Interview with Grandma Siripon Schunk (ยาย)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, my maternal grandma, Siripon Schunk, visited this summer.  She and I had a delightful time as travelling companions visiting neat places throughout the state.  She lives in Nevada, and I hadn't seen her since she last visited when I was 16.  So, we had a bit of catching up to do.
I call her Yai (ยาย), which is the Thai version of Grandma.  My late grandfather, Raymond Garrison, was a merchant marine and construction worker.  Shortly before she left in late August, I asked Yai if she'd be willing to do a quick interview to share about her very interesting life with my readers.

Bethany Carson: Can you tell a little about yourself?
Siripon Schunk: My name is Siripon. I was born in Thailand. My hometown is really small, and my father and mother had a rice farm. They grew rice and sugar cane. We worked on the farm a lot when I was small. It took about a day and a half to walk the 50 miles to the farm on the trail from my hometown, Pa Sang [in Lamphun Province, Thailand] . We didn't have a car. We walked past a couple towns and in the forest on a bicycle trail for about 10 hours altogether.

BC: Did you live on the farm or in town?
SS: We lived in town, but we had a little cabin on the farm to live in when we went to work there. My mom had oxen to carry sugar cane and rice. We made charcoal to sell too.  We used the oxen a lot.

BC: How did you make the charcoal?
SS: They made a dome like a pyramid, with a little window on the top and a little door. They piled wood up inside, and when enough wood was added, they lit it and covered the dome with mud. It looked like a big hornet's nest. We'd check it after a couple days, put water in there, and get the charcoal.

BC: Oh wow.
SS: We used really good wood, and my dad was really smart.
BC: What is the biggest difference between life in Thailand and in the United States?
SS: Oh, it's a different life. I lived in Thailand when I was small, a little child. I enjoyed my life, but when I was a child I didn't have a car. I didn't have anything. I just walked a lot.

BC: Did you have electricity?
SS: When I grew up and was about 15 or 16, they started to have electricity. Before that, we used lanterns; and to cook, we used charcoal in a stove outside the house.

BC: What did you like best about Thailand?
SS: I miss my friends. I went to the temple, and I liked to travel a lot, hiking a lot. I have good friends there, and good family. They're important.

BC: What do you think is the most beautiful part of Thailand?
SS: I was born in the north of Thailand, so I think Northern Thailand is the most beautiful. I went to the temple in Chaing Mai [province]. We had to walk about 240 steps to get up there. They have a big temple, and they have Buddha, and a lot of people go up there. There's a market there, and it's really nice. I liked to go to the market; they have a lot of products.
 Steps to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep - Source
BC: What do they sell in the market?
SS: Knickknacks, souvenirs, things like that. I went to that temple a lot, because it was close to my mom's house. About 25 miles from us was another temple with Buddha's footprint. I like to go there too. A lot of people go there. I have fun. I've never grown up.

BC: Are the temples more of a tourist attraction or a place to worship?
SS: Worship and tour. A lot of tourists go there—a lot of Americans and Europeans.

BC: Can you tell us more about life on the farm? How did you grow the rice and sugar cane, and what other crops did you have?
SS: When we grew rice, we'd sow the rice seeds on the water. They'd grow up; we'd pull the seedlings out. After that we plowed the land, and transplanted the seedlings. Then we let the water in, and let them grow for 3-6 months. When the crop was ready, we'd harvest by hand. We did everything by hand. We had no electricity or tractors like we have over here.

For sugar cane, we planted by putting the sticks in the ground, cut in a certain way. The roots and canes would grow. Then when they were ready, we'd cut them by hand with a knife.

BC: Was the sugar cane or rice harder?
SS: Sugar cane was harder because it has sharp leaves, so it can cut your arm. You can wear gloves and long sleeves, and the leaves will still cut through. When we grew rice, it was in water all the time—muddy. After harvest when the water was gone it was a good thing.
Rice plantation southwest of Chaing Mai - Source
BC: What else did you grow?
SS: I went to school in town, and there my sister grew peanuts and made peanut butter. We'd pull out the plants by hand. It was a very beautiful crop, and really healthy. After that, they planted red peppers. My sister sold that land, and bought other land south of the farm. There we grew lamyai. It's a really sweet fruit about the size of a marble with black seeds. It's really good; people like it.

Thailand is warm all year long, and my friends grew onions, garlic, and mustard. In Thailand they grow durian, mongkut, lamut, mangoes, and cantaloupe. Everything we have in America, they have had over there for a long time. The king that supported the people gave them seeds.

BC: What king was that?
SS: The king of Thailand [King Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX]—the Thai mountain people used to grow opium. That wasn't good for the country.  So the king sent workers up the mountain to give the people seeds, so they'd plant other crops and get the opium out of Thailand.

BC: Do you remember World War II at all?
SS: No, I was still a little child, so I don't really remember. Usually they used knives like swords--and guns. It wasn't like now. Now is different.

