Tan Sokun in his natural element - the wide world of learning and exploring.
an Sokun likes to read Shakespeare in his free time. Lately, he has also read through
a number of books about astronomy. He needed background information for a report
he just finished on the planet Jupiter. Last year, he did one on Angkor Wat. And
if anybody needs a run-down on the Battle of Hastings, Sokun know all the historical
details by heart. Besides that, he types with all ten fingers when he plays word
games on the computer.
All of this in English, of course.
Which is quite an achievement, considering that Sokun is ten years old, and that
18 months ago, he hardly spoke any English at all.
That all changed in 1998, when Sokun won a scholarship to the Northbridge International
School in Phnom Penh. Step by step, he started studying and excelling in subjects
that most Cambodian kids have never even heard of.
And he began developing incredibly fast. In fact, nowadays, Sokun's father, director
of the TPO mental health organization, Kann Kall, has problems keeping up with his
"It's really amazing. It's like they put some kind of magic on his head,"
Sokun himself is not quite so easily impressed by his own achievements:
"At first it was difficult to study in English. But then I learnt all the grammar
and then it wasn't so difficult anymore," he says reassuringly.
He speaks quickly and articulated with a distinctive American accent in his slightly
hoarse school boy's voice. Only his pronunciation of a few words - like when he says
"Cambodians" - reveals that he was not born and brought up in USA, but
He's confident, but still modest. Relaxed, yet eager to communicate. Perceptive and
attentive. When he smiles, there is an unmistakable spark of humor in his black eyes.
He's outrageously charming.
But most of all, Sokun is a walking, talking example of what Cambodian children can
achieve - not with magic - but with hard work and when they are given the right opportunity.
Anybody, who ever declared that Cambodian kids are lazy and stupid, would have to
eat their own words after spending even five minutes with Sokun.
These days, he's been busy with his project about Jupiter. He's produced a poster
and a report explaining how large the planet is, how far away from the Earth it is,
how long it takes to orbit the sun, how many moons it has, how it was named after
a god and much more.
"I collected the information by reading books and encyclopedia. Also, I searched
on the computer for information and pictures to put on the poster, explains Sokun.
He likes to read, preferably non-fiction.
"I like it better when it's something that looks like it's real," he says.
In Sokun's mathematics classes - he's in the fourth grade - they've started doing
fractions. But Sokun is good at maths, he thinks it's easy. On the other hand, it's
not his favorite subject.
"My favorite subjects are history, computers and soccer. I like the sports.
I've found out how to dribble backwards. I stop with the ball in front of me and
then suddenly kick it backwards with my heel. It makes the other players really confused,"
It hasn't been a free ride for Sokun to come this way, though. He had to take a test
before he won the scholarship. And although there can be no doubt that Sokun is a
bright kid, his teacher, Scott Warren points to another reason for his achievements:
"Sokun is a really hard worker. He keeps going until he's got it right. Not
because he's under pressure, but because he understands the chance he's been given
and the importance of education. It is my opinion that when you give these kids a
challenge, you will see that they will rise to it," says Warren.
That's exactly the way Sokun leant how to type with all ten fingers. He kept going
until he got it right.
"When I first came to the school, I didn't know about computers at all. But
I tried hard to learn how to type. First I could do it with five fingers and then,
step by step, I could do it with all ten. Now my teacher says that I may be the fastest
typer in the school," says a proud Sokun.
He has every reason to be proud - and to keep up the hard work. As long as he keeps
meeting the school's expectations, Sokun and his father hopes that he can keep his
"I think I can win another scholarship," Sokun predicts cautiously.
Although Northbridge International School has a number of Cambodian students, only
Sokun and a girl in the eighth grade are on scholarships. Both are popular among
their teachers and fellow students.
To Sokun's father, Kall, the teaching methods at Northbridge makes all the difference.
"The Cambodian way is to learn by copying and repetition. At Northbridge, they
teach the children to think for themselves. And that is important," says Kall:
"You can be the son of a scientist. But if you live in the forest with the monkeys,
you will always remain a monkey."