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.
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.)
Yet he craved acceptance, and his daredevil stunts in break dance – an improvisational street ballet of jerky moves and acrobatics – earned him accolades. In one face-off, Tuy reminisces, he even bested "Pose," the neighborhood's finest "breaker."
Today, there is another "Pose" in Tuy's life – a bashful, diminutive AIDS orphan with delicate features and dyed hair. Inspired by TV clips of foreign break dancers, the 13-year-old HIV-positive boy and his friends approached Tuy to teach them. The "American" brushed them off; but they persisted. And Tuy's difficult transition in exile became life-transforming as he developed the Tiny Toones dance troupe.
These days Tuy's Chinese shophouse-style quarters in the city's Tonle Sap neighborhood double as a makeshift community center. Upstairs in an unfurnished room, dozens of street kids gather every evening for break dance practice.
The group has 600 members. Drug users and glue sniffers aren't welcome unless they clean up first. Tiny Toones are drilled in discipline, honesty, and solidarity. They also learn English from volunteers – other deportees from the US.
"This is many kids' only chance to stay out of trouble," says Hin Roatnak, another former Crip from central California, who says he was deported for a gang murder and now helps out with the group. "Sometimes, we see kids eating leftovers from garbage bins, so we bring them here and give them food and a shower."
Tuy has also "adopted" five homeless teens, who sleep in the hall outside his cramped bedroom. In his room is a photographic tableau of his 6-year-old son in California, whom he may never see again.
Tuy's open-door policy has its dangers. Recently, his new stereo and laptop were stolen – both cherished possessions earned from his $400-a-month salary as an antidrugs and AIDS campaigner for a foreign nongovernmental agency . But Tuy doesn't blame the kids. "It could have been the smokers next door."
His legs shriveled by polio, Ean An sits slumped in his makeshift aluminum wheelchair, watching his deaf but able-bodied friends show off their new moves at a recreational program sponsored by a British charity in Kampot Province, 100 miles south of Phnom Penh.
He doesn't languish there for long, though. Tuy coaxes the boy out of his wheelchair and challenges him to a handstand competition. An wins it on his third try. Tuy then shows him some "power moves" he can do without using his legs.
"In our culture, people think we're of no use," explains Ponh Denh, a 21-year-old ninth-grade student in a rusty wheelchair. (In Buddhist Cambodia, disability is often associated with bad karma incurred by wrongs done in previous lives.) "But if we try," he says, with pride, "even handicapped people like us can dance."
So can orphans. Tuy holds regular dance classes in a Phnom Penh orphanage where the youngest "b-boy," a 2-year-old, is already an avid spinner.
"On the surface, it's only break dance, but all these kids need is someone to motivate them," says Dara Chan, a Khmer-American student from Michigan volunteering at Tiny Toones.
"KK is very charismatic, and the way he plays he has the heart of a 10-year-old," adds Mr. Chan. "Kids like to jump on his back and play with him all day. He's like a big brother to them. They need him."
Tuy needs the kids, too.
"This is my home now and Tiny Toones are my family," he says. "When they cry, it hurts me. I'll do my best to help them."