Chompoo’s Immigration Story – Bangkok, Thailand to Anchorage, Alaska

Family History

Chompoo’s grandparents arrived in Thailand as refugees from China in the early 1930s. The story Chompoo grew up hearing is that they came with “one pillow and one mat.” Her grandparents arrived in the north of Thailand, worked in agriculture, and that is where Chompoo’s mother was born – the youngest in a family of four children and the only one born in Thailand. When WWII started, the family moved to Thailand’s capital city, Bangkok. 

Chompoo’s mother was working at a hair salon in Bangkok when her father spotted her. He started regularly visiting to get his haircut. When Chompoo’s mother opened her first restaurant, Chompoo’s father started eating there. He was persistent. Shortly after that, he asked Chompoo’s mom to marry him. 

Above: Chompoo’s father working at the Ford Motor Company plant in Thailand


Chompoo was born with the name Nuanta. Chompoo, her nickname, actually means rose apple (a fruit common in Southeast Asia) and it’s the name she goes by in the US. In Thailand, her father worked as a mechanic for Ford Motors, and after work, he would help her mother with the restaurant. Chompoo says they “worked hard and were fighters” but neither of them had much education.

“My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but the treasure that they gave to their children is education. That is something you can have until you die.” (audio below)

A significant event in Chompoo’s early memories was when her father became a Buddhist monk. She was seven years old, and Chompoo remembers helping shave his head as part of the ceremony [see the photo below].  Despite being exciting, this meant that her father would be away from the family for three months and Chompoo couldn’t touch him since women are not supposed to touch monks.


Her mother started two restaurants – one fast food and one fine dining called “Guarantee” – which started small and grew to almost forty employees. They served recipes passed down by their ancestors. Chompoo and all of her siblings learned to cook from their mother. 

Above: “We have her in our memories. My mom is my role model.”

After high school, Chompoo did a bachelor’s degree in accounting, taking classes at night or in the morning. During the day, she would help her parents run the restaurant. When their parents’ health declined, Chompoo and her brothers decided to get out of the restaurant business. Together they created an import/export business. 

Growing up, Chompoo never thought about moving to the United States. 

“The USA was too far from me. It is the other side of the world. In Thailand, when we were young, we used to joke about drilling tunnels through the globe we would end up in California. I never thought about coming to visit America. I knew Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, and cartoons.” (audio below)


Chompoo had no idea how much her life was about to change.

Rob moved from California to Alaska in the early 1970s when he was 19. He married, had a family, got divorced, and eventually ended up a content bachelor. One day in 2004, while out shoveling his Anchorage driveway, he got talking to his neighbor, who was from Thailand. She told Rob that she knew someone she would like him to meet. The neighbor passed along Chompoo’s email address. Rob thought it could be fun, talking to someone from a country he knew little about.

When Chompoo found out about Rob, she felt unsure about the whole thing. Her mom and brothers encouraged her, saying, “at least you can practice English.”

On February 5th, 2004, Rob emailed and introduced himself. Chompoo took a while to respond as she wasn’t confident at writing in English. Between using the dictionary and asking her brother for help, she managed to reply. After emailing, Rob sent his picture by mail, and when Chompoo sent him a photo, it was of her whole family. She asked him to guess who in the image was her! They used Yahoo Messenger and Skype – and despite the 15-16 hour time difference, they managed to keep up the communication. Rob would go into work early so he could catch her before his day started.

A lot of Rob’s friends wondered if this Thai woman just wanted to be with him for money or American citizenship. They also doubted that she would ever want to live in Alaska.

“When I went to visit her the first time we had drivers. They have maids. Every morning my clothes were freshly laundered. It was a big step down for her to come live with me!” (audio below)

Meeting in Person

Rob decided to visit Chompoo in November of 2004. Chompoo went to the airport with her mom to meet him. He said he would be wearing a blue shirt, and she said she would wear a butterfly blouse. Rob hadn’t traveled a lot before, and going to Thailand for the first time was quite the adventure. 

“Thailand has a proud culture and national identity. I was learning left and right, which was exciting. It is truly an amazing place. I have never been around people (including my wife) who try and maintain a big smile in their life. It really helps me to look at life through a different set of glasses. It’s been a good journey for me, and I’m still on it.”

Chompoo had the whole vacation planned and was excited to take him to all the beautiful places you go to “impress the foreigner”. It also happened to be during the Loi Krathong Festival. It didn’t take long until Chompoo’s mother grew to love Rob like a son. The next time he visited, they took a boat ride and Rob asked Chompoo to marry him. 

In 2005 Chompoo and her mother traveled to California to visit Rob’s family in Los Gatos, California. They went to Disneyland [see the photo below] and then Alaska – it was April, so it wasn’t that cold. 


Rob started reading about Thai weddings, but he didn’t realize that she was Thai Chinese, so the cultural traditions would be a bit different. 

I was nervous. Not only was I getting married, but I was also getting married in a culture I didn’t know, around a lot of people who didn’t speak my language.”

One of the traditions is that the groom arrives at the house to “claim his wife” [see the above photo on the left]. The children enjoy this as they take strings and put them across the doorway to block the groom from entering. To enter, the groom has to give the children tokens or treats. It’s a time of lots of laughter and giggling. Rob will never forget when he first saw Chompoo sitting there with her mother and how beautiful she looked. (audio below)

Their wedding was at a hotel on the Chao Phraya River in 2006.

“I was supposed to give money to her mother – ‘for her mother’s milk’ – a dowry. So I was nervous about if I give too little, is it going to be an insult and if I give too much can I afford that? I wanted to make a good impression but not say I’m rich.”

Bodhi Leaf

Rob was raised in the Episcopal church and was even a choir boy and an acolyte. Today he considers himself spiritual and Unitarian. Rob would also say he has become Buddhist in his own way, as he has bought into the enlightened philosophy of Buddha. 

At every temple, you will find a bodhi tree that is said to be an offshoot of the original bodhi tree under which Buddha became enlightened. When Rob went to Thailand, they went to a temple and made a special request to take a bodhi leaf back with them to America (usually if you have a bodhi leaf you are supposed to bring it back to the tree). They now have a bodhi leaf in Alaska that they cherish [see the above photo].

After the wedding, as a sort of honeymoon, they went to Seattle so Chompoo could meet Rob’s son.


After Seattle, they went to Alaska. She will never forget landing in Alaska and seeing everything covered in snow. It was both exciting, and she also found herself asking, “how am I going to live in this?” She realized that all of the clothes she had packed from Thailand would be useless in Alaska.

Chompoo arrived on a K-1 fiancée visa, so she spent a lot of time at home, waiting for legal documents. They had delayed the legal marriage for three months, as Rob wanted to make sure Chompoo liked Alaska.

Above: “Teeruk” means “my love” or “my darling or honey” in Thai. (audio below)

Middle Way Cafe

While Chompoo was waiting for her legal documents to work, she joined a gym. Her usual routine was to walk to the gym and then have lunch at the Middle Way Cafe. She started thinking about how she would like to work there. Chompoo didn’t want to work at a Thai restaurant because she wanted to improve her English so she could communicate better with local people and her husband. She wanted to challenge herself and be outside of her comfort zone. Chompoo applied in 2007 and started as the cook. After that, she managed “front of house”, and then, she became the general manager.

The experience Chompoo gained managing her family’s Thai restaurant, helps her in her current job managing an American restaurant. One area she lacked knowledge in and needed to educate herself about quickly was cheese.

“I didn’t know about American food – cheddar, provolone. In Thailand, we didn’t have avocado. Tomatoes have varieties!? In Thailand, we just had one kind of tomato! Here you have heirloom, roma, hothouse. Different kinds of olives? Oh my god!” (audio below)

Chompoo likes how anchorage has an Asian market where she can find all the Thai ingredients she needs to cook her mother’s recipes. 

“I get tired of sandwiches, so I bring something to warm up for lunch. When we have a party at work, they always ask me to cook pad thai, chicken curry, tom yam, or green papaya salad.”


The temple Chompoo attends [see the above photos] is a center that brings the Thai community together in Alaska. For a while, she can speak Thai and perform some Buddhist rituals. They have fundraisers biennially that Chompoo volunteers at where everyone gets together for food, karaoke, and Thai dance. 

Many of the Thai people who attend the temple are still learning English and need help with legal documents. Rob has been a massive asset to the community – helping if someone wants to open a franchise, bring a family member to the US, or if anyone has tax issues. 

“The Thai community here is strong. We help support each other.”

Immigrants & America

Rob says words can’t describe how enriched his life has been by having Chompoo in it – not only his life but the life of so many Americans she has come in contact with since moving there. 

He feels incredibly disappointed, saddened, and ashamed of his country, specifically in regards to the current administration, “shutting down immigration and talking nasty about people that are of different origins. It hurts me. I’m from California, and Mexican Americans are an important part of our culture.” 

Rob knows first hand how hard immigrants work. He worked picking beans in California as a teenager alongside immigrant farmworkers.

“They are working 18 hour days, and you want to call them lazy. These people are the American protestant work ethic!

Rob is trying to keep a positive outlook on the future, but it is hard.

“[The 2016 election] uncovered the dirt under the rug – what I thought was a beautiful rug. To find out what is under the rug is racism and prejudice. I try not to let it get me down. Chompoo keeps me cheerful.” (audio below)


In the future, Chompoo dreams of having a house in Thailand. She already has the home next door to her brother picked out. 

Above: Chompoo holding her parent’s wedding photo

Rob and Chompoo have been going to Thailand every year, something he promised her when they married. Rob knows how important family is in Thai culture, and how Chompoo would never have left her family if it wasn’t for their relationship. 

Chompoo would also like to move to a warmer climate than Alaska. Rob has a lot of roots in Alaska, so moving would be hard. If they did move, Chompoo doesn’t know what she would do work-wise – probably open a restaurant.

“Don’t take me the wrong way; Alaska is really beautiful. In the summertime, you have 20 hours to enjoy the day, but during wintertime, you get 20 hours of darkness. It feels sad. I like to see the northern lights but seven or eight months of winter and cold! I don’t want to be old and walking on ice.”

No matter where Rob and Chompoo end up living, they know they will have each other.  (audio below)


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Phanat’s Immigration Story – Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp, Thailand to New Iberia, Louisiana

Phanat’s parents met in Laos during the 1970s. They were both working for a French colonial family – Phanat’s mother was their servant, and his father was their security guard. After the Vietnam War, they fled from Laos to Thailand, out of fear of political persecution. His father left first, crossing the Mekong river at night, and his mother followed weeks later. 

Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp

They had Phanat’s brother, sister, and then in 1981, Phanat was born in the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp. Six months before his birth, his parents’ resettlement to the US was approved. The family would be going to Louisiana, where Catholic organizations were helping resettle refugees, and the state had an abundance of available low-wage jobs. 


The family arrived in New Iberia in 1983, the largest city in Louisiana’s Iberia Parish. They lived in a three-bedroom trailer with a total of 11 people from three different families.

“We didn’t have a bed to sleep on. My mom found a mattress on the side of the road and pulled it into the trailer.” (audio below)

Survival for Phanat’s parents in this new country with three children and no money was hard. Their first job was sorting potatoes into cans and making $1.80 per hour. They also peeled crawfish and shucked oysters. He remembers his family members always smelling like seafood.

Everyone in their family had an economic function.

“If you existed and you were eating, you needed to do something.” 

Most of Phanat’s life has been within a three-block radius of New Iberia. Growing up, Phanat felt like he was living simultaneously in two different worlds; no one at home would be able to explain the “American” things he was learning at school, and no one at school understood his culture at home. 

“I had to figure a lot out on my own, since I spoke a different language, had different food, and different music. I grew up having to be very adaptable to every situation.” (audio below)

Above: Wat Thammarattanaram Buddhist Temple in Iberia Parish

Lao Community

Many families from Iberia Parish’s Lao community that arrived in the 1970s and 1980s have had similar experiences to Phanat’s. The region had federal training programs that targeted immigrant men to work in the oil fields and women in the textile industry. Because many of these immigrant families had dual-income households, they quickly elevated to a higher socioeconomic position within the community. This success, in turn, led to a lot of xenophobia and resentment from locals.

“Americans were used to a certain way of going about work. These immigrants came in, worked hard, did not take breaks, and that was threatening.” 

The Lao community has been somewhat insular and isolated in Iberia Parish – forming their own community ties to sustain their customs and traditions. Phanat believes the downside is that they have missed out on participation in local government and culture. As Phanat grew older he started to see himself as a connector between the Laos community and the other Louisianans.

Asia Market

Phanat’s mother always had an entrepreneurial spirit. She quit school after second grade in Laos to grow and sell vegetables at the market. After arriving in Louisiana and working in factories, she longed for a job where she could work for herself. She saw how many other Asian people were coming in Iberia Parish and looking for commodities they missed from Asia. Phanat’s mother opened her market in 1985, and offered many things from Asian movies to staple foods like rice, to small loans to help others start their own small businesses. She also started an urban garden in their backyard, growing Asian produce to sell at the store.

“The store became a mecca of Southeast Asian culture. There was an economy that was independent of the mainstream economy that was built in the Asian community.” (audio below)

Phanat has always had a lot of creative energy, and being the youngest child allowed him some space to explore this side. His brother, as the oldest boy, had obligations to provide for the family, whereas Phanat had the “freedom to dream wildly.” (audio below)

When it came time for university, Phanat decided to become an architect. He thought it was a career that would “balance the pragmatic side of his Asian roots and his creative side.” He went on to study at the University of Louisiana and then went to Columbia University in New York City to study Urban Design. Phanat knows he could have gone anywhere in the world with his degrees, but he wanted to move back to New Iberia and help return the city to its vibrant past.

Above: A painting of Bunk Johnson, Louisiana’s prominent jazz trumpeter, on the side of Phanat’s Da Berry Fresh Market.

“I was learning all these great things, but my mind always went back to New Iberia. Why couldn’t this happen in New Iberia – wonderful architecture or a beautiful park?”

Audio: Phanat discussing New Iberia’s vibrant past and his decision to return to help revitalize the area

Returning Home

After a decade of being away, Phanat returned to New Iberia in 2010. Within a year, he started Envision da Berry, an organization focused on local creative and artistic activities that open dialogue on how best to improve the cultural and economic development within Iberia Parish. He targeted five core areas to improve – art, culture, economy, transportation, and health and wellness. 

“I knew I had minimal resources, but I could get paint and do something impactful and get people to have conversations.”

His first local art installation in 2011 was a temporary public space piece – ‘tactical urbanism.’ He collected a group of residents, picked a street, put up planters, and installed street furniture [see his plan in the above photo].

“Let’s imagine our neighborhood the way we want to see it in a few years, but do it in a temporary low budget way. My art is ephemeral, very in the moment. It takes into consideration where the community is at. It pulls from the community in the way that it manifests itself – whether through PVC pipes, or me singing in a pop-up gay show tunes bar.”

Community Garden

Phanat could see the need for fresh produce in the community – a community that lacked healthy food options. In 2013 he expanded on the garden his mother had started when he was a little boy, and the Iberia Community Garden Co-Op was born. It is a community-supported urban food farm focused on pesticide-free, bio-dynamic, and space-intensive food growing practices.

