Talented teen challenges hand fate dealt him

Published: 07/05/2009 05:00



Where there is a will, there is a way. “And, you don’t even need hands,” 17-year-old Nguyen Minh Tri, who lives in An Giang Province in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, could well be adding to this cliche.

Tri on his computer like a normal teenager. With electricity yet to come to the area, the computer is powered by a generator.

Where there is a will, there is a way. “And, you don’t even need hands,” 17-year-old Nguyen Minh Tri, who lives in An Giang Province in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, could well be adding to this cliche.

He was born without hands but he has not let that get in the way of living a normal life: He writes fast enough with his feet to keep up in class, swims, plays football, and helps his family with chores at home.

He lives upstream from Can Tho on the way to Cai Dau Town. To reach his house, one has to traverse a narrow trail dozens of kilometres past sparsely populated villages and rice paddies.

It is hard to keep count of how many log bridges one has to cross over canals, too numerous to be named, crisscrossing a basin that floods in the rainy season.

Even a local xe om (taxi bike) driver is lost and could only make it because all the occasional villagers along the path know “the handless boy that does well at school.”

The shabby cottage where the boy lives stands isolated on stilts in the middle of rice paddies, separated from the earthen trail by a canal.

We spot him sitting with his legs hanging over the side of the cottage, dressed in a sleeveless pull-over that reveals rounded shoulders and looking pensively at the horizon tinged by the setting sun.

“He’s just back from school,” says Nguyen Van An, 51, his father.

The two quickly change into more “polite” outfits to receive a guest from afar: ba ba (loose-fitting vest and trousers) for the dad and a sleeved pull-over for the son.

“Tri can not pull up trouser zippers or button up shirts by himself,” says An. “That’s why he avoids wearing that kind of stuff as much as possible.”

“Tri is the youngest of five children,” An says.

“Seventeen years ago, Tri was born at a village midwife’s house to desperate parents who did not know what to blame.” He recalls how his heart sank when he first saw his son.

He also remembers thinking: “How will he care for himself? How will he go to school and make a living? Will he end up dependant on others or will he lag behind his peers all his life?”


But hope flickered in him when Tri began to fiddle with pens and tried to write like his brothers when they were studying at night. Of course, he had to use his toes.

Little by little, he made it through the alphabet and then whole words.

Around the time, Tri was learning to write, a school was built in the area and Tri pleaded with his dad to take him there.

The school authorities’ hesitancy quickly turn to amazement when they saw the boy read and write fluently despite never going to school.

Tri, then 10, was admitted to first grade.

Since then, he has been a “good student” getting scholarships every year, and has now moved up to eighth grade.

But his schooling has come at the expense of his siblings’ – they had to drop out since their father could not afford to send all five to school at the same time and they now work as agricultural labourers.

“We are all working hard to send Tri to school,” says An, pointing to a pool nearby where he raises frogs, earning VND700,000 to a million a month, hardly enough for both the family and Tri’s schooling.

Normal teenager

Tri can write fast enough to keep up with the rest of his class, he says, and that he loves drawing, though math is his favorite.

He has never missed school. A classmate living nearby taking him by bicycle even when he is seriously ill.

“I play soccer as a defender and can swim as fast as my friends.”

“He helps us with all the chores like washing, cleaning and cooking, using his feet,” says Tri’s mother Quan Thi Hay, 50, explaining that he stands on a stool and reaches up with a leg to get things from tall shelves.

“He began to try and do things by himself even before we planned to train him,” Hay says.

A computer donated by a generous soul is the most valuable item inside the poorly-furnished house. Tri, sitting flat on the bed, uses the keyboard and mouse with pencils held between his toes.

The area has no electricity. “It requires one litre of fuel to power the computer for three hours,” says An. It is an expensive affair for the poor family but he says he will let his son use the computer for at least three hours every evening.

Tri handles the computer deftly – documents, spreadsheets, and lots of other functions come easily to him, though he is largely self-taught.

“I like to browse the internet because there’re lots of new things.”

“If you try, you can,” he replies when asked how he does seemingly impossible things. He says he is happiest when he succeeds in doing something.

“Because I have a disability, I have to perform at least as well as my friends at school,” he says. He is determined to overcome adversity because “I have to take care of myself and support the family because we’re poor.”

“I’ll stay to take care of my parents once my brothers and sisters get married and leave because my parents have struggled so hard to bring me up,” he says, pointing out it is usually the youngest child’s responsibility.

Though the road ahead is rocky, he says he will brave the difficulties to go to college, get a job and, most importantly, stand on his own feet.

There are flashes of reservation and hesitation when he speaks but what is palpable is his instropective nature and the look of sadness in his eyes.

“He is afraid of meeting strangers and tends to retreat into his shell,” says his father, Tri always has a feeling that people will take pity on him, he says.

“No matter how poor we are, we are committed to supporting Tri until he graduates from college,” says An, pointing to a new boat motor for taking Tri to school during the four months of flooding when the path becomes too sticky to cycle.

The success stories of famous people with disabilities have inspired him, and An believes his son will be like them. “Given that such people are blessed with great determination to offset their disabilities.”


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