Thai Women Living Abroad: Barrow, Alaska

Today’s guest on Thai women living abroad is Khun Somsri Sonphimai. Khun Somsri was born and raised in Phimai, Nakhon Ratchasima in the north-east of Thailand, but moved to Barrow, also known as Utqiaġvik, Alaska, USA, via Missouri. In this interview Khun Somsri talks about her observations and experiences from over 20 years of living in the USA.

Introducing Khun Somsri Sonphimai

Photos by Khun Somsri Sonphimai

On the way home, Gary said, ‘I just think we should sell everything and move to Alaska,'” — Gary Richardson

First of all, thanks for joining me. I’d like to start by asking a bit about what life was like for you growing up in the North East of Thailand.

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 and scattering the seedlings. I would help until it was 7 am, when I had to go to school. 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, which included; cleaning the house, boiling the rice, scooping the water, but I waited for my mother to come and do the cooking. I couldn’t do the cooking at that stage. During those days, we didn’t have tap water, and we didn’t have electricity. We had to go and collect firewood to burn in order to cook the food. I remember having to get the 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 and with a hot oven gave me many  scars on my arms. The problem was, whilst taking brakes out of the oven, if you were not really careful, your arms touched the sides of the cooking stove. I also looked after elderly people for a while. I had to do everything for them, because they couldn’t help themselves anymore. I would sleep in the same room as them to 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  America. Well, that was life in Thailand… after that it was all about life in America for me.

Which part of America did you move to and what were your first impressions of life in the USA.

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 each day 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 Phuying 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.

When you first arrived in America from Thailand, were there any cultures or practices that you found particularly strange. Something that could be termed as culture shock. Could you give me at least 3 instances please.

There were several things that I felt were strange regarding culture here and differences between here and Thailand.

I noticed in Missouri that the majority of elderly people live alone and take care of themselves. If they can’t take care of themselves then they will move into a nursing home to be looked after. They don’t come and live with the children or for the children to look after them as they do in Thailand. It’s very rare to see the parents or elderly members of the family living with their children.

No one wants to go into a nursing home. My patients fear it; families often feel terrible guilt when the time comes: it is thought of as an abandonment. Nursing homes are where we place our bad outcomes, our frail, our no-longer-independents. They are places people go to wait safely to die. The old doubly incontinents. You might have stood up to Stalin, you might still read Tolstoy, but if you’re losing it from both the front and back and you’re not a two-year-old, you’re going to be hidden away. ― Karen Hitchcock

I also noticed that when the children reached 18 years old plus, they would move out of the family home and live by themselves. However, when I moved to Barrow, Alaska the thing that I noticed most was that the children live with and are still looked after by their parents. It doesn’t matter if they are 18 or much older, they are still looked after by their parents. Another thing that shocked me was that the parents help their children with money. In Thailand it’s the exact opposite. The majority of the children of Thai families will help their parents with money. Here, even when they all go out to restaurants to eat, it’s the parents that pay.

Finding work is not restricted by being too old for a position. If you have the experience and the knowledge then there are opportunities to easily find work regardless of whether you are older. This is not the same in Thailand. When older in Thailand, even if you have experience and knowledge for positions, the opportunities will still be minimal, especially working in an office. If members of your family get sick like your parents, spouse or children and they need looking after, then here you have the opportunity to take care of them. You are granted permission to take care of sick family members for up to 3 months without being dismissed from your employment. This is without pay of course. Employees who have just given birth are able to to take the child to work for the first year.

Age regarding dating women: Here, they don’t worry about dating an older woman. This is also not the same in Thailand. In Thailand, if you are 30 years and older then you are basically classed as being too old to date or start a family with. Here though, if you are a woman aged 40 – 50 and over then it’s still dating as normal.

Moving into spinsterville – khuuen khaan ขึ้นคาน

Once a woman has gone past the angst-ridden age of thirty and still hasn’t found a man, she is said to be khuuen khaan; that is Thai speak for ” becoming an old maid.” A khaan is a tool used to prop up a boat that needs maintenance or has retired from work. A woman still unmarried by a certain age is likened to such a boat: old, decrepit, propped on the khaan, and may or may not be used again. – Sex Talk – In Search of Love and Romance – Kaewmala

How difficult was it adjusting to life in Alaska and culture from a Thai national’s point of view? What were the most difficult things to adjust to.

