Today’s guest Khun Somsri on Thai women living abroad was born in Phimai, Nakhon Ratchasima in the northeast of Thailand. She moved to the state of Missouri in America at age 17 to work for a Thai family. Life was fairly tough to begin with, but Khun Somsri got through it all. Nowadays her home is in Barrow, Alaska, USA. Khun Somsri gives us her insights and experiences about life in America.
Introducing Khun Somsri Sonphimai
1) How did you come to live in America? What first took you there? Where do you live in America and how long have you lived there?
I was 17 years old when I came to America, I came with a Thai family. On arrival in America, we lived in the state of Missouri. Khun Phuying was a doctor and she had the opportunity to be able to further her studies in America. She had 3 children aged 2, 5 and 7 years old. During the period of further studies in America, she took her family to live with her as well. Whilst in Thailand I worked for her and looked after the children. She then offered me the opportunity to come to America and look after the children there as well. I agreed to her offer instantly and without hesitation. I was so excited and happy to be going to America. On arrival in America and for the first part, I missed home so much. I would go to bed and cry each night before going to sleep. I didn’t have any friends, I couldn’t speak the language and I had to do everything . I was her servant. I worked in the house washing – ironing clothes, cooking and looking after the three children every day. I worked continuously everyday without a single day off. I lived with them for 8 years and I never returned home to Thailand during that time. Very luckily though, she was able to extend my visa to stay for another 8 years. Khun Mo – (Doctor) completed her studies and graduated with a PH.D (doctor of philosophy, academic degree) and they all returned to Thailand. I met with a young American man, got married and continued to live in America. I am now divorced and these days I live in Barrow, Alaska, USA.
2) Could you tell us about where you were born and raised in Thailand, and what life was like there as a child growing up?
I was born in Phimai, Nakhon Ratchasima. My family were rice farmers and I was the oldest of three daughters. I also had two younger brothers. I watched my father and mother work hard and I felt very sorry for them. I told myself that if I could have money, I would not let my parents continue to have such difficulties any more. Life as a rice farmer in former times was very difficult. I remember when I was approximately aged 9 – 11 years old, my father cultivating from 5 o’clock in the morning, attending to the rice for and scattering the seedlings. I would help until it was time to go to school at approximately 7 am. Nowadays, it’s so much easier than before as we have technology like harvesters and pushcarts for growing rice on the land. When I returned from school, I had to do the house work, clean the house, boil the rice, scoop the water and then wait for mother to come and do the cooking as I couldn’t do that. During those days, we didn’t have tap water, didn’t have electricity, we had to go and collect firewood to burn in order to cook the food. We had to go and get water from a friend’s house. They had a well and kept 3 huge water jugs full up all the time. One jar was for washing vegetables, another was for washing your feet before going up to bed and the last one was for use in the bathroom. The work was shared between myself and my younger brothers and sisters. At weekends we all went to the rice field to help mother and father.
On graduation from level 6, my father and mother sent me to work in Bangkok at 11 years old. I did various work ranging from the packing of food, cutting fabric , and working on car brakes. Working on car brakes caused me to have a lot scars on my arms, because I had to stay in front of the oven with the brakes. The problem was, if you were not careful, your arms touched the cooking stove and burned. I also looked after elderly people, like the mother of the doctor that took me to America. I had to do everything for them, because they couldn’t help themselves. I would sleep in the same room as them and keep an eye on them at night. I stayed in the hospital for 3 months until they died. At that stage, I was 14 years old. Finally, at age 17, I came to look after the Doctor’s children in America. They got funded to come and further their studies in America. Well, that was life in Thailand… after that it was all about life in America for me.
3) What work do you do in Alaska, USA?
At present, I work for the college in the city where I live. My job position is Grants Administrator and I take care of the finances.
4) Can you speak English? Is the language and communication a problem? Do you find English difficult to learn? Do you speak any other languages?
I speak only English and Thai language. For me, the English language is very difficult, especially actions that occur in the past, past tense. I often forget that some words end with ” ed.” I didn’t even have a basic level of English when I arrived, because I graduated from Thailand at level 6. This mean’t that I started learning English by listening to tapes and reading books, along with attending a school, studying (ESL Class) – English as a Second Language. When watching television, I would switch on the caption to get to understand the spoken word. During the time that I lived with the Doctor and family, I didn’t get a chance to speak English at all, we spoke only Thai to each other. For the first 8 years of living in America, I didn’t really understand English at all. Things changed when I married my American husband as then we used only English language together. Approximately a year on from that and I was able to speak, understand and generally communicate in English more fluently.
Now, I’ve lived in America for 20 plus years. I’ve studied and have graduated with a bachelor’s and a masters degree from the Missouri state university. I’m still not totally confident in speaking English. I often have the opinion that my English is still not good enough, not at the same level as the American people themselves. I still speak English incorrectly at times, I still have the accent of an Asian person speaking English, but I always try to improve. When I watch television, listen to the radio or speak with other people, then I listen to their accents. When I speak, I try to prevent my accent, but it’s very difficult to prevent your accent from coming out. I believe that if you persist with the studying, if you persist to train yourself and communicate with other people on a daily basis, then you will improve. However though, I feel I will have to study for the rest of my life in order to be the equivalent of the American people.
