BRI turns Cambodian boy from souvenir peddler to international student
Teenage talent
Published: May 28, 2019 06:08 PM

A teacher tutors Salik at Hailiang Foreign Language Middle School in East China's Zhejiang Province on May 23. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Fifteen-year-old Cambodian boy Thuch Salik never expected to become the first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) talent at an international school in China in 2019.

He shot to fame in China in 2018 when videos of him speaking more than 10 languages selling souvenirs in Cambodia went viral on Chinese social media. In the videos, he was seen touting tourists by singing songs to potential buyers. Salik can speak Cambodian, Chinese, English, and simple greetings in Japanese, Korean, Spanish, German, French, Thai, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Malay, Italian and Russian.  

Salik's life was changed when Feng Hailiang, the chairman of the board of directors of Hailiang Group, happened to watch the video. Hailiang Group is a privately owned conglomerate based in Zhuji, East China Zhejiang Province that does business in mining, real estate, education and other fields. 

"The chairman thought that it would be a waste of the hard-working boy's talent for languages if he couldn't focus on learning. He told staff at our school to spare no efforts to find and contact the boy and sponsor his future education up until PhD, as long as Salik was willing and able to pursue it," Piao Huashun, a deputy principal of Hailiang Foreign Language Middle School, told the Global Times. 

"It was not easy to persuade Salik's family to accept our offer. They couldn't believe their luck. We invited Salik's family to come to China in January to see if they liked it. Luckily, Salik loved the campus so much that he eventually convinced his father let him come here in May," Piao said.

Piao said that Hailiang Group runs Chinese talent programs that sponsor students from poor families to give them equal and fair learning opportunities. Under the country's BRI, talented students from poor families from Belt and Road countries are also entitled to this opportunity. Salik is the first student in the international program.  

Salik plays basketball at the school gymnasium. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Bright future

"I hope I can study Chinese at Peking University and become a businessman in the future," Salik told the Global Times. "Back in my hometown, I only studied two hours in the morning, then sold souvenirs at scenic spots in the afternoon. I love this school a lot. I can study hard."

He added, "Although written Chinese is a bit hard for me now, I have no problem with spoken Chinese, math and English."  

Salik said that he is now happy to be a student in China.

"I began selling souvenirs at the age of 7 in my hometown because my parents didn't have enough money. Children were happy when they could sell products, so I wanted to do that too," Salik said. "In the first two months, I didn't sell anything. I didn't earn any money until we went to sell products at more famous places of interest like Angkor Wat. There are a lot of Chinese tourists there. I tried to speak with them in mixed Chinese and English. I sang 'buy or not, no buy no beautiful' in Chinese. They were happy and they bought souvenirs from me. I could earn $10-15 a day. On the best days, I earned $20."

Although the school teachers, dormitory administrators and classmates treat Salik well, he misses his family from time to time. He has an elder brother in Grade 11 and another younger brother back home. He has to stay on campus even during holidays, and makes friends with both international students and local Chinese students. Schoolmates know him as an internet celebrity. One Chinese student told the Global Times, "I should learn from Salik. He is awesome. He has learned so many languages. In comparison, as a child in a much better environment, I don't study hard enough."  

Salik also gets along well with his roommates from South Korea, and they often exchange language learning experiences. 

After school, Salik enjoys playing volleyball and basketball, but he is shorter and not as strong as his peers. 

Salik's class teacher, Wang Yi, regards him as a hard working and considerate student, but hopes that he can get into the habit of eating more everyday so that he can become healthier.