It was a cold, bleak December morning in Alaska, a place so far north on planet Earth that if there were such things as popsicle people, they could live there quite comfortably.― Dew Pellucid

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, they don’t really greet anyone and don’t look that friendly, or this is what I first thought. I wondered why they didn’t ever look very cheerful and why they never greeted anyone. Eventually though, I realised that it’s just their way, it’s what they are like. I also realised in time that if you greet them beforehand, 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 a bit, 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.

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 just 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 them 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, and they like to be free 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.

Before you moved to America, did you perhaps think that the streets of America or that of foreign lands might be paved with gold? After living here for a while, how did you feel then? What are 3 things that you miss most about Thailand, and what 3 things could you now not live without if you left America?

No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American. – Anthony Bourdain

Before I came to America I imagined America as high buildings with people walking along the streets dressed up in elegant suits carrying a leather brief case and going to work. I pictured only high class and wealthy people. But the truth is that the people that have everything work extremely hard. People that have everything are a minority though. America has rural area farming where they grow crops and work all the seasons like they do in Thailand. Some people work hard but earn less and are only just able to put food on the table. Some people don’t even have a house to live in, like the beggar along the road. Even the beggar is still quite fortunate though, in that he will receive help from the government. The place where I live has many similarities with my birthplace in Thailand. In Barrow, when the snow melts in the summer, it turns the road into an absolute mud bath.

When I moved to America, I knew there were opportunities here. In America they don’t separate classes, everybody has equal rights, everybody has opportunities. Anyone who has the ability can make a successful life. Since I’ve lived  in America, I admit that my life is better, and I have had more opportunities. The comfort and convenience of the lives of my family in Thailand has also increased. However, I did not sit and wait for my husband or other people, I tried to help and rely on myself as much as possible. Americans are very supportive to those who help themselves, and that are independent and self sufficient.

The Things I miss most about Thailand

Family: My parents and family that still live in Thailand.

Proper spicy ingredients: Even though I can make adequate Thai food here, the ingredients are not spicy enough as they are in Thailand.

Atmosphere: The warm, friendly and helpful atmosphere that up country folk extend to each other.

What can I not live without in Alaska

Communication: I am very close with my family and I need to keep in regular contact with them.

Thai food: I must at least have rice with chili paste as I can’t eat butter, milk and bread every day.

Communication again: I need continued use to the internet and telephone.

After living in Alaska for quite a period of time, are there now cultural things that you find strange in Thailand when you return for a visit? In your opinion, what are the things that Alaska do that you really like.

In America, everything you need to succeed is within reach. – Jim Rohn The Treasury of Quotes

There are some changes that I see when returning to Thailand, and via my Thai friends Facebook postings. International customs are becoming increasingly popular with Thai people, and It doesn’t matter whether it’s food, holidays or entertainment. For example, hamburgers, steak, and Starbucks coffee are all over Thailand. I’m very surprised that foods like these are the type of foods that have become popular in Thailand.

Thai people now also celebrate holidays from abroad. For example, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. whichever way you turn, you will see stores, department stores with decorated Christmas trees, hotels serving Christmas lunch and social media posts promoting the Happy Christmas message. Now, they even exchange Christmas gifts… What’s that all about? I asked my friends on Facebook, what is Christmas? A lot of them don’t know, but they celebrate the trend anyway.

Another thing I’ve noticed that’s changed; is that nowadays, nearly every household in Thailand seems to have a pick up truck. On the whole, comfort and convenience has improved greatly, they now have wi-fi, internet and the latest fashionable I phone. The traffic doesn’t get any better though. The massive amount of vehicles causes endless traffic jams and the need for constant road repairs. However, the internet and wi-fi has made communication with those far away much easier.

There are many things I like about America and the way they do things. They respect the law and respect the rights of others. Everyone has the same rights, whether you’re a woman or a man, whether you are rich or poor, and regardless of whatever country you are from.

They give help in the form of Government aid.

I like other qualities such as Courage, discipline, punctuality and frankness… they say exactly what they mean.
They are very good regarding Innovation and Technology. For example, the iPhone, app, Internet, car, boat, and construction work is of a higher standard than in Thailand. It’s like they do all they can to figure out what makes their lives and life in general easier.

