Among China’s millions of university students, Wen Sheng Yuan – whose Khmer name is Sopheak – must be considered a rare gem.
Fluent in the Khmer language, the Guangxi University of Foreign Languages student came to Cambodia as a junior in August 2019 – an exchange student completing his third year at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
As a Chinese university student fascinated by Cambodia’s traditional culture and food and possessed of a strong desire to master the Khmer language, Sopheak – who is blessed with good looks – didn’t expect that he would be hanging out with local celebrities or would somehow become one himself.
With goals no different from those of an ordinary student, Sopheak came to Cambodia with his heart set on nothing more than studying hard.
Now he finds himself in a strange situation where he has actual fans here in Cambodia and he is receiving a lot of love and public support from them. It’s all beyond anything he could have imagined before arriving here.
With his natural good looks and charisma, Sopheak is following a path similar to that of his older sister who has a part-time job modelling back in China.
Before coming to Cambodia, Sopheak studied Khmer language and literature at Guangxi University of Foreign Language in China.
“I have always been interested in studying languages. So for college I chose to attend a language school and I noticed that Khmer had very few people studying it in comparison to some other languages,” he says.
That was where he got his Khmer name from, following the near-universal modern tradition of adopting a nickname from the language being studied in the classroom. The Cambodian lecturer let slip the secret behind the practice – it’s often easier for the foreign teachers to remember student’s names that way.
The second son in a family with three siblings – he has an older sister and a younger brother – Sopheak reveals the reason he began to study Khmer.
“I told myself that if I learn Khmer I will be among the very few Chinese people who are really fluent in it. And then I thought that if I go to Cambodia I’ll have a huge advantage and be able to find work there easily,” Sopheak says.
Out of eight million students enrolled at universities in China annually, Sopheak is one of just 200 who chose to study Khmer.
Having picked Khmer Literature as his major, Sopheak says being fully literate in Khmer is the accomplishment he is most proud of because reading and writing fluently in Khmer is a rare skill even among the small number of foreigners in Cambodia who are fluent Khmer speakers, no matter which country they come from.
“At that point studying hard and learning Khmer was all that mattered, I never had any ambitions to get into the music industry,” Sopheak says.
Sopheak recalls arriving in Cambodia as a 22-year-old student and being surprised by the huge difference between how Khmer was spoken in real life as compared to his classes back in China.
“I remember that one time I went to buy food and they told me it cost 1500 riel, but the way they said it was so quick and cut up. I was so confused.
“I had studied Khmer at my university for two years already, but now that I was in a real life situation I couldn’t even figure out the price of street food. It was ‘all Greek to me’,” Sopheak says, laughing.
Sopheak contacted his Cambodian friends living in China to ask their advice, afraid that he hadn’t learned enough of the language before travelling here.
“I went and talked to my Khmer friends who are back in China about the trouble I was having and they thought it was all pretty funny. Only then did I start to understand how different Khmer actually sounds as an everyday spoken language,” he says.
With a natural curiosity about foreign languages and cultures and an extroverted personality, Sopheak made many local friends very quickly and that – combined with his previous studies – allowed him to get up to speed in Khmer rapidly.
Now, today, Sopheak can speak and understand Khmer without any of the troubles he had in his early days in Cambodia, which is a good thing because since then he’s become a celebrity in Cambodia – a Chinese heartthrob who not only speaks the local language but knows Cambodia’s customs, traditions and culture.
It all started in April of last year when someone took some of his photos from his Weibo account and shared them on Facebook.
In the photos, Sopheak is looking handsome and striking poses like a model while wearing traditional Khmer clothing and carrying traditional instruments.
Along with the photos came a TikTok video – made by one of his friends that same day – and he became famous in the blink of an eye, attracting more and more Cambodian fans by the hour.
When asked why he thinks he has so many Cambodian fans, Sopheak avers that he has no real idea – but he quickly offers that perhaps it is because very few Chinese people in Cambodia can actually speak Khmer like he can and he has gone even further than that and shown an appreciation for Khmer culture, like traditional clothing and dance.
“I will never forget the friendliness that the Cambodian people have shown to me,” he says.
Sopheak says that his year in Cambodia had without a doubt been the best year of his entire life, filled with memorable moments with his friends and even with Cambodian celebrities while making appearances on local television.
Sopheak has appeared on several Cambodian TV shows now and has also been featured in advertisements for Realme mobile phones and become a brand ambassador for Vertalyca shampoo.
After completing his one year university exchange program, Sopheak went back to China in October 2020 to finish his fourth year of school and graduate with a degree in Khmer.
“Lately I’ve been snowed under, busy writing my thesis for my senior seminar. But after I graduate, I want to go back to Cambodia to get my masters degree there.
“My dream is to be a professor of Khmer literature one day in China, and if I still have enough fan support I also want to be an artist as well,” Sopheak says.
Returning to China, Sopheak says he was extremely proud and excited that his school has chosen to showcase him as a role model for their underclassmen because his experience in Cambodia demonstrated how exchange students can be amazingly effective as informal ambassadors for their country if they truly engage with the local people and culture.
Finally, Sopheak has some good news to share with all of his fans: “I will be coming back to Cambodia soon – please wait for me! I am working really hard on my musical skills, and I’ll come back better than ever.
“I hope you all will stick with me until then – and of course, never forget to take care of your health by always wearing a mask and choosing to live happily ever after,” Sopheak says.