Although I am proud and thankful to be an American now, I was born a world away in Bangkok, Thailand. —Panuwatr August Chuprajak
MIDVALE - The crowd was restless.
But its eagerness to celebrate one of life's most significant milestones and weariness from the attempts at nostalgia and inspiration that nearly always accompany a high school graduation ceremony, faded as Panuwatr August Chuprajak stood at the podium and transformed an ordinary graduation speech into a tale of gratitude, faith and triumph.
"Although I am proud and thankful to be an American now, I was born a world away in Bangkok, Thailand," he said. In a soft, unassuming voice, he recounted to his Hillcrest classmates and their families how his mother led them into their new life carrying everything they owned in a single laundry basket.
She traded luxury and wealth for a tiny, barren apartment in Murray, Utah, and somehow Puangpapa Nana Wintch would give her children a gift that can't be purchased, carried around in a basket or even displayed on the walls of the finest home imaginable.
It was a gift that helped August and his sister understand why their mother would give up wealth and privilege in their native country for long hours in a difficult job half a world away.
It helped them forgive those who made fun of them because of their ethnicity and religion.
It eased the disappointment that accompanied missed activities because their mother thought it more important for them to be together and work for what they needed.
It helped them believe their mother's promise that God would reward them for their hard work — far beyond that single laundry basket filled with blankets and clean clothes.
She gave them the gift of faith.
Change of fortune
Before she'd ever heard of Murray, Utah, Wintch enjoyed what appeared to be the perfect life. She married a wealthy, handsome man, and they had two beautiful children. From a well-respected, politically connected family herself, she'd studied abroad and landed a high-paying job for an American software company.
"I come to my highest point in my life during that time," said Wintch, who like most Thai people uses a nickname - Taew. "But things started to change not so long after (her youngest child) was born."
She watched as the man she'd built a life with chose to misuse his business and political connections.
"He misused some money, was gambling, became a playboy," said Wintch, now 46. "He got into legal trouble, debt that forced him to take out bankruptcy and then he ran away. I came to the point that I needed to get out of this...The environment wasn't good. I didn't want my children to suffer. I wanted them to have a good role model. I didn't think I could do that by myself in Thailand."
A deeply religious Muslim woman, she prayed for help.
The answer came when her boss told her that he was moving back to the United States. He suggested she take her children and move to his home state - Utah.
"He said it was a nice city, good for the kids," said Wintch, who in addition to 17-year-old August is the mother of Tanchanok "May" Chupriajak, 22.
"America was the first country I never think of living in. It wasn't on my list. But he kept saying it's a nice country, good for kids," Wintch said.
Coming to America
Both her family and her husband's family supported her decision to move to America. She was afraid, but confident that she had to take some action to protect her children from the negative influences surrounding the family.
So in 2003, she moved to the United States on a work visa, while her children came on student visas. She lived with her boss for a few months in Sandy, but the job she thought she might have fell through when the company fell on hard times.
She got a job at Thai Siam as a server and hostess and began working long hours in order to build a new life for her family.
"Working at the restaurant was the turning point of my life," said Wintch. "It was really hard. I worked long hours, and by the time I'm done it's almost midnight. That's why I like to take my children to the restaurant with me. The kids grew up in the restaurant."
She struggled not only to survive, but to keep both children in private school because that's what the student visa required. She said she sometimes second-guessed her decisions, but her dedication to prayer eased those doubts.
August, the new grad, and May, who earned a bachelor's degree from Westminster and is currently working on a Master's degree at South Dakota State University, said watching their mother inspired them.
"We didn't complain about being in the restaurant," said May, who began working there at 13. "We didn't feel bad. We were just grateful. We knew it was more important to work and know that we'd be able to survive."
The new life
August said he remembers very little of his life in Thailand, but he remembers how the family lived.
"I had every (material) thing back in Thailand," he said. "All the kids in the neighborhood wanted to play at my house because I had all the latest, newest toys."