Did you find it difficult adapting to life in America? What did you find were the most difficult things to adapt to.?
I don’t think it’s difficult, if you’re not abundantly concerned about everything. People mostly keep themselves to themselves and have very little interaction with each other. Having said that, If you have a topic of urgency or are stressed and in need of help, they will help you. Learn the customs of the local people, your understanding will increase and you will make progress in adapting to your new home. The city where I live nowadays is the native place from the Eskimos. Mostly the Eskimo people are quiet, don’t really greet anyone and don’t look that friendly or this is what I first thought. I wondered why they were not cheerful or in very good spirits. It seemed that they didn’t greet anyone at all, but I eventually realised that this is their way, it’s what they are like. I realised in time that I must greet them beforehand and then they will exchange a greeting and a little chat with you. The people here are approximately 60% Eskimo, 20% white and the are rest made up of Asian, Hispanic, Black and Islanders.
Food is a strange subject. They like to hunt animals, both at sea and on land. The thing that I still cannot accept is their custom of hunting whales two times a year. I feel really sorry for the whale. I’ve already observed them dragging the whale up on the beach. The city where I live is next to the beach. It’s a very big mammal, but they will take the whale meat and give out to the neighbours. I’ve already tried it, but I cannot eat it.
In Alaska, it’s very cold, especially the city where I live. In winter, the weather is below freezing all the time. I have to adapt myself to the weather, but it’s not a difficult subject. I put lots of clothes on to keep the cold out when going outside. When inside the house there is a heater for comfort.
6) Is there a big Thai community in your area? Are you in contact with many Thai women as friends and do they tend to stick together? Do they all seem to adapt well to life in Alaska.
There are no more than about 50 Thai people that live here and most of them are Thai men. They come here to drive a taxi as they receive good income. It’s so cold here that whenever you go anywhere, you need to call a taxi. Although, the distances that are close and I mean within half a mile, you are then able to walk. Often though, the weather is so cold that even if the distance is close, you’d still call a taxi. Some people bring their families from Thailand to live with them as well, and it appears that they are satisfied with their lives. In the beginning I did not have a car, so I used to travel to work by taxi. I used to speak with the taxi drivers regularly about their lives here.
When it’s Songkran time we would have a gathering and make Thai food together. Now though, I have a car and I take myself to work. I don’t use the taxi’s anymore at all and I don’t get to chat or associate much with Thai people at all.
This is a massive generalisation, but what are the people from Alaska like? What do they enjoy doing and what are the personalities and character traits of the Alaskan people?
People from Alaska like to go out fishing and hunting, Alaska is famous for fishing and hunting. Tourists come from all over the world in order to fish and hunt in the state of Alaska. Alaskan people love the outdoor life and like the cold weather. When they go abroad, the weather in some places is inclined to be too warm. They don’t like to go to Asia at all, because perhaps their bodies cannot adjust to the hot temperatures. Mostly, the men look physically strong and are not meticulous about dressing up. This is mostly due to the weather being so cold that you can’t only put on a nice pair of jeans or slacks. The men are the head of the family and they love their families. They look after very well and pay great attention to their families. They speak frankly and honestly and are very punctual. They appear to live their lives in a simple way.
Regarding the women, they are very much the same. They too are not meticulous about dressing up and they look strong, but they are sweet and gentle in manner. They love their children and their families, like to be free and to be themselves. They dare to express emotions and voice opinions and are not shy like Thai women.
Alaskan families are no different from the general American family. They will teach their children to help themselves in life and take responsibility for their actions. They are not scared to speak up, to ask, or to express themselves. At 18 years of age the children will leave home to follow their own path in life. Father and mother help them a lot in the way of encouragement. They tell them that they have done well, that they are very capable and that they should be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. The parents give moral support and encouragement and forgive any mistakes that the children have made. It’s noticeable that closeness in family life here appears somewhat more distant, not the same as the closeness in Thai families. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love each other, they of course love each other very much. It means there will be less time spent living as a complete family of grandparents, children and even grand children.
What is the cost of living like in Alaska and especially in Barrow? Which in your opinion are the expensive things and which are the things of good value? Could you give me three things of each, please?
The cost of living is very expensive, especially in the city where I live. This is because Barrow is America’s northern most city. Products are 40 – 50% more expensive than in other cities, because they have to come by air, and this in turn causes the price increase.
The expensive things are……
Living expenses, like monthly rent for the house or apartment. This is very expensive.
Food costs: Fruit and vegetables are expensive to a degree as in the city where I live, we are not able to grow fruit and vegetables.
Fuel: The price for fuel at present to run a vehicle is $6.50 gallon, but in other cities, fuel a gallon is approximately $2.30.
