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Interview with Noi Sinkasem

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Noi Sinkasem was born in Bangkok, Thailand on September 20, 1961. At the time of the interview she owned a Sawatdee Thai restaurant in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life and family in Thailand - education - coming to the United States - applying to immigrate and waiting - going back to school in Minnesota - moving to Saint Cloud, Minnesota - owning Sawatdee Thai food restaurant in Saint Cloud - difficult owning a business and being a minority - her children.

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Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Noi Sinkasem Interviewer: Pa Yang

NOI SINKASEM
Narrator

PA YANG
Interviewer

Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

THE MINNESOTA ASIAN COMMUNITIES ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans

 

Noi Sinkasem as a baby with her parents, mother Tippaya and father Somruaj Supatanasinkasem.

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Noi standing with her parents Tippaya and Somruaj.

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Back row, left to right: Tippaya, Somruaj, and Noi. Front row: Noi’s two sons Ethan Ranger Taylor, and Thane Heng Taylor.

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Noi’s son Thane’s wedding. From left to right: Ethan, Thane, daughter in law Nicole, Noi, and her step daughter Anna Taylor-Shih. July 17, 2010.

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THE INTERVIEW
 

   

Noi Sinkasem Narrator Pa Yang Interviewer February 17, 2012 Saint Cloud, Minnesota

