By Patricia Nangkal
Although I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, I knew growing up I was not like my peers. No one looked like me or was familiar with the meals my family ate such as, Pad Thai or Paella. No one could figure out my diverse ethnic make-up while I spoke perfect English but looked foreign.
No one had ever heard of Thai people or Thai food but they knew what Chinese food was, so by default I was lumped under the Chinese category. People were familiar with Mexican food, and assumed that I must be Mexican but had no clue that the Castilian my grandmother spoke originated from Spain.
What stood out as different to others was perfectly “normal” to me. I am a former Miami, Florida, native of Thai, Spanish, and British descent. I am referred to as a Eurasian but I’ve never been to Europe. What is considered “normal” within my family is setting high standards, possessing a steadfast determination and pursuing all goals with the utmost integrity.
My great-grandmother, Louise Degenhardt, was a German woman of Jewish faith, who died while giving birth to her only child. Distraught and tormented by the loss of his wife, Raymond Shelton, a prominent English businessman, sent their son, Robert Shelton (my grandfather), to live with his two aunts in Connecticut.
My great-grandfather, a businessman who worked for President Calvin Coolidge and a firm believer in obtaining a strong education, instilled upon Robert the idea to pursue a degree in business, by attending Harvard University. After attaining his degree, Robert decided to serve his country as a military police officer during World War II.
My grandmother, Patricia Rivas, was the daughter of a traveling C.P.A. from the Canary Islands, Spain. Her father, Adolph Rivas, took his family on business trips. While her father was conducting business in San Antonio, Texas, Patricia attended a USO party, where she volunteered as a hat-check girl. There she met and fell instantly for military police officer, Robert Shelton.
“She had jet black hair and piercing green eyes. I nicknamed her Blackey, boy was she was a green eyed beauty!” Robert said. The two eloped and relocated to Miami, Florida.
My grandfather, S. Nangkalaphivath (my father’s lineage) was a high-ranking custom’s official who prevented numerous large-scale drug smuggling attempts into Thailand. His heroism and insurmountable efforts to bring about change within the country was highly regarded by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. As a declaration for all the good he has done for the country King Bhumibol Adulyadej bestowed a new last name to my grandfather. To be given a new last name of royal acclaim is an honor unlike any other.
My father, Tom, the youngest son of the Nangkalaphivath family, set his sights on being the first one in the family to pursue a college degree from the United States. After obtaining a student visa he proudly informed his parents that he would not need any financial help and could do everything on his own.
“Me and my big mouth! Little did I know what I would see in the U.S.A.” Tom said.
Assuming that Washington D.C., as the U.S. capital, would be a highly respectable place to live, he was shocked to discover the city in complete disarray with thousands of tents scattered across the grounds of the Lincoln, Memorial. People were running, fighting and even stabbing each other in the streets. The reason: Martin Luther King had just been assassinated.
“I knew very little English but when you’re taking public transportation and are told to get your apartment keys ready in-hand and to RUN home, don’t walk, you do!” Tom said.
Tom explained that he knew how to read and write some English but did not necessarily understand what he was saying. This was challenging for him when he got hungry.
“Surviving on ‘hamburger coke please’ for a year because you don’t know how to order anything else came in handy.”
He wanted to leave Washington, D.C., but not give up his college dream, so he was pleased when friends recommended Lindsey Hopkins in Miami, Florida, as an excellent and inexpensive English school to attend. When he arrived, the English class at Lindsey Hopkins was full but he wasn’t discouraged.
“I went every day and even though the class was full, I chose to sit on the floor. They felt bad for me, and they knew I wasn’t giving up, so they eventually brought me a chair,” he said chuckling.
Tom’s perseverance paid off. He obtained a degree in structural engineering and completed his English studies at Lindsey Hopkins.
Tom reminisced about renting a house with a group of Thai friends who were also pursuing their college degrees. He said he had many good times with them and they gave each other great advice.
“I’ll never forget, they said to me, the best way to learn English really fast is to get an American girlfriend. That week, I met Magie Shelton. Can you believe your mom lived in the neighborhood? I said to her, ‘Hello! Hello!’
“The rest is history,” Tom said, smiling.