MU graduate student from Thailand celebrates holidays with American families

Sunday, January 1, 2012 | 3:17 p.m. CST
Megan Pemberton, 21, Kirk Backus, 20, Pete Punthasee, 23, and Stephanie Pemberton, 18 pose in front of a Christmas tree at Pemberton’s parents house in Eldon, Mo. Pemberton and Punthasee, who is an international student from Thailand, met at the Christian Campus House at MU and Pemberton invited him to celebrate the holidays with her family.

COLUMBIA — Pete Punthasee got his first Christmas ornament this year. It was in the shape of a chef, to signify his love of cooking.

Punthasee, 23, who is from Bangkok, used this holiday season as an opportunity to visit new places and participate in American holiday traditions with two MU students and their families.


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Megan Pemberton, an MU junior studying animal science, had the idea to invite Punthasee to her family's Christmas celebrations. Her grandmother gave Punthasee the chef ornament.

She met Punthasee after they participated in Christian Campus House events together. She didn't think he had spent the holidays with an American family before.

"I didn't like the thought of someone being stuck in Columbia over break doing research the whole time," Pemberton said. 

Pemberton and her boyfriend, Kirk Backus, 20, made weekend arrangements and brought Punthasee to four different Christmas parties. 

"We wanted him to see what family life is like here in the states," Backus said.

Pemberton said her family enjoyed having him visit for Christmas, and he made a lot of friends.

"My family loved him," Pemberton said. "Everyone liked how comfortable he was to be around."

Punthasee said he liked the way they celebrated.

"And I like the time they spend with their family; it's a very good time," he said. "I kind of miss the time when I was with my parents."

He got his inspiration to come to the United States when he was in high school at the Amnuay Silpa School in Bangkok. When he was a senior, he met a professor from Chulalongkorn University who had gotten his doctorate in the U.S. and had returned to Thailand to teach. That motivated Punthasee to come to the U.S. for further education.

Punthasee lived at the University Place Apartments his first semester at MU. He met another Thai student and toured the Christian Campus House. He got involved with house events, like Thanksgiving Dinner and a breakfast during finals week, and decided to move in before his second semester began.

Punthasee is now a second-year graduate student at MU studying chemistry. He is working on making a molecule to attack the enzyme in the body believed to cause diabetes for his research. His ultimate goal is to teach.

During winter break, Punthasee has spent a lot of time working in the Chemistry Building, surrounded by numerous test tubes, beakers and chemical containers.

His many friends in Christian Campus House and Campus Crusade for Christ helped him speak better English and encouraged him to participate in American customs.

Punthasee is familiar with American holidays and Christmas but celebrated them differently in Thailand. He said Christmas was a time to spend with his mother, father and brother.  They usually ate out and had a special meal.

"We celebrate Christmas, but it's not a Thai tradition," Punthasee said. "We know Christmas is about Santa, presents, reindeer and the North Pole. But it's a festival for us, and we don't have a day off for it."

Pemberton took him to a Christmas Eve church service with her extended family. Since he is Buddhist, he said he was surprised when the families went to church on Christmas. 

Punthasee said he enjoyed the food at the dinners Pemberton and Backus took him to. He liked ham, green bean casserole and pecan pie the best. 

"I looked at all the food and I thought, I'm going to get fat," he said. 

After dinner, he was so appreciative of Pemberton's grandmother and her hospitality, he offered to do the dishes after dinner. 

Each celebration Punthasee attended was different. One celebration was on a farm and one was in the city. Pemberton said the celebrations ranged from about 30 people in a small house to a celebration with very few people.

"He got to experience a couple different family styles," she said. 

Punthasee had his first experience driving a four-wheeler with Pemberton's family. He said in Bangkok he never had the opportunity to drive because of public transportation, and he only has a bike in Columbia.

"We just wanted to drive through the woods," Punthasee said. "But I'm kind of surprised they let me drive."

Punthasee enjoyed his first Christmas with an American family.

"This was the best Christmas I have ever had," he said.

In Thailand, he celebrated birthdays, Father's and Mother's Day and Thai New Year's more than other holidays. He said the tradition is to participate in the Songkran Festival, which occurs all over Thailand.

He said since Songkran happens during the warmest time of the year, children often go out and splash each other with water for fun. Another tradition is for children to go to their elders to show respect and ask for a prosperous new year. The elders have small buckets of water and then pour the water down into the hands of the children.

"It's a big deal like Christmas," Punthasee said. "It's a good time to be with family."

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