Noi Sinkasem Pa Yang

-NS -PY

PY: Good Afternoon. Today is Friday, February 17, 2012. I’m here in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. My first interview will be conducted with Noi Sinkasem. PY: Noi, can you please state your name and spell it out? NS: Noi Sinkasem. N O I S I N K A S E M. PY: Noi, when and where were you born? NS: Bangkok, Thailand, 1961—On September 20, 1961. PY: Do you remember your parents’ name and where they were born? NS: My mom’s name is Tippaya Supatanasinkasem, and my father’s name is Somruaj. They were born in Thailand. PY: Do you remember the city where they were born? NS: Uttaradit, up north of Thailand. PY: Can you describe your childhood home and where it was located? NS: I grew up in a suburb of Bangkok and I spent some of the time up north in the Uttaradit where my parents’ home town was. But I went to school in Bangkok. PY: What dialect did you speak at home? NS: Thai. PY: Do you remember how your home looked like or the house that you lived in during your childhood – do you remember how it looks like?
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NS: When I was little we lived in a house, like wooden house, two stories and we have many people living in it, like eight people and – excuse me [chuckles] – may be ten people, like my parents’ room, and then my brothers’ room and then upstairs second floor is like one big room where all girls stay on the second floor. We have six girls, so we all stay up there. PY: Do you remember what your parents did as their occupation? NS: My dad, he used to have a rice mill, and, but later on he retired and lived in Bangkok with us. PY: Do you remember what your mother did? NS: Just help out with my dad business and housekeeping. PY: What did you enjoy doing most as a child? NS: [Chuckles] Oh just went school and had fun. We had activities or I spend time with my friends and my family and played sport… PY: How many brothers and sisters did you have? NS: Two brothers and five sisters. Big family. PY: Which one are you in the line-up? Are you the oldest, the youngest? NS: The youngest one. [Chuckles] PY: So you’re the youngest one. Do you remember your grandparents and would you know where they were born? NS: My grandparents, both of my grandfathers, were from China and both of my grandmothers were from Thailand. My grandpa came from China and my grandfathers came from China, separately. They were in different towns though. I don’t know much about them, but they both had lumber business, but in different towns. PY: So both of them were Chinese, or they just lived in China? NS: They were Chinese, came from China. They spoke Chinese, but later on they live in Thailand. They got married with Thai women. PY: So they were Chinese men but they married Thai women. NS: Yeah.
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PY: OK. NS: Yeah, and then they stay, and they have children in Thailand. PY: Can you describe one or a few important friendships that you had during your childhood, some of your very good friends? NS: I had two good friends, and one of them, she lives up north of Thailand right now. We went to high school together and we still continue friendship. She has two daughters. PY: Did you attend church or any religious service in Thailand? NS: I am Buddhist. Yeah, in my family we didn’t go to church and we didn’t go to the temple that often, but there was a monk that come around so we see the monk in the morning sometimes and offer food to the monk, whenever we can. PY: Did you help with chores at home, can you describe your chores? NS: I helped my mom, like, clean the house and cook food and then help my dad with the... watering the plants. Is kind of something I have to do [chuckles]. PY: What would happen if you did not do your chores? Were you punished – was there any kind of discipline for this? NS: Not really. It is just going to be there waiting for me to do [chuckles], still, so if I do it sooner or later, I still have to do it, so might as well just do it. [Chuckles] PY: What were you like as a child – were you nice and obedient, or were you mischievous and disobedient? NS: [Chuckles] I obeyed my parents, yup, I was always have active, and doing something. But I was usually never mischievous, like doing drug or fooling around with guys, but, yeah, I did sport and like play badminton. My mom had me when she was forty, so I was like the youngest one in the family. When I was in high school, my mother was fifty-six or something and I made her play badminton with me. And my mother was fine with that, like they play with me [chuckles]. I went out and play with my friends. If I don’t have anyone to play and they will play with me. PY: Can you describe growing up in Bangkok. Since it’s a bigger city, was there more influence towards drugs and other bad habits than if you were to live in the more rural area? NS: I grew up in suburb of Bangkok, and also my house is very close to school, and, like I said, I played sport a lot, and then I hang out close to home. I would go back and forth to school and there are teachers at school all the time, so I hang out with the teachers and play sport with them, and, you know. So I cannot misbehave, because otherwise teacher would know, my parents
