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Finding a home in Winnebago, a far cry from Thailand

By Staff | Oct 2, 2016

Worawee Tiewyungyong, known by her nickname “Namtan,” is one of several exchange students at Blue Earth Area High School. From Thailand.

Back in Thailand, Worawee Tiewyungyong likes going to the mall.

But when she set foot in the Mall of America this fall, her first season overseas as part of Blue Earth Area High School’s 2016-17 exchange student class, it was quite different than what she is used to.

“It’s very big,” says Tiewyungyong, 16, who goes by the nickname “Namtan.”

“Very big,” of course, is just about the only way to describe the nation’s largest shopping center, let alone the American lifestyle in which Namtan is now immersed. But those terms also represent the stark contrast of the BEA junior’s old and new homes.

Staying with Kateri Johnson, of Winnebago, Namtan wakes up and walks to the school bus each day in a town that has more than 100,000 fewer people than her hometown of Khon Kaen, located northeast of Bangkok.

Namtan is pictured above right with Kateri Johnson, with whom she stays during her visit.

For neither Namtan nor her family, including two older brothers and an older sister, the rural Winnebago atmosphere did not completely wipe away the nervousness of embarking on an international adventure. After all, more than 8,000 miles separates Thailand from the teenager’s new United States residence.

And just a few weeks into her planned yearlong stay, Namtan notices a lot more than population size differences in the small-town confines of Faribault County.

“In Thailand, it’s hotter,” she says, “and in my school there, we stay in class while the teachers come to us.”

Unlike at BEA High School, where Namtan has her own locker, classes are not held in different rooms, so students are not required to walk around during the day.

“And the food.”

Namtan poses in Thailand with family.

That is a big one.

In between episodes of “Better Late Than Never,” a reality show following celebrities on an expedition to Asian cultures, Namtan frequents the kitchen with her host mom, experimenting with foods from home as well as those resulting from Kateri’s American recipes.

“They’re terrible food stories,”?Johnson says with a laugh. “She doesn’t like a whole lot of the things I’ve made, but we keep trying.”

During one of those attempts, when Johnson tried making a soup called Tom Yung Powder, the spicy steam of the concoction forced the two to open the windows as they made it.

“My eyes were burning,” Johnson says, eliciting a smile from Namtan.

And despite the recollection of their culinary mishaps, Namtan reminds Johnson that more taste testings are on the docket.

One of them involves a boiled rice called Joke that is served for breakfast a dish Namtan brought from Thailand to share with Johnson and her four-year-old son, Jethro.

Speaking of Jethro, Namtan’s little companion cannot get enough of his new big sister from another part of the world.

Before coming to America, Namtan had never played the board game Candy Land, but along with plenty of other activities appealing to a four-year-old, she learned quickly thanks to lots of time hanging around Jethro.

“He is in love with her,” Johnson says, of her son’s tight bond with Namtan. “He doesn’t want to share her. One time, when she left for a friend’s house, he cried because she was leaving.”

Both Namtan and Johnson acknowledged that good-byes could be even harder as time passes and the once-shy girl from overseas becomes an even more regular part of the family.

“My aunt actually had an exchange student two years ago,” Johnson says, “and her nine-year-old daughter cried so much when it was time for her to leave.”

But until that day comes, all eyes are on how Namtan can get the most out of her visit to the Midwest.

In fact, as Johnson soaks in more and more about the Asian culture from Namtan, the plan is also for her visit to extend beyond the Midwest.

“I really want to travel,” Namtan says.

Since she has made Winnebago home, she has already gotten out and about, making the inevitable Mall of America stop and perusing both the Renaissance Festival and Big Island Rendezvous around the state.

In the near future, however, Namtan is also banking on some sightseeing across the country.

“We’re going to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee in October,” Johnson says after Namtan suggests a possible trip to California. “We’ll go through Chicago and Indianapolis, and on our way back, we’re going to go through Missouri.”

It is all part of the American experience for Namtan, who has attended several BEA football games with Johnson and is also trying to teach herself how to play guitar.

“It’s a joint learning experience for us,”?Johnson says, holding back a laugh.

Kind of like their kitchen adventures.

As a new school week begins and Namtan prepares to return to the still-new concept of lockers and hallway foot traffic, she is excited about the opportunities ahead from refining her language skills in an English fundamentals class to gearing up for more trips around the state and the U.S.

The nerves are still there, in some cases. They might be for awhile.

But whether it’s playing the guitar, watching TV, or making food (and simultaneously opening windows), Namtan is already establishing a place she can call home.