BC: Can you tell us about your move to Chaing Mai when you were 15?
SS: I went to Chaing Mai to stay with my sister. Her husband was a teacher and professor at the high school. I went to take care of my nephew. So when I was 15 years old, I took care of the household for her because she was never home. She worked. Life was hard in Chaing Mai, and there were bad people. I liked the farm better; it was a good life.
 BC: How old where you when you decided to go to beauty school in Bangkok, and why did you decide to go to beauty school?
SS: After my sister got divorced she moved to Bangkok. She was a tailor—made clothes. So, at about 20 or 21, I went there and attended beauty school for two years. There were very nice people. My teacher was really smart, and I had an English teacher too. I still have my diploma.

BC: What did you do after you graduated from beauty school?
SS: After my graduation, I went back to Chaing Mai; and I worked at a beauty shop. I worked at different ones because I didn't really like them; they didn't pay very well. But everyone has to start somewhere.

BC: Then you married Grandpa?
SS: Yes, I met Grandpa because my sister introduced me. We visited with each other for about two months, and then got married in Chaing Mai. We stayed there for six months. We moved to Ubon, and I had Aunt Patty there. Two years later I had Betty, your mom. And then I had Jimmy. Your grandpa worked at the airfield and made shelters for bombs and military equipment. We lived in Nakhon Phanom for five years.

BC: What was Nakhon Phanom like?
SS: In Nakhon Phanom we stayed close to the river, and they had the American base there. They moved your grandpa there. OICC [Overseas International Construction Company—which grandpa worked for] was a big company, and if they sent you somewhere, you had to go. Nakhon Phanom was a really small town. There were a lot of military men there.
Mekong River in Nakhon Phenom Province - Source
We came to America because Grandpa said we had to go because the military moved out of Thailand because of the Vietnam War. The war was going on in Laos. I heard some shooting, and thought it was a celebration. But they were shooting and killing on the other side of the river. So I took your mom and her siblings back to Bangkok. Then I came home to stay with Grandpa. 

It was kind of bad that time. We had built a 3000 square-foot home in Nakhon Phanom, but we lost it when we came here. It was a big house, and there were coconuts and mangoes growing around it. It was really nice. I loved that house, but we could not keep it. If I lived here in the United States for 10 years, the Thai government would take the house away. So I transferred it to my sister. But my sister said she couldn't go back and forth to take care of the house anymore, so she sold it.

BC: What was it like when you first moved to the United States, and what was the most challenging part of your move?
SS: We flew in to San Francisco. We left the airport, and I don't remember the day very well. There were so many people; I was kind of scared. “What am I doing here?” I thought. We came to a snow bank. Your mom had never seen snow before. It was freezing. We moved to Nevada.  It was winter and there were no trees or anything. “What am I going to do? I don't have anything here.” I was scared and thought, “This isn't for me. I want to go home.” But I was just thinking about myself, so I turned around and decided I was going to stay. We moved to an apartment, and I started to work and meet people. Life changes. You can't go back and forth. Then we bought the house; there was a lot of brush and trees. 

BC: So was the hardest part missing your family?
SS: Yes, I was homesick a lot. It was hard going to work with new people and a new language. For five years, I didn't talk English. I just listened and said “Yes” and “No.”  I ended up meeting friends there; they were funny.
BC: What do you like best about the United States?
SS: My family here. There are nice people, and when we go places people are very friendly.

BC: How did you decide to become a Christian?
SS: When I lived in Thailand, I always spent time with Christian people. One friend asked me, “When you go to the United States, do you want your children to be Buddhists or Christians?” I said, “I don't make my kids believe what they believe; they can choose what they want.” Later, I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a Christian, because at that time I was a Buddhist. Over ten years ago, I decided I wanted to be a Christian because I have a lot of friends who are Christians. And it's better that way.

BC: Why?
SS: Because I read the Bible and saw what happened and what the people said, and I learned. You know, you have to learn somewhere before you decide what you're going to be and what you're going to believe. You can't just decide, “Oh, I'm going to be Christian,” and just jump in; it doesn't work that way. I wasn't raised as a Christian; I was raised with Buddhism. But I love it though; it's a happy life. 

BC: Do you have a favorite song?
SS: I don't really listen to music a lot, but I like everything except rap, hard rock, and things like that. I like country songs and gospel. I like jazz a lot and Thai traditional music.
BC: What advice would you give on life?
SS: Be yourself. Focus. Don't jump into things you don't like. You have to make a lot of decisions. Open your eyes; look up. Be careful, and be yourself in what you think and what you do. Don't listen to people who say, “Oh, you have to do this; do that.” No. It's not worth it. You have to love yourself before you can love other people. 

BC: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
SS: Yes, I've been here for 40 years. Life has changed. But I love to meet people. I kind of flirt a little bit. I like to talk with people a lot and make them comfortable. I like to help people when they get sad. I help them when they need something; some people don't have anything. 

So, that's me. I love all my family; they're my favorites. This house is special, really peaceful. And Aunt Patty and Uncle Jimmy are both really good. I love them so much.

BC: What's your favorite recipe?
SS: I make Thai food a lot. American food is not really my favorite; it's too fattening. I like Mexican a little bit and Chinese a little bit. But my favorite is what I cook for you all the time, you know. 
BC: Yes, it's really good.  [Check out one of Yai's recipes--for Basil Chicken--here.]

SS: My grandchildren are good. And I'm happy right now. I don't know what my future holds, so we'll see what happens. I love you. BC: I love you too. Thanks for the interview.
There are few people as nice as Yai in this world.  Right now, she's somewhere in Thailand with family there.  And I'm still missing her.  She was a really fun person to take road trips with this summer.

As for me, next time anyone asks about my family history, for a change I might try telling them about rice paddies, sugar cane fields, oxen, and a town called Pa Sang in Lamphun Province.  


  1. Bethany, what a lovely post! Your grandmother is a beautiful lady, and I enjoyed reading about her...her thoughts, her beliefs, her life. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I so enjoyed reading about your grandmother. She sounds like quite a woman and you must be proud to be her granddaughter. : )

    1. She's a wonderful woman, and I am blessed to have her as my grandma.

  3. Bethany, Very nice interview with your grandmother. Sounds like her move to USA was challenging and thanks to her inner strength all has turned out well. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yep. It's hard to imagine what it would be like going five years without saying anything more than yes and no at work in a new country because of uncertainty about language skills! But I'm really glad she was brave enough to leave her family and country in Thailand to come with my grandpa and bring my mother, uncle, and aunt to the U.S.

    2. Thanks for the reply and you are right on! In the event I don't see you again before Sunday, let me take this opportunity to wish you and the entire Carson family a wonderful Christmas. Blessings of the season to you!

    3. Thank you! I hope you are enjoying a wonderful holiday season as well.

  4. Oh boy, I enjoyed reading this. And her advice to me, is spot on. Very cool. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  5. interesting post and very informative

  6. What a wonderful, wonderful interview. I read every word! What an amazing woman and what an interesting life she has led. You have a wonderful grandmother-what a blessing it is to have a female role model that is so positive and uplifting. Happy Christmas season- xo Diana

  7. Your grandmother is so beautiful! She has had such an interesting life. Thanks for interviewing her and sharing her story.

  8. What a wonderful post/interview! Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I really enjoyed learning about your grandmother. I think it's wonderful that you are asking questions and learning about your family history! And I hope you get to visit Thailand one day. There is something so amazing about walking through your ancestral land.

    1. Family history is fascinating to me. Glad you enjoyed the interview. :)

  9. Oh, Bethany! She sounds like such a dear, sweet lady! Someone anyone would be blessed to know. You are abundantly blessed to have her for a grandma. I'm sure you do miss her terribly and hope the Lord will allow her to come back to see you soon. The picture of you and her together is very both look so happy together. God bless you with a Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks Cheryl. She is a wonderful lady. I am sure she is glad, however, to be in Thailand rather than Iowa at this time of year! :D It's pretty chilly here.

  10. bethany! this was just so sweet.
    what a lovely grandma you have! i wish i knew this much about my inspired me to dig deeper in my family roots!
    be blessed! <3

    1. Enjoy your journey, Ashley! I love family history. Blessings to you as well.

  11. I had been wondering about your grandmother's history from your posts with her in the summer, so this has been a wonderful interview and I enjoyed learning about her early life and work. She is a beautiful person and you can tell she has a great sense of fun!
    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

    1. Thanks Christine! My grandma is pretty awesome, imo. Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  12. Oh Bethany,
    happy to read your lovely post.
    Your grandmother is an unusual and very beautiful woman.
    Bethany, you too are a unique girl, a beautiful ...
    Kisses and greetings.

  13. This was a really neat interview with your grandmother! She was so gracious to share with us. :) I enjoy learning about different countries and cultures. My own grandmother was born and raised in Mexico, so you and I have something in common!

    1. It's fun to have a diverse cultural heritage no one can guess! :) Maybe you could do a piece on your grandma sometime.

  14. What an interesting interview. Your grandmother is an amazing woman. Maybe next time you can accompany her to Thailand...

    1. She suggested I go with her next time. We'll see. Thailand is so far away...

  15. Oh my goodness what an amazing woman! This was fascinating. You must be proud - and I know she must be as well :)

    Have a Merry Christmas :)

  16. Hello Bethany!

    Faith makes all things possible,
    Hope makes all things work,
    Love makes all things beautiful,
    May you have all the three for this Christmas.

    1. Thanks. Hope you are enjoying a wonderful holiday season, Lucja!

  17. Wow, such a cool interview! Thanks for sharing!

  18. Thank you for letting us in on your family's history. I really enjoyed reading this!

  19. Wow...what a fascinating woman. It's important we hear these stories from older generations and pass them on. This is how we preserve history!

  20. A very good interview and your grandma looks strong and healthy. The pictures from Thailand are very nice. It seems to be a nice country with beautiful landscapes.

    1. From what I've heard about Thailand, it does sound like a neat place.