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would know, so, yeah. And most of my time was spent with the sport and sometimes when I was younger, there were some kids that misbehaved, I didn’t know that they did drug or something, but if I were going to hang out with them, they would tell me – You shouldn’t be here, or something. They didn’t want me around, and so I hung out with other people. Then later on I found out that they did drug or something, it was a good thing I didn’t hang out with them. PY: Were you close with your siblings? How was your relationship with them? NS: Yeah, we are very close and they help me out with my life and with any problems – if I have problem they help me out. PY: Does it make a difference that you’re the youngest? Did your older siblings baby you? NS: Yeah, they are too kind, especially the older one, they treat me like I’m their kid. [Chuckles] PY: Is there a big age difference between you and the oldest? NS: Yeah. The oldest one is twenty-two – I think twenty years older than me. Like Supenn, my sister in Minneapolis, is fifteen years older than I am. Yeah. [Chuckles] PY: Did you attend school during your younger years, like elementary? NS: Yeah, all the way to high school in Thailand, and I went to college like one semester before I came here. PY: Can you describe the elementary school that you went to, how it looks like? NS: [chuckles] Lot of kids, I guess, yeah. Lot of kids and only one teacher in the room. Yeah, I guess it’s like school, like here, same here. PY: Were the teachers strict? NS: Yeah. We not sure what they do now, but at that time they can spank, like ruler and spank on the hand. PY: What were some of the punishment, besides spanking, if you did not obey what the teachers were requesting from you? NS: I remember, if people came to school late in the morning, they would have to line up and memorize the English vocabulary, they have to stand there and review those before they can go to class, and there are more people watching, I don’t know... [Laughter] I did not want to do that, I have to be early, so I don’t have to stand in line, try to memorize. Yeah, that seems harsh. [Chuckles] PY: Did you have a lot of homework, and who at home helped you do your homework?
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NS: When I was really little, we all lived together, so my brother would make sure I did the homework and do everything. We have to do homework... log... like a book, that teacher will write down what they have to do to hand in tomorrow. My brother would be in charge of me ... he would make sure I did all of those right, and he would look through it and sign on that book that I did that. [Chuckles] PY: Looks like you were a good helper at home. NS: Yeah, yeah. PY: Did you ever get yourself in trouble at school? Were you ever punished? NS: No, I try not to get in trouble. [Chuckles] PY: Did you have a teacher who was really nice and kind that inspired you? NS: A little bit with them... not really. PY: OK. What was your favorite class, and why? NS: In eighth grade we had electronic class, agriculture class, science, math, language, English language, and another one is business class. Actually, my school is more like lab school, laboratory school. I think that it’s just a experimental school. I don’t think they had it for to many years, or if they still exist. And only at that school, though, that they have it divided like that, they have electronic class, agriculture class, business class, and science and math, and then when I was in eighth grade I really like agriculture class, and the second one is electronic class, and I did good in all of those, and plus business class I did good. And then what? Science, I did OK. Math, I did OK. And English was OK, too. I was kind of naughty. I don’t want to study that class. But when the ninth grade came, they want us to pick class, to pick something to emphasize, like major, in ninth grade. Now when I look back, I was too young, you know. And I really like agriculture, so I told my teacher that I wanted to be in agriculture class. She said, no—you a girl, you shouldn’t be in that one. Pick something else. And I’m like – OK, electronics, then. I like that one, too. No—that’s for boy, and... she look at my grades and – OK, you like those, you should go either science, but my grade was too low at that time, and then she’s like, no, then maybe business, so she signed me up for business, which is fine. It’s OK, but I wasn’t really interested in it and stuff. But I really liked the agriculture at that time and I didn’t get to pick that one. But now I wish I could study harder and take science, at that time. And then I went ninth, tenth grade, because they divide like that, nine, ten, so I took business class, and then after that, eleven and twelfth. After tenth grade, either I go technical college for two more years, or then I can work. But if I go that route, I would not... It’s harder to get into university, so my mom’s like -- Continue going to school, I mean, on mainstream, you know. So, eleven and twelve, they only have math and science and English, and then there’s the middle one, and math, science and language mix. So they only have three branches on eleven and twelfth grade, so I was weak in science and I was weak in language because I took business class for ninth and tenth
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grade, so I just have to pick the middle one. And so, all that time is just swaying me to accounting, accounting. [Chuckles] Yeah. PY: Did you enjoy accounting? NS: I like it – I mean it’s easy, it’s easy to do it but I was not really interested in it, I guess, but I can do it. PY: But if you had a choice, you would prefer to do science or something else. NS: Yeah. But I was too naughty, like, I liked to have fun and stuff, so I didn’t really pay attention. But I think they don’t have it like that anymore. It’s just that school that they try it out, I think. I also think maybe, you know, it’s too early for the kids to make decision like I did. I didn’t really pay attention that much, early-on, so, you know. And then I pick – not strong enough to get into college for something that i was more interested in. PY: So the school you went to was more like an innovative school that they tried out for awhile, so you’re not even sure if it exists any more, right? NS: Um hum. PY: Do you remember your first job, and remember how much you were paid? NS: My first job is work for my sister, working at her restaurant. I forgot how much it was. But, yeah, I came to America and then I did the dishes, serve food, help cook, and everything like that. She has a small restaurant at that time. Yeah, we