What sorts of things is it advisable not to do in Barrow

Whenever the children do something wrong they will avoid physical punishment. Mostly the parents speak to them and give them a warning instead.

In Barrow, there are no bars and that includes the tourist hotels. This is mainly down to the chaos that alcohol can cause when consumed in large amounts. People that drink to excess harm themselves and others. Barrow is known as a ” damp community. ” You are allowed to import a small amount of alcohol for your own private use.

When you first arrived in Alaska, how did you feel about Alaskan dishes? Which were the dishes that you liked and which were the dishes that you disliked? Were there any dishes that you felt were really strange, I mean something that you’d never really seen before?

Usually, I stick to Thai food, I’m not particularly fond of trying lots of new foods. The thing I have tried is Caribou. I can eat a bit if it’s dipped in a sauce and then fried. However, if it’s steak meat, I don’t like it. The taste is of very strong game, somewhat pungent and it smells really potent. Caribou is wildlife. They say its a cleaner meat than beef, but I’m not accustomed to the taste at all, and I can’t eat it.

The food that I struggle with the most though is Whale. People here will go Whale hunting twice a year, during the months of April and October. After the hunting they will distribute the Whale meat to their friends and neighbours. The men do the hunting and the women collect, cut and clean the meat. This is somewhat similar to Thai people in so much as the men go fishing, and the women prepare and clean the fish.

I have tried Muktuk, but only a mouthful and I couldn’t take anymore. Muktuk is skin and blubber of the Whale and usually eaten raw. I had a friend that I worked with who likes Whale meat mixed with blood. My friend offered me some, but I politely apologised and made my excuses… There’s no way I can eat that.

From what you’ve heard, know or have experienced, what are the main cultural differences that can cause problems between Thai women and Alaskan / America men

Mostly, I think it’s the customs and traditions that cause Thai women to appear quiet and orderly. Through this, Thai women can 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. Your actions already show that you do. But all of the time, foreigners want to hear you tell them that you love them. 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 if 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.

Helping the family take care of parents may be one of the problems in the relationship between Thai women and men here. Thai women have helping the family instilled in them from an early age. If Thai women have the opportunity to work, and earn a living to better themselves, then they should help the family. To take care of the parents to repay their kindness for raising and supporting us from birth. But husbands or boyfriends may not understand why we still need to help the family, because they do not really help their parents or families in that way. They mostly believe that when you have a family of your own, then they should come first.

Interpreter and translator Khun Benjawan Poomsan of Paiboon Language Academy explains a lot about cultural differences in Thai-Western relationships in her book ” The Interpreter’s Journal – Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter.” She say’s that money is probably the number one issue that starts problems within Thai-Western relationships. This is a quote from the book.

Every unhappy marriage is different, but the most common thread in Thai-Westernrelationship problems is usually related to money. Sound advice is to approach any relationship with a Thai woman with the heart and mind of an accountant. Yes, you’re madly in love, but can you afford it? Do you have sufficient income and reserves to support your loved one and the additional expenses that come with her? Don’t be delusional; this is the time to be as realistic as you can, and to understand and include her needs. Thai wives will still want to send money to their family in Thailand, year after year. An American husband may want to help out at first, but the demands never cease. A potential solution is for the Thai wife to work and contribute to the family in America and also send what’s needed to the family in Thailand. But if she is unable to work because she’s taking care of your babies, or for other reasons, the husband has to factor in the amount of money sent to Thailand. Otherwise, the wife will be frustrated and unhappy, and that could trigger arguments and even a potential divorce. If she is self-sufficient, has marketable skills, or has few family obligations, it will be a much smoother and less-expensive adventure.

Could you give me three things that in your opinion are great about living in Alaska? Could you then give me three things that are not so good about living in Alaska?

The Good

Income, Very beautiful landscape / scenery, and no need to pay income tax to the state of Alaska.

The Not So Good

The cold weather, the expensive cost of living, and the remoteness – traveling back to Thailand feels so far away.

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?

In Barrow, there isn’t anything that I can mention as of value or even suitably priced. Everything’s expensive and labour is expensive as well. – Khun Somsri Sonphimai

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

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.

One Square Mile: Barrow, Alaska 

What are your favourite places to visit in Alaska and is Alaska beautiful?

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. — John Muir

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

INTERVIEWS IN THAI – By Khun Somsri Sonphimai




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