Long-distance love

Separated by studies, Cambodian Heller student courted wife-to-be on web

Sothea Phan and Chandalin Mom

Valentine’s Day isn’t a traditional Cambodian holiday, but it has special meaning for Sothea Phan, a Heller School master’s degree candidate from Cambodia.

It was on Feb. 14, 2012, that he first asked Chandalin Mom for a date, shortly after his uncle introduced the two. She declined. But with a persistence and patience that would prove typical for him, Phan tried again and met with better results a few days later.

Phan was also a planner. Back in 2003, he created a 10-year plan with three overarching goals: Buy a house, earn a graduate school scholarship and find a wife.

Phan’s persistence and patience would be put to the test. His parents were divorced when he was just 11, and thus, he had to work at a very young age to help support his family. He spent years working as night guard with little sleep.

As a result, he managed to put himself through college, and by February 2012, Phan, by then a program associate/grant administrator for OxFam America East Asia Region, was a new homeowner, and just weeks from proposing marriage. A traditional man, Phan pledged his love for Mom to her parents, who approved, but asked them to wait a few months before an official engagement.

They didn’t want to wait too long and planned a late December wedding. Then Phan received an email in July that threatened his relationship: He learned he had been awarded a World Bank-sponsored scholarship to the Heller School’s Sustainable International Development program.

What do you do when one dream conflicts with another? For Phan, the answer was once again patience and persistence. He’d already prepared his application for the scholarship before they met, and she had encouraged him to follow his dream. It would, however, mean leaving her behind, albeit temporarily.

“That night we cried together,” Phan says. “We cry a lot. I don’t even know how to count how many days we cried together.”

Mom’s family, especially her grandmother, was a bit worried. They had seen so many men leave Cambodia for the United States and never come back. In fact, Mom’s own parents were separated for 10 years while her father pursued graduate degrees in Germany.

Before Phan left, Mom’s grandmother made them matching rings, each with the other’s name engraved on it. To assure her and her family of his commitment to the relationship, Phan promised to send Mom a message and a flower every day he was gone. When she had 102 flowers, he told her, he’d return for her. He also said that he would bring her to the U.S., where they’d build snowman together. Sometimes, they’d sleep with their phones or laptops next to them, Skype sessions still open.

At Brandeis, where international students make up 14 percent of the student population, Phan’s classmates understood, and photographed flowers for him whenever they could. On Facebook, he would post a flower on her wall each day.

When 102 flowers finally amassed on her page, he followed through with his promise. Phan returned to Cambodia at the end of the semester to marry the love of his life. But first, he had to convince professors to arrange for early final exams.

Then he had to return alone to finish his studies. Soon enough, he was able to bring her to join him in the U.S. but that meant Mom leaving her family, and her own bank job as an auditor behind.

Now, two years after the Valentine’s Day date that didn’t happen, Phan and Mom are expecting their first child this week. This morning, he left a red rose in the refrigerator next to the milk before leaving for class.

“Honestly, I got everything I need here. I feel ready to go back and work,” says Phan, who will complete his studies this May and then return to Cambodia with his wife and child. “One thing that doesn’t feel good is the sacrifice my wife made. I will make it up to her.”

Someday, Phan adds, he’d like to bring his child back to the U.S. to see Brandeis.

Categories: International Affairs, Student Life

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage