From Thailand to the U.S.WORTHINGTON — The plan for Smitty Ektnitphong was to obtain his tertiary education in the U.S. and return to Thailand to help with his father’s business.
WORTHINGTON — The plan for Smitty Ektnitphong was to obtain his tertiary education in the U.S. and return to Thailand to help with his father’s business.
“That was the plan but it didn’t work out that way,” said Smitty Ektnitphong on a sunny Monday morning from his home.
Growing in up in Bangkok — the capital city of Thailand — Ektnitphong arrived in Texas in 1981 for his last two years of high school and to proceed to college.
Having spent his earlier years of schooling in an all-boys Catholic school in Thailand, where English was widely spoken, grasping the English language was not too challenging
“Of course I was afraid at first because you have to be able to communicate with new friends and teachers. I knew some English but people spoke so fast,” he said, adding he spent some time taking ESL classes.
“I’m fortunate to have met people where they just like you for who you are,” said Ektnitphong, who is of Chinese descent. “I never had any confrontation or dispute about who I am or where I’m from.”
Chinese people make up about 14 percent of Thailand’s population. Ektnitphong added because his parents spoke Thai at home, the language was passed on to his generation.
Armed with a high school diploma, a passion for soccer and a “youngster’s ego”, Ektnitphong said he turned down an offer he received to play soccer for a local college in Texas.
“I wanted to play for a big school and to get recognized,” he said. “When I look back I could have gone to that school and perhaps transferred. I only did a few classes at a community college.”
After marrying his Laotian wife. Annie, Ektnitphong had to take any job that came his way, especially when Annie became pregnant with their first child, Vicky.
“I didn’t know if I could start a family if I stayed in Texas,” he said. “I had to get away from my life without responsibility and without much money saved up.”
The couple left the Lone Star State for Columbus, Ohio, where Ektnitphong had family. He worked at a Chinese-Thai restaurant, where he spent long hours each week. Six years later, a call from his brother informed him of a restaurant business for sale in Worthington.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave my job because it was fine at that time and I had never been to Minnesota,” he said. “After talking to my wife and brother, I decided to take the chance because how often are you going to own your own place?”
As the first Chinese-Thai restaurant in town, business was brisk. Between juggling his time cooking for his restaurant and coaching the high school boys’ soccer team, he had little time to spare for his family.
“I closed the restaurant and ever since then I’ve been working for Cenex,” Ektnitphong said, explaining it was easier to have a day job there and have time in the evening to coach soccer and spend quality time with his family.
Ektnitphong described being a soccer coach as a calling of what he was meant to do.
“A lot of the kids were from South America. They were already a having hard time adjusting to school because of the language barrier and maybe learning how to accept new rules and guidelines. That year we won zero games, lost 14 and tied one,” he said. “We had so much individual skills but no teamwork. As time went by, I was able to work and implement discipline with them. We won seven games the next year. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen and I try to apply that to my own kids too.”
After spending almost 30 years in the country, Ektnitphong said he has already integrated and adapted to the culture here.
“With Annie, almost 60 percent of the time we speak English,” he said. “When I came to this country, my dad wanted me to live with an American family — to learn the American culture and speak English.”
Although his three children Vicky, Nicole and Troy speak limited Thai, Ektnitphong said he has instilled a few Thai traditions since their childhood.
“Where I come from, you just don’t disrespect the elderly. Period,” he said.
Along with respect for the elders, Thais hold utmost respect to their royal family.
Ektnitphong is no different. He held up a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit and pointed to it, saying, “For me, still, my king and queen is above everything else. We talked about them in school. Our mom and dad talked about it too so I think it’s just in our blood.”
King Bhumibol is the world’s longest reigning current monarch.
At Ektnitphong’s home, he explained how Christmas is a special time for his family to get together. A few festivals he misses are the Chinese New Year and the Thai New Year, or Songkran.
Songkran — also known as the Water Festival — is celebrated in April where the splashing of water symbolizes luck and prosperity.
“We call home during the Thai New Year when everyone is splashing water and that’s when I wish I was there,” he said. “But America is a place that gives you good opportunity to become whoever you want as long you’re willing to adapt.”