There isn’t anything that I can mention as of value or even suitably priced. Everything’s expensive and labour is expensive as well.
Could you give me three things that in your opinion are great about living in Alaska, USA? Could you then give me three things that are not so good about living in Alaska, USA?
The three good things about living in Alaska are
- Very beautiful landscape / scenery
- No need to pay income tax to the state of Alaska
On the not so good side of things
- The cold weather
- The expensive cost of living
- The remoteness – When I travel back to Thailand it feels so very far away
What would you say were the main problems in a Thai woman / American man romantic relationship? Are there any similar problems or misunderstandings that relationships have? I’m talking more to do with cultural differences really.
Mostly, I think it’s the customs and traditions that cause Thai women to appear quiet and orderly. Through this, Thai women can then appear as if they are not romantic, because they don’t really express in the subject of love, meaning they don’t show affection in public. When they go outside walking together they don’t hold hands, cuddle and kiss with their lover. Thai people think that actions speak louder than words. They like to take care of and pay attention to the husband, make food, bring up the children and look after the house. Faithful to the husband, but not necessary to tell your husband that you love him over and over again. because your actions already show that you do. But foreigners want to hear you them tell that you love them, all the time. I think that this is one of the problems in relationships. People here, they like to express and show their feelings.
Another problem is the difference in communication. Thai people don’t really speak directly or frankly, they like to speak in a roundabout way or indirectly. Sometimes, the foreign husband or boyfriend will have to guess the subject that his Thai sweetheart is not happy about, and this can cause problems in the relationship. People here though, they speak very bluntly. They say, you must let us know if you like something or that something is not satisfactory. Thais are not like that and sometimes get angry with the husband or boyfriend because he doesn’t know the subject of their dissatisfaction. The foreign husband will say, how the hell can I know what’s wrong if you don’t tell me.
Do you still have family living in Thailand and do you miss them? Do you manage to get back to Thailand for a visit now and again? Which are your favourite places to visit in Thailand?
Yes, I have my father, mother and (younger siblings) living in Thailand and I miss and worry about them a lot. I do miss Thailand also. It’s lucky that my younger sister and younger brother use facebook and keep me up to date with what’s happening back home. I am kept in touch totally with their day to day living. Even though I’m isolated and far way from them, it seems like I am almost right next to them. It makes me miss them greatly, though.
I’m someone that loves the beach, the sea breeze and the sunshine. When I return to Thailand and I have the opportunity, I choose to visit the sea and beaches of the south of Thailand.
Have you ever felt unsafe living in Barrow or Alaska in general?
It feels really safe living here. You don’t really hear news about crime or any other bad news to cause you to feel unsafe.
What are your favourite places to visit in Alaska and is Alaska beautiful
I like visiting the city of Homer in the south of Alaska, it’s a very beautiful place and approximately a 4 hour drive from Anchorage. The period before blossoming and when snow has still not dissolved will see snow covered mountain tops , it’s stunningly beautiful. My explanation just doesn’t do it justice, you have to come and see for yourself to know the real extent of it’s beauty. The sea surrounds the city. It means, there’s no more roads and no other towns or cities on from here…. only sea ” the end of the road and the cosmic hamlet by the sea.” Homer is a city that is very well known for fishing and you are able to go out on a fishing trip in a boat as well. There are many facilities in Homer for your comfort and convenience, but everything looks so natural and beautiful. Another important thing, is there is also a Thai restaurant….. Khun Somsri laughs.
What are your passions in life. What are the things that you love to do when you have free time?
I love my family, I love peace and I love being free and independent. There are several things that I enjoy doing in my free time. When the weather is good, dry and sunny, then I like to go out walking and get some exercise. I also enjoy watching television and shopping.
Some Thai women think that moving to Europe means a better life instantly. What advice would you give Thai women that were thinking of living in Europe? What would you advise them to beware of? Could you give me 3 things for them to think about before moving overseas?
I’d like to suggest that you keep an open mind, because it might not be exactly what you expected. Some people arrive and then have great difficulties. You could become bullied by your husband or end up living under his strict and set rules. Coming to live abroad like to America, will see life perhaps improve in a security sense and the convenience of life will be better than in Thailand. However, they have strict rules and systems to follow, and you must respect their laws. The cost of living in America is more expensive than Thailand. If you don’t have money and you don’t have work to do then it’s difficult. Therefore, if you come then you should try to be self- reliant as much as you can.
First and foremost, you must hurry and study the language, be able to read and write. After that you should learn to drive, if you can’t drive already. America’s a very big country, if you have a car it greatly increases your ability to travel around conveniently. If you want to go somewhere, you can just go. There’s no need to wait around until your husband can take you. Learning to drive and having a car greatly increases your freedom. After that I’d suggest to look for work because there’s only a few foreigners who will support the whole family in Thailand as well. Mostly they will take only the wife to be with them and not the wife’s family as well. If we want to help the folks at home, in Thailand, then we must find work. If we have work and some money in our pockets, then we are able to rely on ourselves.