The garden has been this amazing thing in this community. It has become an obsession of mine and from it have found such peace and serenity.”

Above: A small community garden Phanat built in the middle of public housing

Aside from the community garden, Phanat has his personal garden, where he retreats for meditation and hopes to spend more time there in the future. He found himself involved in too many projects, stressed, and unable to express himself creatively. This garden is a place where he has complete control. 

I think gardening is communion with nature. When you plant a seed in the ground you can’t rush that. You can’t rush a pepper plant growing. What I do with my meditation is to get my mind to move at the same pace as nature. At harmony, at peace with everything in the universe.” (audio below)


Phanat and his older brother Saysane live together in the old family house. A year before Phanat moved back to New Iberia, his brother’s kidneys were failing, so he had to go on dialysis. He is on a waitlist for a new kidney. If he doesn’t get an organ soon, Phanat plans on giving him his. 

Growing up, his brother played all kinds of sports, and he always looked very healthy. However, his brother, like many people in the community, never ate healthily. He would eat the same things that so many people in this community eat that cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Phanat mentions how Louisiana is ranked 49th in terms of the health of the state’s population.

“It is the poor eating habits of poor people. – a box of fried chicken and a gallon of soda. When I drop him off at dialysis treatment, the majority of people there are poor black people. This is why I see the importance of the garden and our effort to bring fresh produce to the community.”

Building Bridges

When Phanat moved back to New Iberia, he knew that he was going to be true to himself as a socially liberal, progressive, gay, Lao Buddhist immigrant. He also expected himself to be at odds with the greater community, which is predominantly African American and either Catholic or Baptist. 

As time went on, Phanat built up trust with the community. In 2018 he got a call from the minister at the Star Pilgrim Baptist Church, a 149-year-old African American church. He told Phanat that the church would like to honor him with the “Pacesetter’s Award” as part of their black history program. Phanat responded, ‘You do know I’m gay, Asian and Buddhist, right?’

 “I never would have thought that an African American Baptist church would honor me with anything!” (audio below)

Receiving this award was one of Phanat’s proudest moments. He saw it as representative of a paradigm shift happening in the community, celebrating people no matter where they are from, how they pray or who they love.

Fresh Market

Phanat’s most recent project in New Iberia is Da Berry Fresh Market, which opened in 2017. It’s a combination of a fresh produce market and a job training program for the local community. At the market, you can find fresh produce from the community gardens. 

Phanat has passed the torch of managing the market to Carl, a young man from Mississippi. Carl used to work full-time in the oil fields while attending college at night. His diet was horrible. One day an elder mentioned to Carl that he wasn’t taking care of himself, and that planted a seed. Since then, Carl stopped drinking soda, eating candy, and getting fast food. He’s fully invested in being healthy – growing his own plants, buying organic, and exercising regularly.  

“I never would have imagined that my life would have changed that much from my diet.”

Carl feels more spiritually connected – like Da Berry Fresh Market is part of his calling. He respects Phanat for starting it and sharing his knowledge. Carl thinks the local African American community is kept in a “condition of disease” from the unhealthy food they eat. He hopes the market can help change this by creating, “a community, surrounded by people of African American descent who all learn and heal together.” (audio below)

Most of the work Phanat has been doing since moving back to New Iberia in 2010 has been for free. He has been widely recognized for all of his accomplishments, but as he says, “all these awards don’t come with a check!”

Above: Phanat after a meal at Brenda’s Diner, a favorite local restaurant.


When Phanat returned to New Iberia, he committed to a “ten-year plan” to improve the community. It’s incredible how much Phanat has done since returning. As the decade comes to a close, Phanat wants to take more time for himself and spend more time on his personal garden. It is clear that no matter what Phanat does in the future, it will be creative and have a positive effect on New Iberia’s community.

*Update: Phanat’s brother Saysane passed away on April 7th, 2020 after a long fight with kidney disease, and complications from a very rare blood cell condition.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.