New life in New Zealand

HAPPY TOGETHER: Chawiwan Thaksinbut with her son, Kritsada Chaimee, 17, in Nelson.
HAPPY TOGETHER: Chawiwan Thaksinbut with her son, Kritsada Chaimee, 17, in Nelson.

As any parent will tell you, have children and you'll worry about them every day for the rest of your life.

But a few days before her 17-year-old son arrived in New Zealand, Chawiwan Thaksinbut's concerns were a little different from those of the typical mum.

For Jack's entire life, she has worked away from home, earning money to support him, her parents, and her brothers and sisters.

The day before Jack arrived in New Zealand, Wee, 34, sat at the small desk in her new Queen St massage practice. She said she was happy, but worried.

"I've never looked after my son," she said. She was afraid Jack wouldn't like her food, that she didn't know how to talk to him, that they might not understand each other.

A fortnight later, things are going great. Jack does not yet speak English, but he has a residency visa, a place at Nayland College, and a goal to find a job in automotive and electrical engineering, which he began studying in Thailand.

The pair live together in a butter-coloured stucco house in Stoke, where the shelf above the kitchen sink holds Thai fish sauce within easy reach; Jack cooks dinner for his mum when she gets home. Wee laughs when she remembers how concerned she was.

"He was always so shy. But when he came here, he surprised me, joking and talking and laughing. I said: ‘What happened to you? Are you alright?'."

Jack smiles when asked what he thinks of his school. Through his mother, he says New Zealand so far is "beautiful". His first plane trip?

"Never again."

When he arrived in New Zealand, he offered to go out to work as a labourer immediately, so his mother didn't have to. But Wee was having none of it. Her son must study and learn English and a trade for life in New Zealand.

"I told him: ‘Now, Mum can work. But when Mum can't work, you'll be looking after me'."

Wee was born in 1980 in Na Kum Luong, a tiny settlement in northeast Thailand. The daughter of rice paddy workers, her small, destitute village had just 20 houses and no money; the local economy worked on a barter system, when it worked at all.

But Wee says she was one of the lucky ones; she's alive. Out of the 16 children her mother bore, she is the youngest of seven living. Nine of her brothers and sisters died. Some died in the womb or at birth. Others succumbed to sickness as babies, or were killed by accidents and malaria as adults.

There was no car for her mother to go to hospital to deliver her children, so the people of the village walked several days along dirt roads to get medical help. Services were so remote that Wee's own birthday is incorrect because it took her family six months to get to town and file an official registration. When she was 17, her parents chose a husband for her, but the couple did not know each other and soon found they didn't get along. They married, had their son, and separated within a year. Wee never saw her husband again, and she was left alone with her two month old son.

"After I grew up, my mother told me our story, and I worked hard," Wee says. "I didn't want my dad working anymore; I asked him to stop."

So she gave her son to her mother and left Na Kum Luong for Bangkok, and money.

She worked first for a Nike factory, spending five years working 10 hours a day, six days a week, using a machine to cut tidy patterns from shoe leather before passing it on to the next worker. In one day, she'd handle close to 1000 shoes. "I was very fast."

She earned 140 baht a day, about seven New Zealand dollars back then. But she paid the factory 30 baht a day ($1.60) for breakfast and lunch, and had to pay for milk powder for her son, which cost more than 1000 baht ($54) a month - about half of her monthly wage. She skipped meals to pay for it and sometimes worked double shifts, day and night, to earn more.

After the factory, she and her sister moved to Taiwan, where they ran a Thai restaurant. She gained a certificate in traditional Thai massage, and again, she saved.

"I just feel happy if I can send the money to my parents, because they looked after me - and I'm very lucky I [didn't] die," she says.

She says it was a hard life for her, but it would have been worse to know her family was going hungry.

"For Thai women, the parents are very important for them," she says. "They will do everything for their parents.

"I said to Mum: ‘I'll work hard, don't worry. But you must have food to eat to have a good life, and you must stop work'. I see my Mum and my Dad working very hard to look after the children. And sometimes they do not have enough food to eat: just for the children.

"I think I did the right thing," she says. "I try to be a good person."

But though her labour kept her family alive, she missed out on seeing her son grow up. She returned to Na Kum Luong for two weeks every year and had to suffer the heartbreak of her son resisting hugs and hiding when she arrived. When asked how he felt to grow up not knowing his mother, Jack says one word: "Lonely."

Several years ago, Wee met a Kiwi man on the internet and flew to New Zealand for a holiday. He proposed, and she moved to New Zealand in 2010. By then her son was studying, and every time she called him he would ask when he could come to live with her. She insisted he stay in Thailand and finish his schooling.

She worked in vineyards and as a massage therapist, but found homesickness, loneliness, and the culture difference between her and her husband too difficult. "I could not find my own people," she says.

They were together three years until the marriage broke down. "He is a nice person, but we think not the same," she says. "I said: ‘Sorry, honey'." They're friends now.

After their separation Wee moved to Nelson and worked at Sabai Sabai Thai massage in Tahuna for two years. Last month, she opened her own practice, Sawaddee Traditional Thai Massage. It's two rooms in a little walkway off Queen St, opposite Sundial Square.

She works from 9.30am to 7pm, arriving at 8.30am for a quiet time of prayer before the golden Buddha above her desk. Then her clients start to arrive. Her last appointment is about 6pm, when it's home for chores. "It's very busy. Always busy. I have many customers' support - they come back every week to see me."

Many of them, aware that she's alone in a foreign country, have helped her out when she's occasionally confused by babbling New Zealand tongues. She has some good Thai girlfriends but finds it hard to spend time with them, with everyone so focused on building their new lives.

"Everyone is just working. You can't go to their house, and talk."

However they do meet every Sunday at Richmond's Wat Buddha Samakhee, the Thai temple on Lower Queen St, which she says is like home to her.

Her home in Thailand is fading away now that her son is here. Wee's father passed away two years ago, and she would like her 74-year-old mother to come to New Zealand too, but she's near immobile, with health complications from her many pregnancies. She misses her country and family, but says New Zealand is home now. Besides, her older sister and brother live in Taiwan, another sister lives in Norway, and another in Michigan. "They're better now. I don't need to support them. Now I just support my mum."

She wants to tell her story to show people the Thai way of working hard for their parents.

"You love your parents - they give you life. All my life I work for my parents, because they look after me, and I'm very lucky I did not die. Now I have a business, and I think we have a good future here."

She'll continue to work in her little rooms on Queen St for close to 10 hours a day, six days a week. But she doesn't want to work too hard anymore - she just wants enough work to send home money each month for her mother and to pay for her rent, food, and other necessities, and hopefully save for a house of her own one day. With the rest of her time, she wants to get to know her son.


There are about 40 different ethnicities at Nayland College, a mix of New Zealand citizens, refugees, fee-paying international students, and migrants. "We try hard to incorporate everyone and make them feel safe," international student director head Gavin Miller says. Getting students up to speed with English is a challenge, but two other Thai students at the school have "progressed hugely" in their ESOL classes this year. "It really comes down to motivation. That total-immersion thing is good, but it's really hard work for young people," he says. Sport and cultural activities, where students can communicate in other ways and are involved in a group, helps with connection and growing a comfort level. 

The Nelson Mail