Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Catholic entrepreneur in the land of Buddhists

No, Thai people do not dress like this. Not now, not ever. This is a traditional Vietnamese outfit. Why is Anna wearing Vietnamese clothing? To honor my dad, Thanom Prasomphol. I will explain.

My dad and mom's families walked from Vietnam to Thailand in the 1890s to escape religious persecution. At that time there were only 20,000 Catholics in all of Thailand but the Royal government had treated them well since before the time of King Mongkut when their population began to grow due to refugees from neighboring countries. Thai Buddhists are very tolerant, even of Western religions, and Catholic missionaries had been treated respectfully since the first Portuguese missionary, Antonio de Paiva, came ashore in 1544.

Thanom Prasomphol was born on Christmas Eve, 1912, the son of Vietnamese refugees. Our family history suggests he was born in Thailand, but my dad always told me he wasn't sure where he was born.

Every little girl thinks her dad is a very important person but as I grew older I came to realize that my dad really was an important man, and not just in our province. He owned the first indoor market in Chanthaburi, or what we would call a shopping mall today. He owned a slaughterhouse, a movie theater and had real estate investments throughout the region. Our farm was mostly land inherited from my mother's family, but all of my father's businesses were ones he had started himself.

Oh Anna, you are thinking, you must be rich! Not at all! I was the second youngest of twelve children. It is also important to remember that in Thailand employers still take care of their employees. Western style capitalism is more common in Thailand now, but my father, Thanom Prasomphol, was "old skool." Family came first but employees also had to be well taken care of.

My dad was truly larger than life. He wore his hair normally but most Thai people who still remember my dad remember him as the Don King of Muay Thai boxing!

Some people are surprised to learn that as a Public Health Nurse I visit my clients in their homes — no matter how run down or "crime-ridden" the neighborhood. Oh Anna, they say, you are so small and [fill in the blank] neighborhood is very dangerous!

People are so funny. Ever since I was eight years old I would go to the Muay Thai boxing matches which were traditionally attended by men only. I would help my mom with the food concession, selling Pad Thai, curry, beef jerky, and mangoes and sweet sticky rice to the boxing fans. Our customers were sometimes drunk, often loud, and...well, they acted like men out on the town without their wives!

But they respected Thanom Prasomphol and they treated my mom and me with respect. Still, little Anna learned many new words from Muay Thai fans!

My dad died at age 80 on Christmas Eve, his birthday. I was in America and had to say goodbye to him over the phone. I called to wish him a happy birthday in the morning and he died that evening. My mom held the phone for him. He could not speak but my mom told me he was smiling as he listened. My mom believed that my dad had wanted to hear my voice again before he passed away.

The Vietnamese costume I'm wearing in this picture is just like the one I wore for my dad in third grade when I won second place in a school wide costume competition. Today I wear it in honor of my father, Thanom Prasomphol. I cannot call him in heaven, but I think they get the Internet there.

Happy Father's Day, dad.