CAMBODIAN ORPHANS ARE IN TOWN TO MEET THEIR EMAIL FOSTER PARENTS
A tale of 2 lost boys and ties that span an ocean
|Photo gallery: Cambodian orphans|
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
The list of what Houch Chhoeung doesn't have, back in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, starts at unimaginable and ends at heartbreaking.
He doesn't have hot and cold running water. He doesn't have his family to come home to. He doesn't have siblings. He doesn't have parents.
But Houch does have someone here in Hawai'i. That someone is Joe Rice, president of Mid-Pacific Institute, who wants to mean something to Houch. A former foster child himself, Rice knows older orphans' opportunities to be adopted grow slimmer as the years go by.
Theirs is a story about how two lost boys — one past and one present, and a generation apart — came to connect in a way that changed both their lives.
THE BACK STORY
Even growing up in a family of 12 children, Joe Rice was a lost boy. The oldest — his mother got pregnant with him when she was 13 — he soon was saddled with a stepfather who was often drunk and abusive. The children were hungry, dirty — and worse.
More than once, Rice and his sibling were taken away from the family and sent to foster care. Not that there was much of a home to be taken from; they often lived out of a station wagon.
Rice found the strength to stand up to his stepfather during his senior year of high school in a fiery confrontation that led to him going into foster care for the final time.
Rice graduated from high school, and with other helping hands, eventually made his way through college. Now, after recognizing how other people helped him along, Rice wants to pay it forward.
"I always felt like, when it comes to foster and orphaned children, they need our care. ... If you have the means to help, you should," said Rice.
Four years before, he'd heard about an orphanage through his Rotary group — "it was the first time I was able to do something on a personal basis" — and specifically looked into helping an older child.
He and Houch began to e-mail.
A dossier on Houch listed his age, now 19. He has lived in an orphanage for more than half his life. He's in the 10th grade at Chumpouvan High. He wants to be a math teacher. He plays drums.
But more than that, he's gone on Webcam and met his foster family, Joe and Florence Rice. Houch calls them Mom and Dad.
Florence and Joe Rice have four children, two of whom are grown, two in college, so they've prepared for homecomings before. Still, ministrations took on epic proportions before the big meeting of their foster son.
"My wife has gone overboard, cleaning the house," Joe Rice said. They hit Costco to stock up on rice and meat. Florence Rice had been "obsessing with how she's going to cook."
Not only how to cook but what to cook occupied Florence Rice's mind. They were told not to go overboard on the ice cream, because you don't want to overwhelm the Cambodians' systems with too much dairy. The kids are not used to that.
All foster parents had been briefed on what to do to make the youths comfortable. Take nothing for granted, they were warned.
During their first tour of the house, for example, it was suggested they pantomime the most obvious things, such as how not to scald yourself with hot water from the faucet, and how to throw the TP in the bowl after use, rather than the wastebasket.
When the 30 Cambodian youths finally landed last week at the USS Bowfin memorial after a bus ride from Honolulu International Airport, there'd been a plan.
The assembled foster parents, Rice included, were to line up in two parallel lines in a traditional Cambodian greeting. They'd let the kids and their teacher-chaperones promenade down the line, about 25 yards long. Then, they'd meet up at a nearby picnic area to bestow lei.
The plan sounded so right, as they rocked back and forth on the balls of their feet in the hot sun. It sounded so smart, waiting there with lei in the crook of their elbows.
But then Sreysrash Check bolted off the giant tour bus and directly into the arms of her foster mother, sobbing. Elizabeth Keith hugged her back, crying just as hard.
Suddenly, it was chaos, and not a dry eye in sight.
Joe Rice lost track of the young man he'd only seen via grainy Internet feed. Students were pouring out, and what had been two neat lines became an amorphous mass of humanity and happy noise.
Nancy Walden was the first to spot Houch coming down the steps and called out to Rice, pointing to the top of the young man's head.
"Joe! Joe!" she called. "He's over here, Joe!"
Rice made his way to Houch, much smaller and more childlike than most American 19-year-olds. Houch pressed his hands together like a prayer and bowed his forehead to Rice. In response, Rice crushed him in a giant squeeze of a hug.
After snapping pictures and greeting Houch's friends, they sat at a table to have a snack.
What especially was Houch looking forward to in America?
"Hamburger. And pizza. Everything!" he said, as Rice beamed at him.
A week later, it's obvious to Florence Rice that Houch has developed a great affinity for her husband.
"He just lights up when Joe comes into the room," she said. "It's a boy-with-his-dad kind of thing. It makes me want to cry."
After a nap the first day, the family went home to visit, and their son's friends came over. Soon, a rollicking competition over Wii tennis and bowling ensued.
"He caught on so quick, you'd thought he'd been doing this all his life," said Joe Rice. "His score was 215, mine was 137. He'd never played before! He kept looking at me, as if to see if I was mad that (he's) beating me."
The group's itinerary has been packed — besides performances and rehearsals, there's been sightseeing at the zoo and aquarium — as well as visits at three high schools. When he gets back home at night, Houch loves to view and review the digital photos and video they've taken of the people he's met while here.
He hasn't become an all-American teen, of course: Houch prefers a cup of saimin noodles for breakfast to Florence Rice's spread of scrambled eggs and pancakes.
As for making himself at home, Houch finally passed a milestone, Joe Rice recounted: "Yesterday, he opened the fridge without me telling him. OK! He's starting to feel like this is his place. Being able to get his own glass out, opening the fridge to see what's in there like other kids do nine times a day. I see that as a breakthrough."
Asked what he believes Houch will take away from this experience, Joe Rice grows quiet when he remembers a particular moment:
When Rice came home one night this week, he asked Houch how he was doing.
"Good," the young man responded.
Rice then pressed for details — can he tell him more? What, exactly, is good?
"The people," Houch said.
Then Houch impetuously turned and wrapped his arms around Florence Rice.
Through sitdowns here and with plans to continue the pep talks and encouragement via e-mail, Joe Rice is urging Houch to stay in school.
Both Joe and Florence Rice are hoping to be there when Houch graduates from high school in Cambodia. And wouldn't it be grand if he passes the exams that allow him to go on to college?
Still, even filled with hopes of future connections, Rice gets choked up, just thinking about what will happen next Wednesday.
It's obvious he already dreads their parting.
" I hate to think what it will be like when they leave," said Rice, who takes a moment to compose his voice, which cracks slightly. " ... You think you've been doing this for them, but ... "
Sure, there are other children, right here in Hawai'i, that Joe Rice will be able to help — scholarship students, victims of domestic abuse, others he reaches through his good works and Rotary projects.
Houch doesn't volunteer much about his life before the orphanage. And of course, Joe Rice is getting flashes from his own past, as well.
It's not about exorcising demons, Rice said.
"I just want to be a good person," Joe Rice said. "You have to live your life for others. I don't want people to think I'm doing this because I need to do that. ... (Houch) doesn't want to dwell on the past. He wants to look forward. I admire that about him. That's kind of where I am. I guess there are reasons for looking back, dealing with things, but most times, I don't find any good in doing it. I'd rather be thinking about what I can be doing for my family and others."