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My ‘culture shock’ years in Thailand

Retired professor moved with her family to Bangkok when she was 19.

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Jan taking an elephant ride in Thailand. Contributed photo

Jan (Pohlmann) Adams, a retired professor who now lives in Mankato, has fond memories of the time between June 1966 and January 1968. During this time, she and her family lived in Thailand.

Jan had just completed her first year at the University of Maryland when her father, Ed, came home with big news. He announced that his job as a civil engineer working for Voice of America had offered his family an opportunity to live in Thailand. “Talk about culture shock,” Adams said. “I was 19 and had (already) lived in Illinois, North Carolina, and Maryland. My mother, Hazel, was a full-time homemaker. When we moved to the city of Bangkok, we had a cook, a house cleaner, and a house boy who filled in. In the weekend market in Bangkok, they had everything from bushel baskets of roasted cockroaches to sterling silver coffee pots, to any kind of clothing you might want. There was only one department store--the only store in Bangkok that had an escalator and air conditioning.”

On a return trip 20 years later, when Adams went to a store to buy underwear, her shopping intentions were loudly announced by a clerk: “Madam needs underpants--extra large,” Adams commented. “The Thais had become somewhat Americanized.”

Ed’s work included finding places to build radio transmitters and receiver sites so that Voice of America transmissions could be sent into Laos, Cambodia, and all of Vietnam. His job offered an opportunity for his family to experience the Thai culture first-hand, a move they made in 1966, six months after he began working in Thailand. Adams recalled the family’s reactions to the announcement of their upcoming move. “I will always remember the day Daddy came home and talked about our family moving to Thailand,” she said. “I had always wanted to travel. My mother cried, while I began packing my bags. My brother did not have much of a reaction.”

Adams’ enthusiasm for travel grew as the family took advantage of living in Thailand by visiting other countries, including Singapore, Kuala Lumpour, and Penang. She said, “We experienced these cultures. Each area has its own music and its own costumes when they entertain. We couldn’t drink water out of the tap, and we had to make sure a bottle of water was opened right in front of us. We had no ice because it was made from tap water. Eating different foods was an experience--such as being served a baby bird with the head and feathers still on it.”

The family had an advantage in learning how to interact with the people of Thailand because three Thai secretaries worked for Ed. “They became our family, introducing us to food, attractions, and culture,” she said. “Usually Americans gravitated to other Americans, but Daddy didn’t do that. It was nice to have friends who were Thai but who understood Americans.

“There are certain things you don’t do in Thailand. You don’t cross your legs so that your toe points at someone, because that’s cursing the other person. You don’t point and you don’t gesture. One of the most important things is you don’t touch people’s faces or heads because that’s where their spirits live.”

Another aspect of the society that Adams learned was that there was a sector of people in Thailand that were looked down upon (and still are, she said)-- the hill tribes of northern Thailand.

“They weren’t considered Thai citizens. They were considered immigrants and had to go to school in the evening so they wouldn’t contaminate the Thai students. Some of the young women were sold by their fathers into prostitution,” she said.

There was hope, however, for these girls and young women. It was provided by the Swedish Lutheran Church, which founded a mission in northern Thailand. The purpose of the New Life Center was, and continues to be, to provide girls and women a place to stay for up to eight years and to learn a skill, such as sewing clothing and making handicrafts such as baskets.

One of the fun experiences Adams had took place at a small amusement park called TIMland, which stands for Thailand in Miniature. There, she said, “I loved going on elephant rides. I went there with a girlfriend, one of whom I met socially while dating a U.S. Marine stationed in Thailand. We were told that if the elephant reared up, we were supposed to hold on.

“I’m happy we were there as a family in 1967,” she said. “The American community wasn’t that big. A group of Lutherans from the United States were instrumental in starting the first Lutheran Church in Thailand. They rented space in Bangkok in a Seventh-Day Adventist school because the building was not needed by the Seventh Day Adventists on a Sunday.” (The denomination holds religious services on Saturday which is the seventh day of the week.)

After returning to the United States in 1968, Adams continued her formal education by earning two degrees in business education--a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Maryland, and a Master of Science degree from the University of Georgia. In 1985, she earned a doctoral degree in education. She taught business classes in Georgia and at Minnesota State University in Mankato before retiring.

When Adams returned to Thailand in the year 2000 for a nine-month teaching sabbatical, she had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends. “We met at a restaurant--the three of us--and it was just as if we’d never been apart,” she said. “We talked about our families and what I was going to be doing on the sabbatical.” (She taught seminars in a private school on how to teach the English language.)

Adams no longer hears from her friends in Thailand because, she said, “I’m not a good letter writer. But if they are still alive, we could just move back into our relationship.”

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