During the 1990s, So Sopheak was a starlet in her rural Siem Reap village, singing from a young age at school and concerts. However, the road was tough for her and her family as she tried to climb the music ladder as a village girl.
Today, her hard work has paid off and she is living the “American dream” of heading her own salon and family.
“I think I have achieved the American dream but this dream is not just for me, this dream is for my children in the future,” Sopheak, 40, told Kiripost in a recent interview.
“I always thought I would graduate from university like other people did. Now, I sometimes still dream but despite that I can’t do it, I am happy, I know my children will because they have opportunity and people who push them.”
Sopheak is from Sandan village in Siem Reap’s Puok district, and has four siblings. Her mother is So Savorn and father is So Sary, who has already passed away.
Today, she lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city home to a large Cambodian population.
Sopheak’s life as a singer before she moved to the United States started when she was in third grade in Siem Reap and started singing and performing traditional dance. Her parents were also in music.
After three years, she joined a Siem Reap-based band, singing at events conducted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Sopheak dropped out of school after seventh grade because the family was too poor and could not afford for her to continue her education. They also believed that staying in school would not yield any money for the family. She continued singing for the CPP from 1995 to 2000.
With help from Lean Sony, who was known at the time as Cambodia’s Michael Jackson, she left Siem Reap with her mother and cousin So Lida, also a singer, leaving her four siblings with their grandmother.
“I didn't know what I could do, I didn't have much education and I only know that I can sing,” Sopheak said.
Sopheak said her mother was often sick, so she became the breadwinner of the family and that she had to work hard. “It was an adventure that I had gone to Phnom Penh. I didn’t just think about myself, I didn't think I would be famous and come to live in the United States, no. At the time, I thought I could earn more money to feed my siblings and my mother who was sick daily.”
In 2000, Sopheak got a job as a singer at a restaurant across Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar bridge, earning $5 per night. Showing up late at work saw her get her daily pay cut. Sopheak also had to pay between $1 to $2 for a mototaxi everyday to work.
She recalls leading a tough life, facing many discriminations in the city. She adds she thought of returning to Siem Reap. However, instead she chose to work hard and not give up.
“They said we are farmers, they said we wore the same clothes to sing,” she said, as tears form in her eyes. She added that after hard work and persistence, she secured a recording job for a music company abroad.
“For one song, I could get paid between $10 to $15. It was a lot for me because I could get only $5 per night from singing at the restaurant.”
With help from other actors, such as producer Khuoch Kevin, famous MC Yuk Chenda, and comedian Neay Krem, Sopeak landed some gigs with performances on televisions.
Besides singing, Sopheak also acted as a comedian on stage alongside famous comedians, thanks partly to her Siem Reap accent that many people found funny.
“Life was a struggle before today.”
After more than a year, Sopheak was sponsored to perform in New York because Cambodians overseas wanted to see her sing and do comedy.
After three months performing in the US, Sopheak could afford to send some money to her family to build a home.
Life has moved on and now, 13 years into her marriage with Narith Meas, who is a technician, Sopheak has three sons Evan Din Meas, 5, Kyle Sary Meas, 12, and Logan Hok, 15.
Twelve years ago, Sopheak opened up a salon that is named after her and specializes in hair coloring and eyelash extensions. She also has her own home.
Her mother has also been reunited with her in the US and now holds the citizenship.
When she first moved to the United States, Sopheak says life was hard. Her English was not good enough and she had to work hard to study for a diploma before receiving her cosmetologist license in 2005.
In 2006, she started work at another salon, picking up the skills to open up her own. After a decade of renting the business space, she was able to buy her own salon.
“I can say I have luck but this is hard work. When humans can’t do work, I still try to win all obstacles, I tried to win everything and tried to encourage myself, especially looking at people around me who only depend on me. So if I fall, they must also fall, especially I am talking about my mother who is a widower and sick, and my other siblings who still depend on me.”
“I am happy that I could do this and my siblings, even though they are not rich, but if you compare to before, it's different like the sky and the earth,” she said.
Despite being far away from home, Sopheak still brings Cambodian food to the US, occasionally selling the nation’s famous Prakhok, cooked by her mother, to Americans to eat.
She also sells dried fish from Siem Reap and Prahok embedded with eggs of red ants. “A lot of people like the food,” she said.
When she has more employees, Sopheak plans to focus more on selling food. In old age, she would like to spend more time between Cambodia and the United States.