In exile, a former gang member finds a reason to dance
Deported to Cambodia for criminal convictions, Tuy Sobil saves street kids – and himself – with break dance
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tuy Sobil, a sinewy 30-year-old with a ponytail, a pierced eyebrow, and gangland-style Goth tattoos, is watching over a group of excited kids crowded around a linoleum mat laid out in a city park. To the beat of a 1980s American hip-hop remix emanating from a boombox, one of Mr. Tuy's protégés, "Floater," lets it rip – twisting, turning, and spinning like an animated marionette. Cheers erupt from a crowd of curious onlookers.Skip to next paragraph
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Then it is Tuy's turn in this Sunday break-dancing battle.
Sporting a rapper's stocking cap despite the humid heat, he does a series of "pikes," "flares," and "butterfly kicks," slumping to the ground, wheezing, when he's finished.
"I'm old and rusty, but I need to do it for the kids," he pants.
Once a gifted break-dance wannabe in Long Beach, Calif., Tuy has lately resurrected his old passion – to help save Cambodian street kids from the sort of dead-end detour he took.
And the kids, many neglected, some orphaned, lionize him for it.
"KK looks after us," says 14-year-old Floater, aka Chea Sokchen. "I don't want to be just a street kid," he adds with boyish zeal. "I want to become a b-boy [break dancerr]."
That's the career Tuy feels he should have pursued, too. Instead, wanting to "be cool," Tuy – alias "KK," gang-style initials for "Crazy Crip," – joined the notorious Crips gang in California and dropped out of school. An armed robbery conviction when he was 18 sent his life spiralling downward. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1977 to escapees from the Khmer Rouge killing fields and taken to the US as a tot, Tuy never became a US citizen, and the felony conviction was followed by a decade in jail and immigration detention centers.
He was deported in 2004 – the coda to what he now knows were misplaced aspirations.
"I never let anybody take my gang down," Tuy says of his teen-aged tribalism. "But say this: As I grew older, I started to think, 'My gang ain't got me nowhere, but cost me everything – my family, my life [in the US], my son.' "
He wants to steer his protégés clear of similar bad choices. "I made a mistake as a kid," he explains, "but I'm not gonna let these kids destroy their lives, too."
Sprawling across Tuy's lower back is a tattoo of Angkor Wat, the monumental 12th-century temple and Cambodia's national symbol. It was a handy sign of his ethnic affiliations in America's gang culture, but having never even seen his "homeland," it was also just about the deepest link he had to that place.
So his "repatriation" was no homecoming. It was exile for life to a remote, impoverished, war-ravaged land he'd never seen. Like many of the other 160-plus Cambodian Americans forced to return under a US law that allows deportation of noncitizens with criminal convictions – from shoplifting to murder – Tuy spoke Khmer badly (he still can't read or write it) and was viewed as a stranger.
"I knew no one here. I thought I wasn't gonna make it," he recalls.
In Cambodia, returnees cope the best they can. Many fall back on crime; others like Tuy reinvent themselves. Some started new families and, according to the Returnee Integration Support Program, a charity run by a US-based organization of Vietnam War veterans, some even became Buddhist monks.
Even so, Tuy testifies, "every deportee I know still has a pain in his heart."
Not that his life in the States was idyllic. He grew up in a family of seven in Long Beach, where his jobless, unschooled parents made ends meet by scavenging. Out of place in the affluent southern California milieu, he became a regular in playground brawls and soon a crack addict. (He'd kick his addiction in prison.)