference.
Thanks for listening. I’m your host YeSeul Kim. Our podcast is co-produced by Ben Severance and Nora Connidis Boydell. Editing also by Nora. If you’re enjoying our podcast, please write us a review and rate us and don’t forget to subscribe to Serendipity Stories. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @serendipitystories.podcast.
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The Serendipity Stories shares the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. We might call it luck, fate, a freak accident, or a coincidence. But over time and with a bit of reflection, when we find meaning in those special events, we call it serendipity. Expect stories that are full of irony and whimsy, love and tragedy, and despair and hope.