In America the children bussed tables, talked with customers and learned that some of the best in life can't be bought. The children never criticized their mother's decision to leave their home country.
"It was a decision we made together," said May, who will return to Thailand in July for a few months.
As the years rolled on Wintch said she felt bad at times that her children had to spend time working when other children were playing.
"I kept asking myself, 'What am I doing here? I have a family. I could live with them,'" she said of the country she left behind. "But this is my new life. I have to make it work," she said, her eyes glancing at her son.
"We value every dollar," said August, who said he only attended two dances at Hillcrest High because of cost. "We never waste our money on anything. I rarely ask my mom for anything. I see she worked hard for her money, so I think I should work hard for my own."
August had a gift with computers and secured an internship through a school program with a local computer company. He was hired after the internship finished, and he also helped support himself by creating websites for Thai Restaurants.
While May graduated from Mt. Vernon, August was able to transfer to Hillcrest as a sophomore because his mother remarried, allowing for a move to public school.
"My lovely husband, Kenneth Wintch, he made our family complete," she said. He became a help and partner to Wintch and the father August longed to have. They went hiking, camping, hunting - all of the "guy things" that August missed out on because he grew up working with his mom.
For Wintch, life was again moving toward "perfect."
And then August made a decision that his mother tried to dissuade him from making all of his life. He joined the Army National Guard because, he said, he'd always wanted to be a soldier.
His life experience instilled in him a desire to give back and he hoped the National Guard's aid to people and places in crisis and the ability to protect America during times of war would help him fulfill that need.
"I scolded him," said his mother, who is still trying to make peace with the decision that will take her son from her home on July 2 - a month before he turns 18.
"I told him I wouldn't leave him anything. He said May could have it all. I told him, 'What if you die?' He said. "Well, God already set the path for everybody. If I die, I would have died anyway, no matter where it is."
He will be the first in his extended family to serve in the military. It was a part of his familys story that he shared at the graduation ceremony.
"I have learned that our world becomes a better place, one person at a time," he told the graduation audience, of his decision to serve.
August said he's only doubted his decision once and that was during his first round of training. People were yelling at him, challenging him.
"I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" he said grinning. "Why am I doing this? Why don't I get a normal job? But then I realized the reason I am doing it - for my friends, family and the country. And bonding with all of the other soldiers got me through it."
He said his superiors in the military have been respectful of his religion, even asking if he needs to take time to pray, which he does five times a day.
"I was surprised that being a Muslim is not different," August's mom said.
August said he is respected, even valued for his uniqueness.
"They've even asked me questions about our beliefs," he said. "They look after me really well."
He said he looks forward to shattering negative stereotypes about Muslims. Some folks are disrespectful and offer their own brand of torment. But others are polite. He said he's gone from having teens yell Arabic words at him, suggest he's a suicide bomber, to having an older gentleman pay for his lunch because he was in uniform.
"It makes me happy to know that people appreciate what I do," he said.
And his mother is proud of the man he's become, even as she continues to worry for his safety.
"I feel so proud and kind of worried," she said, a few days removed from the graduation speech. "At least my son is giving something back to this world."
And on a cool, June evening last week, he gave his classmates a lesson on gratitude and grace, a speech that earned him recognition from Canyons School District Supt. David Doty, who called him back to the front of the stage following his speech.
"He's an amazing young man, by all accounts, and I couldn't help but take a minute to publicly thank him for sharing his story at such an important event for him and his classmates," Doty said.
"Our lives changed dramatically," August had told the crowd, many crying openly.
"We had lived in a mansion; now we found ourselves in a small apartment. Before we took our money, gold and luxurious belongings for granted; now we were thankful to have blankets and a laundry basket.
"Over the next few years, we went through adversity together. What kept us going was our strong religious faith that through doing good and choosing the right over ease and corruption, we would one day be rewarded."
As a first generation immigrant to the United States, I have personally seen some people work hard to achieve their dreams while others have allowed their dreams to fade. My mother chose to dream, and to teach us to follow her example of working hard to achieve worthwhile accomplishments."