A student's speech to the graduates reveals a family built on faith

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Panuwatr Chuprajak, center, with his sister Tanchanok Chuprajak, left, and mother Puangpaga Nana Wintch at their home in Midvale Sunday, June 10, 2012. The family immigrated from Thailand. Panuwatr just graduated from Hillcrest High School and has joined the Army.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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