My daughter’s Thai tale of transformation

Today’s troubled Thailand is a far cry from the country that nurtured my daughter beyond the nest.


By Justin Catanoso

“Dad, hold still! You’re rocking the bike!”

Emilia was right. Seated behind her on her silver motorbike, I kept shifting my weight to avoid her long, curly hair from tickling my face. It was a strange place to be in all respects.

We were in Saraburi, a damp and dense industrial city about 70 miles north of Bangkok where my daughter had been teaching elementary school for more than a year. In heavy traffic, Emilia wove calmly through narrow lines of cars and trucks to gain an advantage at the stop lights. As if those two things weren’t strange enough, there was this: I was, for the first time, a mere passenger behind my daughter who was leading me to destinations unknown.

As we sped past street vendors and Buddhist shrines, I marveled at the role reversal. For most of Emilia’s 24 years, I served as her and her two sisters’ tour guide. Along with my wife, I picked the locations. I researched the sights. I planned the adventures. I reserved the hotels. I drove.

Now the keys, so to speak, were in the other hand. Emilia was in complete control.

And that, too, took some getting used to. Growing up, my eldest daughter did not take naturally to adventure. Being born two weeks beyond her due date seemed a metaphor for a kid with a tendency to hunker down and stay put. Switching elementary schools was torture. Transitioning to high school required a white-knuckled leap. And when it came time for college, she opted for the university just a few blocks from our home.

Honestly, there was a time when I thought Emilia may never leave the zip code.

But after graduation, she revealed what for her was a bold plan. Instead of seeking a teaching job in town, which seemed inevitable, she decided to teach overseas. For five months.

Really? You?

With the help of a placement program, Emilia landed a short-term contract at an elementary school in Saraburi, Thailand. Twelve hours ahead by time zone, it was exactly on the other side of the world. She spent months handling the logistics and paperwork. She reveled in telling her friends and relatives about her exotic plans. Knowing Emilia, they were as stunned as we were.

Alas, her grand vision nearly evaporated at the local airport. She managed to board, but only reluctantly, seemingly questioning her ability to alter her own DNA. She called in tears from Houston. And again from Los Angeles. Our hearts ached for her. We knew so well how she was struggling. But, significantly, she kept pushing herself forward.

Every time the phone rang over the next several weeks, we half expected her to say she was coming home. But she didn’t. She made fast friends with other young Americans on teaching visas. She fell in love with the gentle and lovely Thai children in her classes. And after crashing her motorbike in traffic on the first day she tried to drive alone, she brushed herself off and never fell again.

“They want me to stay on more than five months,” Emilia told us after a few weeks in Saraburi. “They want me to stay the entire school year. I’m going to do it.”

Really? You?

Emilia missed one Christmas at home. And then another. She chose instead to travel across Thailand and to visit once-hostile countries of Laos and Vietnam. No matter how often we Skyped, we couldn’t really know how the world was changing our daughter, and how she was rising to meet that change.

So we flew halfway around the world to see for ourselves. We arrived in a far-off land as helpless as babies. But Emilia, so long a follower, was now a leader. She picked the hotels. She planned the adventures. She knew all about the sights. She drove.

Our role reversal complete, I sat on the back of the motorbike as Emilia steered me clear through her city and down a dusty, rural road to a destination on the river. I was in good hands.

“We’re almost there, Dad. You’re going to love this place.”

Justin Catanoso is Director of Journalism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and author of the memoir My Cousin the Saint: A Story of Love, Miracles, and an Italian Family Reunited (Harper Perennial).