Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about former foreign exchange students who spent time in Redwood Falls and the experiences they have had since returning home and how they are dealing with the current issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Naruth Kongurai lives in Bangkok, Thailand, but that has not always been the case.
For a period of a few months during the 2011-12 school year Kongurai lived in Redwood Falls with the Alan and Laura Olson family as an exchange student.
According to Kongurai, “after an incredible year living with the Olson family and an awesome experience in a lovely city far away from home, I left Redwood Falls and went back to Thailand to complete my high-school degree.”
Kongurai (most people will remember him as Sam), said he misses the community – the peacefulness, winter and the people. He said everything during his stay in Redwood Falls was surreal and memorable.
After high school Kongurai came back to the United States to continue his education at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington. The weather there, added Kongurai, was a bit friendlier than what he had experienced in Redwood Falls.
Sam graduated with a degree in communications with a technology-oriented focus and also earned a minor degree in information science.
“I worked for about a year at a local Seattle technology start-up as a software developer after graduating,” explained Kongurai, adding after that stint in the working world he flew back to Thailand to start his career in software engineering.
Today, Kongurai is working for a large technology conglomerate in Bangkok, Thailand where he gets to use his love for and skills in Web site and software development to enhance the ways people use technology to spend, make dining decisions and enjoy life activities.
According to Kongurai, “being an exchange student is all about seeking new experiences and spending as much quality time as possible. I am still keeping in touch with several folks I met at the school during 10th grade that are now enjoying their careers in various disciplines across the United States.”
Looking back, Kongurai thinks the real joy was the privilege he experienced having Laura Olson and her family as his host. Without the family, Sam does not think his experience as an exchange student would have been the same.
Kongurai has not been able to make a return visit to Redwood Falls, but he said Laura did come to his home country once. While he was able to recommend places for her to visit, he was not able to find the time to meet her in person.
Looking to his future, Kongurai would like to seek a new adventure somewhere in a new country – possibly Singapore, Japan or even back in the United States.
“There’s always room to grow as a software engineer,” Kongurai explained, adding the difficult question for him is where.
For now, he is happily settled in Thailand, because it affords him the chance to spend more time with his family and friends, adding he has not been in touch with them as often during the past five years he was in the United States.
For Kongurai, the first time he heard of coronavirus was this past December. A few news outlets in his country started picking up on it, but, he added, nobody thought it would have been this big of an issue at the time, because it was largely in China.
“Things got far more dangerous when we heard that the Chinese government imposed a lockdown on the City of Wuhan, and that global air travels between many major cities and countries were being temporarily halted,” explained Kongurai.
That, he added, is when everything changed.
Looking back, Sam wishes many countries, including his, would have done more to prepare ahead of time to combat the pandemic.
“It started around December 2019, but many major countries had only decided to deem it a pandemic and a life-threatening issue by late February,” he explained, adding the result of the lack of advanced preparation has sadly caused the loss of lives of many people, especially loved ones.
For Sam, work-life balance has been relatively great.
“In terms of work, I am now working remotely from home until the situation improves,” explained Kongurai, who is not deemed an essential worker in Thailand. “I know of a few friends who either have been laid off due to business closures or put on unpaid leave. These are traumatic times for everyone, especially as they have to not only fight to remain safe and protected but also to sustain their income and living.”
Kongurai said he is no longer able to visit his friends or his extended family as often as he did before during these dangerous times, adding “we are all finding ways to best adjust to the current situation while trying to ensure our own safety and that of others we might come in contact with.”
According to Kongurai, there are not as many parks or lovely trails for jogging or bike riding in Bangkok compared to the United States. So, he is consistently looking for exercise-at-home videos on YouTube to keep up with his exercise goals.
Most recently, air travel in and out of Thailand is closed, and major cities like Bangkok and the surrounding area are under curfew.
“We are not recommended to travel between cities unless it is necessary,” explained Sam. “Major places that would usually attract large crowds, like fitness centers, movie theaters, restaurants (take-away only right now) and shopping malls are closed until further notice by the government and local city governors.”
Grocery stores do remain open, added Kongurai, but in many major grocery stores registers are open in every other aisle to avoid cramming and the potential risk of spread.
Online markets, such as Facebook Market and Shopee, which Sam compared to Amazon, are seeing a rising number of merchants selling FDA-approved hand sanitizers and protective masks, and people are buying other things online, too.
Major transportation hubs are seeing less people, and the sky train system and subway metros are only allowing people who wear masks to board. Taxis, which are fairly common in Thailand and are rather cheap, are seeing less riders, as both drivers and passengers are becoming weary of the dangerous virus.
According to Kongurai, “hospitals are fighting to heal those who are sick with COVID-19 and to keep their beds and medical supplies available as the situation worsens. We are definitely trying to get more masks and testing kits available to support the influx of new COVID-19 patients, but there has been no promising sign that things will be better in the coming weeks or months.”
Since Bangkok is on lockdown, Sam said he, his family and his friends are practicing social distancing and are spending more time with each other remotely using video conferencing software.
“All of us remain largely at home,” Kongurai added.
He recently purchased a Nintendo Switch and a few games and is playing with friends online.
Kongurai believes COVID-19 will be what defines 2020.
“At this point, I think it is hard not to be concerned or remain unaware of the current situation,” Sam added.
Sam expressed his thanks to all of the medical personnel, the volunteer staff and other individuals who are working tirelessly to treat the sick, combat the virus and do the research toward finding a vaccine to end this global pandemic.
He also shared his appreciation for the chance to tell a little bit of his story, and, more importantly, what life is like in Thailand during this dangerous period of time.
"I pray for everyone’s safety and wish everyone good health.”