Weight-lifters at Global Community High School are accustomed to getting calluses on their hands, but Tian Liang Ge has a quarter-sized dome of hardened skin on the top of his head.
"That’s crazy. I never knew you could get a callus on your head," said his best friend, Josh Gilbert, 17.
The Chinese-born teen, who uses the American name Tyler, developed the callus on his scalp after years of using his head to juggle heavy ceramic pots.
Hidden beneath his thick black hair, the hard bump of skin is a measure of his fortitude.
Tyler, 19, will soon be performing in a regular juggling and acrobatic show on the Strip. He also expects to be a contender in a Clark County high school weight-lifting competition on April 24.
But less than four years ago, Tyler was eating nothing but noodles and sharing a home with more than 20 other people in the southwest valley.
Tyler ended up there after touring the United States with the China Star Acrobats. The performers were not getting paid the wages they were promised and were not allowed access to their passports, Tyler recalled.
"There was a girl who could speak English who wanted to leave," he said. "She asked for … passport. They said, ‘I give you a copy.’ The girl got mad. She left the house at night and called the police.
"The FBI came in the morning. I was sleeping in the kitchen."
The house was raided by a joint task force of law enforcement and civil authorities that included Las Vegas police, Clark County Child Protective Services and the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery.
Federal prosecutors, however, dismissed the criminal charges of "involuntary servitude" against the child performer’s bosses for lack of evidence. The case was never presented to a grand jury.
Tyler and four teenage girls who were also part of the show were put into foster care and allowed to pursue citizenship. Tyler said he recently got his green card.
The other kids in the group home were less than welcoming, Tyler recalled. For about four years, Tyler lacked the comfort of a family life. At 13, he was packed off to an intensive boarding school for acrobats in China.
From the school, he was recruited into the show that would tour the United States. Tyler recalled sleeping every night in budget motels.
In the fall of 2007, Tyler found caring adults and new friends when he enrolled in Global Community High School, which primarily serves international students in the Clark County School District.
Global Principal Michael Piccininni still remembers his first meeting with Tyler because of the teen’s manners.
"We went down to our music room. He went to the stack of chairs and got every adult in the room a chair. Now I quantify our success by saying he’s just as bratty as (an American teen) … No, I’m just kidding," Piccininni said.
Teachers and friends are impressed by how well Tyler has adapted to life in the United States. He is dating another Chinese student at Global. He collects tennis shoes. His favorite video game is "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II."
"I’m very happy," Tyler said.
His love for cheeseburgers, french fries and milk shakes has not affected his athlete’s physique. He has a six-pack abdomen and defined quadriceps.
While he weighs about 156 pounds, Tyler is training to scoop 285 pounds off the floor and flip it over his head in a weight-lifting motion called the "power clean."
Tyler also is back to juggling and performing acrobatic stunts with a company called New Dynasty Entertainment. He was able to make new professional contacts after a friend circulated a video of him juggling ceramic pots at a high school talent show.
Chunyan Hou, owner of New Dynasty Entertainment, said he has taken Tyler on weekend trips to festivals and cultural performances around the country.
Hou said he’s making arrangements for a regular show with Tyler at the Riviera. A Riviera official said the show is scheduled to begin April 29, but that many details are still being organized.
With the income he’s earning, Tyler has become independent and is living in his own apartment. His English is improving, but he occasionally needs help with translation.
When Tyler is on the road, he often calls his friend Gilbert if he needs helps figuring out what to order in a restaurant. Gilbert said Tyler has introduced him to "real Chinese food" as well, once bringing a pickled pig’s ear to a school potluck.
Bill Froman, Global’s weight-lifting coach and gym teacher, said Tyler’s parents in Beijing want him to be a success.
"They’re willing to sacrifice not seeing their son if it means a better life for him," Froman said. "They know he’s better off (here)."
The four teen girls who performed with Tyler in the China Star Acrobats are more ambivalent about finding new opportunities in show business, Froman said. They had performed as contortionists.
"They all have bad backs," Froman said. "They’re young girls. … It’s a brutal training."
Froman said Tyler once told him a story about his training as an acrobat when he was a child in China.
"He was sick at the time with a high fever. He asked to go see a nurse. The guy said ‘Go ahead.’ As he walked by him, the guy kicked him down a flight of steps," Froman said.
Tyler said he tried escaping many times, but teachers always manipulated his parents into sending him back. Tyler quoted a teacher as telling his dad that "We’re nice to him."
"I tell my dad (the truth), (but) he doesn’t believe me. He just trusts my teacher. They take me back. I was scared, I always run away."
Those hardships helped Tyler develop a toughness that Froman described as, "Bring it on, you can’t hurt me."
Contact reporter James Haug at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-374-7917.