Friday, August 19, 2011

The Thais of Texas

I am happy to report that Abhisit and his ilk have not destroyed the good perception that Americans have of Thais. I only need to take you on a trip in the state I live in, Texas, to illustrate this. I’ll start in Denton, just north of Dallas.

Earlier this week, on August 15th, it was reported that Thai businessman and University of North Texas (UNT) alumnus, Charn Uswachoke, will donate $22 million to the school to help boost its prominence in business, music and engineering.

Charn Uswachoke
Uswachoke received his master’s degree in business administration from the Denton, Texas university in 1973 and later became a leader in the development of Thailand’s semiconductor industry. 

In 1995, he donated gifts of $1 million and $1.2 million. Those gifts were earmarked for music, business and international programs.

Uswachoke also made headlines in 1994 when he purchased 500 UNT football season tickets for $10,000 and donated them to various local groups. At the time UNT was seeking to move up to Division I-A in football and needed to sell an average of 17,000 tickets per home game to qualify.

I owe a lot to UNT and to Denton,” Uswachoke said. “Denton is my second home.”

Denton and UNT owes a lot of gratitude to Mr. Uswachoke.

Now let’s travel 180 miles south down I35/I45 to Huntsville, Texas – the home of Sam Houston State University (SHSU).

In the 1970’s, Thaksin Shinawatra became the first foreign student to enter the criminal justice doctoral program at SHSU. While going to school in Huntsville, Mr. Shinawatra, his wife, Potjaman, and their three children immersed themselves in the Texas culture. She held a job and he worked at a Burger King and got up every morning at 3 a.m. for a Houston Chronicle newspaper route.

He made a lasting impression on his professors, including the head of the department, Dr. Beto.

"Dr. Beto, who had a part in admitting Thaksin and others into the (doctoral) program, said anybody who comes from the land of Thaksin is good enough for him," said Rolando Del Carmen, an SHSU professor who taught Mr. Shinawatra in the 1970s. "So, he opened the door for international students in the (doctoral) program, and it remains that way today."

Thaksin has maintained his ties with SHSU. In 1996 he received the Outstanding Criminal Justice Alumnus Award and Distinguished Alumni Award from SHSU. In 2002, he returned to SHSU to receive the Sam Houston Humanitarian Award based upon his notable contributions to humanity and responsible and distinguished leadership and service.

Thaksin Shinawatra Receiving Sam Houston Humanitarian Award

Throughout the years, he has been honored with many awards, however he said this one holds a special place in his heart.

"I have received many awards during my life, and I would not normally care, but this one is special to me because it comes from my university -- a place that I am proud to say I was a student at," Thaksin said. "I gained a lot of knowledge from Sam Houston and started my family life here, so it is special to me."

But Thais don’t have to be rich or famous to cast a positive image of their nationality. Travel south on I45 for about 79 miles.

If it seems like you can't throw a rock without hitting a Thai restaurant in Houston these days, you can thank Darawan Charoenrat. Charoenrat, the patriarch of the family that's quietly run Kanomwan in the East End for decades, was a pioneer in bringing Thai food and flavors to Houston before passing away in June 2010.

Kanomwan Thai Restaurant - Houston, Texas
Even as the restaurant grew in size and reputation, Charoenrat and his wife ran most of the operation: He taking orders and running the register, she cooking the food. Unlike others who dumbed down Thai cuisine to suit our American palates, Kanomwan stayed true to authentic original recipes.

The furious pace kept Charoenrat famously gruff — customers referred to him lovingly as the Thai Nazi (a play on Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi") — but he was known to soften, even smile, with prompt orderers or especially if asked about his family.

Though Charoenrat was often brusque, barking, "It's not time for you to order yet!" or "You should order this!" he came off more like a difficult grandparent than a heartless dictator. Diners willing to go along with his, shall we say, suggestions, found his bossiness to be part of the restaurant's charm, and tales of the "Thai Nazi" encouraged others to go and see him for themselves.

But those who got to know Charoenrat were able to pierce through his gruff exterior and discover his soft spots for teachers (he was one himself back in Thailand) and families with kids. In fact, when the news of Charoenrat's death broke, many of his regular customers thought immediately of his grandson. At dinner service, the Thai Nazi was often joined at the register by his young grandson, who apprenticed for him, ringing up bills, making change and offering customers a piece of Juicy Fruit gum on their way out the door.

Gracious, honorable, hard working, kind and generous are the true traits associated with Thai people. The scary thing is that there are those who are trying to redefine who a Thai really is.

Dr. Tul Sitthisomwong was once quotedthat, speaking as a doctor, love for the country and the king was embedded only in Thais’ DNA, not that of other peoples. It was a pity that many Thais had mutated and did not have the love for the king in their DNA and should not be called Thai.” Tul is the leader of the multicolor shirts, an antidemocratic mob in Thailand. You may remember that it was the multicolor shirts who was demanding that the military forcibly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Bangkok last year.

And you may also remember that General Prayuth Chan-ocha more than happily accommodated Tul and his mob of misanthropes. Prayuth was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article, "If you are skeptical of the monarchy, you cannot be considered a Thai person." It’s not surprising that Prayuth and Tul are trying to set a warped definition of what constitutes being a Thai. They must realize that they are the ones who can never measure up. And they never will. 
Who are the real Thai Nazis?

Tul and Prayuth

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