did all that. Everyone helped each other and by the end of the month I saved up all my tips and then I went out to buy television. All was like one dollar bills. [Chuckles] I forgot how much it was, maybe a hundred dollars, all in one dollar bills, and proud of it. [Chuckles] PY: So you didn’t start working until you came to the US? In Thailand you didn’t work. NS: No. PY: OK. In what year – now you said that – did you come to the US right after high school, or did you continue on to college and then came to the US? NS: I went to college in Thailand for about one semester, something like that, and then I came here when I was twenty years. When I arrived here, I went to high school again, you know. Because my English was not really good, I had to take some English class in high school, and start that again. PY: Sure. What made you decide to come to the US? Was it your decision or did your parents want you to come here?
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NS: If we have a chance... a lot of people in Thailand wants to come to America, and my sister apply for me to come, so I have an opportunity, so I came to study. PY: To stay? NS: Yeah. PY: How was the process, the paperwork? Was it difficult for you to come here? NS: Yeah, at that time, when, like, she was a citizen, and then at that time I had to wait for two years for sister to apply for sibling to come, so I have, at that time, two years’ wait. PY: That’s a very long time. NS: Yeah. I heard is a lot longer, now. Yeah. PY: Is your parents still in Thailand, or did they come with you? NS: Yes, my parents are still in Thailand. Now I have been here like thirty years, and they come to visit many times, and now my mom is ninety years. NS: She’s forty years older than I am [chuckles] yeah. And my dad passed away a couple years ago. PY: So you said that your mom is here living in the US now? NS: Yeah. No! My mom is in Thailand. PY: She’s in Thailand. NS: Yeah, last time they came is like six, seven years ago, and then their health was not too good, so they went back and they stay in Thailand. PY: And, who does your mom live with? NS: My oldest sister and brother and my other sister. PY: So you still have siblings in Thailand? NS: Yeah. PY: How many siblings do you have here in the US? NS: Three. Yeah, one in Minneapolis, one in Los Angeles, one in Oregon.
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PY: So you have a sibling living here in Minnesota, as well? NS: Yes. PY: That’s wonderful. Have you gone back to visit Thailand since you’ve been here? NS: Yes, yeah, many times. PY: Many times? NS: My mom is old so I try to go see her once a year. PY: Did you continue schooling when you came to the US? You said that you took some English class. Did you go to any private college or universities when you were here? NS: I went to public high school for a semester and then after that, try to get in college. Then I moved to Saint Cloud and then went into Saint Cloud Business College at that time, and finished school there. PY: That’s wonderful. Now, can you tell me about your first impression when you first came to the US. How did you feel? NS: I came in March. It was cold, and I think they have snow storm just before I got here. It was very cold, but I think people here in Minnesota, they are warm, friendly people. [Chuckles] When I first arrived, I took the bus to school and, you know, everyone, bus driver was friendly and people on the bus were friendly, so I like it here. PY: Did you live with your sister that owns the restaurant that you worked for? NS: Yeah. When I got here I lived with her. I came with my other sister and we lived with Supenn and her family, her husband and two daughters. We live with her and work at her restaurant and help out with their family. PY: How long did you live with her until you moved to Saint Cloud? NS: A year or so. Yeah. PY: What made you decide to move to Saint Cloud? Was it just for school? NS: I got married, too, and then I moved here to Saint Cloud because of that, and then went to school here. PY: After school, what did you do? Did you continue your education or did you decide to settle down and start your family?
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NS: I had two babies. [Chuckles] I had two so I took care of them. PY: I know that you are the owner of Sawatdee here at Saint Cloud, and your sister owns – she was the owner, the beginning of the food chain Sawatdee that started in Minneapolis. Is that correct? NS: Yeah. PY: How long have you owned Sawatdee now, in Saint Cloud? NS: The one in Saint Cloud open seventeen years already, and she help me to open, ‘cause she was so successful in Minneapolis, so I want to open a restaurant in Saint Cloud, so we just use the same name and people already know it and then it would be easier to introduce Thai food, and, yeah, so I did that, and very, very, helpful. PY: So you said that Sawatdee serves Thai food? NS: Yes. PY: Can you tell me some of the most famous dishes that you serve at Sawatdee? NS: Yeah, we served a lot of Pad Thai and the fresh spring rolls and we have curry and sweet green chicken curry that a lot of people like. PY: How do you feel about the support from the Saint Cloud community? NS: I’ve been here for a long time and then they know my restaurant is not too far from the university, Saint Cloud State University, and a lot of faculty and students they like to try authentic and then they like Sawatdee. PY: That’s wonderful. NS: Also, Saint John’s University, also. Yeah. They are great at supporting as well because they have international student too, and so they want to try that. PY: OK. Can you tell me some of the struggles you’ve had with being an immigrant and then being a business owner and having a family at the same time? What are some of the struggles that you went through? NS: Business needs a lot of time and help, yeah. We need a lot of help to start the business there at first, because we were Oriental, I think, they wasn’t sure if we can do it, something, so they asked a lot of financial statements, we have to show them financial first before they show the building or something. Yeah. My sister helps me out, so it went well. PY: Do you think there are any changes in the process for anyone who wants to be business
