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Tik Pearson, shown with her husband, Craig, and daughter Jenny, has opened a retail store in Central Park.
Rattana "Tik" Chalermpong Pearson had no idea where she'd live or how she'd earn a living the day she boarded a bus near her rural village in Thailand.
Tears streamed down her face that day nearly a dozen years ago. The then 20-year-old hadn't told her parents she was headed for the bustling city of Bangkok and a chance to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
"My dad and my mom didn't go to school," said Pearson, who grew up the youngest of six children on a small farm in Chantaburi province. "They didn't understand that education [is] very important. I think it can change your life."
Today, a dozen years later, she is married to an American, lives with him and their 6-year-old daughter outside of Manassas, and has opened a retail shop, The Rikki Tikki Company, in Central Park.
It "marks the end of a journey and the beginning of a dream come true" for her, according to her husband, Craig Pearson, a government contractor who met her while on business in Thailand.
Pearson's new venture is a nod to her nickname and the short story about a valiant mongoose who battles cobras in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." Like the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, she grew up in a jungle and used to work in an area where cobras lurked.
There are no snakes in her new store, which is located next to Panda Express in the former location of a The Healthy Back Store. But there are plenty of mounted and framed butterflies and moths that had been raised on a Thai farm. One species, the giant Atlas moth, has wings that resemble a cobra's head in profile.
The Rikki Tikki Company also carries a variety of home decor ranging from Chinese brush paintings and replicas of Thailand's famed Emerald Buddha to colorful wooden masks and statues carved in Bali to Asian porcelain and trinket boxes decorated with inlay.
But the Pearsons are quick to point that they offer something for everyone, including inexpensive key rings, cloth shoes made by Thailand's hill people, knitted hats from Nepal and other clothing and accessories, plus toys, games, glassware and silverware. There's also an assortment of collectibles, including military and sports memorabilia, that are her husband's contributions.
"I always felt that, if not today, then in the future I'd have a store," Pearson said as she took a break Wednesday from stocking newly assembled shelves.
She's spent the majority of her life working, starting when she began helping her mother pick durians and mangosteens from the family's fruit trees when she was 6. Their small farm couldn't support the family, so they also worked for neighbors who owned more land.
Pearson stopped going to school when she was 12 because the family needed her to help earn income and she had no way to get to what was the equivalent of a middle school. She got a reputation as the best picker in her village of the green berries that, once dried, turn into black pepper. One of her brothers also taught her how to climb trees up to 100 feet tall to get honey from bees' nests.
"In her village, she was known as Miss 365," Craig Pearson said. "She never took a day off."
Yet Pearson never stopped dreaming that she'd find a way to continue her education. Several years later when a friend who had a motorcycle asked if she'd like to go to school with her, she didn't hesitate.
"I say, 'Oh, yeah. I would like to go with you!'" she said.
The two girls enrolled in a government program for students who didn't get to go to high school, and Pearson continued to work after class. When her friend got married and dropped out of school, Pearson used her savings to buy her own motorcycle so she could keep going to class.
After graduation, she figured she could get a job in a factory in Bangkok, and possibly enroll in a university. She left home hoping that she could find someone who might offer her a place to stay. The woman Pearson sat with on the bus that day turned her down, but another one who noticed she'd been crying said she could stay with her mother.
"In Thailand, they call that 'chok dee,' which means 'good luck' or 'good fortune,'" said Craig Pearson.
Tik Pearson didn't have enough money to get the documents she'd need to apply for a job, so she contacted an aunt who lived in Bangkok. The aunt let her move in with her and paid the tuition for a typing class. Pearson was then able to find work at Robinsons Department Store, which has branches all over Thailand. She also signed up for business management classes at a university near Bangkok.
She met Craig Pearson a year later, and they eventually married and moved to Northern Virginia. She continued her university studies online and went back to Thailand to get her diploma. It was handed to her by the crown prince as part of his official duties. Her mother and her siblings attended the ceremony, but her father didn't.
"Inside, I think he [was] so proud," Pearson said.
She and her husband also started what would become The Rikki Tikki Company by selling things on eBay and at flea markets. Now that their daughter is in school, they decided it was time to open their first store.
"I always work," Tik Pearson said. "When I don't, I feel bad."
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407