PHNOM PENH: Until he turned 14, Thuch Salik’s world revolved around the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he had to peddle trinkets and souvenirs to tourists to help support his parents.
Home was a shack outside Angkor Wat, and he only had time to go to school for half the day. But he loved to learn, and dreamt of pursuing his studies overseas in the face of poverty and debt.
Impossible as it seemed in 2018, the teenager found himself transplanted to a high-end school in China last year, the only Cambodian at the Hailiang Foreign Language School in Zhejiang province.
He was “a bit scared”, but he knew it was a “brilliant” opportunity.
“When I was in Siem Reap, we didn’t have good livelihoods,” he said. “I could only study in school. And after school, I helped my mum to sell stuff. And I had almost no time to play with my friends.
“Nowadays, there’s a lot more studying. After school, during my free time, I have a lot more friends to play with.”
It is a turnaround arising from a viral video of him and his gift: He can speak 16 languages.
Having taken the Internet by storm, and with the ensuing change in his family’s fortunes, his ambitions are set to go further: Now 16, he hopes to be a businessman and give back to his homeland.
He is even being talent-groomed to burnish his star quality, on social media and maybe in business one day, the series Beyond The Viral Video discovers.
WORLD MEETS SALIK
It all began in November 2018 when Salik was speaking in Chinese to a Malaysian tourist while hawking his basket of souvenirs outside Angkor Wat.
Her interest piqued, she tried speaking to him in French. He replied fluently before continuing in Cantonese and then Japanese. He talked to her in 11 languages in all. He had learnt them over three years while peddling his trinkets.
The tourist filmed their conversation, and the video she posted turned him into a global inspiration.
At the time, his mother, Mann Vanna, was selling scarves and other clothing at a kiosk, while his artist father was eking a living off the sale of paintings.
Donations poured in for the family, and a wealthy Cambodian businessman became their benefactor.
He helped to move them to a terrace house in Phnom Penh, landed Mann a more stable job managing a clothing shop and cleared the family’s debt of about US$60,000 (S$80,000). He also sponsored Salik’s studies there.
Then the boy caught the eye of the founder of Hailiang Education Group, one of the largest players in China’s private school sector with more than 60,000 students and teachers from 23 countries.
“In (another) video, Salik said that he wanted to come to China, to (study in) Beijing — he likes Mandarin. So these few words touched the heart of my founder,” said Chen Junwei, the group’s current chairman and chief executive officer.
“He wanted to help Salik fulfil this dream.”
But the move almost did not materialise.
WINNING HIS PARENTS ROUND
Chen and several staff had flown to Cambodia to track Salik down and persuade the family to let him study at Hailiang on a scholarship.
“(We) brought a lot of gifts, like our school uniform, bags, a bunch of stuff, and went to the hotel to meet him and his parents,” Chen recalled.
“We felt that Salik was very smart … very talented in something that not a lot of people can be. Also, Salik’s EQ is very high … Everyone liked him a lot after seeing him.”
Mann was reluctant, however, to let him go. She was “scared” and “concerned” that he was too young and would “find it hard to adapt” to life abroad, adding that he was “small and thin”, while China was “very cold”.
She and her husband were also sceptical about Hailiang’s scholarship offer, finding it too good to be true.
Chen and his staff had no choice but to return to China. Over the next couple of months, however, he kept negotiating with Salik’s parents, and even showed them around when they visited Hailiang to see the school for themselves.
WATCH: Cambodian boy who speaks 16 languages — life now, 2 years after viral video (6:34)
They almost had a change of heart, but warily decided against it after they returned home. When he thought his dream might be dashed, however, Salik “begged” them to reconsider.
Finally, the Hailiang team’s sincerity and his determination won his parents round. When they gave the green light to the move, “he was so happy and jumped around”, recalled Mann, 37. In May last year, he landed in Zhejiang.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE
Salik soon found that talented as he was in languages, he had a ways to go in other subjects like mathematics.
“When he came over, he should be in Secondary One. But his standards were only at the primary school level,” said Chen. “It was very hard for him to catch up in high school. But he was very diligent.”
He also had to get used to the cold. “Because the weather conditions changed, there were a lot of times when he clenched his teeth. But (he) slowly adapted,” observed Chen.
To help him cope academically, Hailiang provided one-on-one teaching in his first year. “I started to catch up on my studies. Now, one year later, I can study with the other students,” he said proudly.
The school also got him a life coach to help him adapt fully to his new living conditions. There are even plans to send him to Beijing University upon graduation from Hailiang.
“We hope that he can continue to study and graduate with a PhD. During this whole process, (including) his expenditure on living expenses (and) education, we’ll support him fully,” said Chen.
“(With) a child like him, who’s so smart … forward-thinking and sensible, I believe that if he can complete his PhD in China and return to Cambodia, he may be able to influence the next generation.”
ANOTHER FORK IN THE ROAD
In January, when Salik returned home during the winter break, he was not to know, however, that he would have to remain in Cambodia because of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s months-long freeze on direct international flights.
Hailiang then arranged for him to continue his education through online classes.
Meanwhile, his fame and “perseverance” caught the attention of local entertainment company First Unite Network (Fun) Entertainment.
The company’s event planning and artist manager, Utdom Sambo, said it also noticed Salik’s “skill in persuasion”, “good morals” and mindset as that of someone who would “educate” and “spread good deeds”.
“It's aligned with (our) vision," said Utdom, identifying these qualities as reasons to believe Salik makes a good “role model” as a member of Fun Entertainment and as its Goodwill Youth of Cambodia for “cultural exchange between China and Cambodia”.
So Salik has been taking dance lessons, for example, as the company grooms him to be a celebrity. While building his local and overseas fan base, he participates in charity and social activities as well.
“Salik also has come to the company to learn about various soft skills, such as communication and video editing, as this is where his interest lies,” added Utdom.
“Because of his potential, we believe that he can run a successful business in future … The sales live-streaming, even just talking to fans — he can do it all really well.
“He’ll become a rare human resource in Cambodia.”
But his “main focus”, said Salik, is still on his education. He recognises that he has “many sponsors”, and he wants to “repay them by studying hard to help our country”.
WATCH: The full episode — what happened to them after going viral online? (47:27)
“If I were to guess, I think I’d become a businessman who brings in advanced technology and new things from overseas,” he said.
“I’ll create something … to bring into Cambodia, exporting and importing, (and) also to build the friendship between Cambodia and China.”
Watch this episode of Beyond The Viral Video here. Read also about whether we should be afraid of TikTok, and what lies behind those child and animal viral videos.