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owners here in Saint Cloud, or do you believe it’s still the same? NS: I’m not sure, because I didn’t try to open more. Even though I got started already, a lot of people help out too, I think. We had Downtown Council that suggests new ideas. And help get loan and... yeah... at that time, you know like just some people that they not sure about just a few people that they wasn’t sure if we can do it, but yeah, like I said, when I got started, then there’s organization that help out, the Downtown Council. PY: Sure, that’s great. NS: And then, now... is like, yeah... I open for many years and others, when I want to do something, then they help out. PY: Now, you said that you’re married. How many children do you and your husband have together? NS: I got divorced. PY: OK. NS: Yeah. But, I had two boys. PY: And are they living here in Saint Cloud? NS: My first one is twenty-seven years old and he is starting optometry school in Chicago, and my second one is twenty-five years old and he is doing graduate school at the U of M, Minnesota, in chemistry. PY: Do they come back home often to visit mom, or once in awhile? NS: Just when they have break, and they came back. PY: Are you remarried, or…? NS: No, I didn’t. My second son got married in 2010, and that’s the first one. PY: So your second son, who lives right now in Minneapolis – who’s attending school in Minneapolis right now for his graduate school – got married in 2010? NS: Yeah. PY: Wow, that’s a beautiful picture. Now, how often do you contact your family back in Thailand? You say you go once a year. NS: Yeah, I been to visit my mom, ‘cause she’s ninety now, and, like, I try to go once a year, but
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I call her, like, a couple times a week, or I at least try to call her couple times a week. PY: When you go back to Thailand do you see that there’s a difference in the culture, difference as... how much has the society changed in Thailand? NS: Yeah, like the young kids, they like, more outspoken and more open up than our generation. [Chuckles] But in my family we kind of older generation [chuckles] I think, ‘because I’m the youngest in my family and I’m fifty, and my sister seventy, and she stay with my mom. So, it’s like at my house is old people stay at my house. My mom ninety and my sister seventy, and another sister stay there, too. She’s fifty-eight. Yeah. [Chuckles] PY: Wow. Can you describe the happiest moment in your life – one of the happiest moments in your life? NS: [Chuckles] One of the happiest? I have a lot of them, but… PY: A few of them – you can describe a few of them. NS: The happiest one? Oh, I don’t know. It’s like my kids graduate school and then, you know, yeah, they decide to go, to continue school, yeah. PY: Yeah, that’s great accomplishments. Do you provide financial help for them to continue school? NS: Not really. Just help out a little bit, but they got, one of them gets financial grant, yeah, and another one, he got help from his dad. PY: Sure. What is something that you’re really proud of, besides your children’s education, their success in education – are there any other moments in your life that you’re really proud of? NS: Yeah. Every time it’s busy at Sawatdee, then I’m happy. PY: Do you have many employees that help you? NS: Yeah. We work like family and I always tell customers, like this is a family business but none of them is my family. [Chuckles] Like they help out. They help take care of the business. PY: Wonderful. How many employees do you have at Sawatdee? NS: Like eight people and most of them working part-time, and they work full-time somewhere else and then they come work part-time. PY: Sure. Do you get a lot of student workers, since you’re so close to Saint Cloud University? NS: Yes, like some of them are students and they are part-timer, too.
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PY: Do you consider Minnesota your home now? NS: Yeah. I live here like thirty years, more than I lived in Thailand. It’s still like Thailand is hometown, too. PY: Would you consider going back to Thailand to live there, maybe after retirement? NS: Maybe, maybe, I’m not sure yet, but, yeah, I could. But I have my children here, and they’re going to have children, and... Yeah, so. The one that got married, they’re going to have a baby later on this year, so… PY: Oh, congratulations! NS: Thank you. PY: So how do you feel about being a grandma? NS: [laughter] Excited. I’m sure it will be fun. Yup. PY: Do they live here in Saint Cloud after schooling, or have they decided that they want to live somewhere else besides Saint Cloud? NS: They haven’t decided yet, but I don’t think in Saint Cloud, because there’s no job for them. Yeah, I don’t think there’s job that suits him here. PY: More sources in the city? NS: Yeah. PY: Noi, I will be concluding this interview soon. Is there any final statement you want to make? NS: Yeah, I came here ‘cause my sister help bring me here and I’m thankful for that, you know, I got this opportunity and now I have restaurant and enjoy serving, like, my Thai food from my homeland, and also, like, besides Thai food I’m glad to share the culture and I enjoy working at my restaurant because the way we run business is like family, so I’m happy to be here and to work at my place. [Chuckles] PY: Thank you so much for sharing your story with me this late afternoon. You’re such a wonderful narrator. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve had so much fun doing this interview with you, so thank you so much. NS: Thank you.

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