WSMR celebrated Asian-Pacific American Heritage month in an event hosted by the Navy with traditional Polynesian dancing, Asian food, and a special guest speaker, May 20.
Capt. Angela Somnuk, the aide-de-camp to WSMR commander Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, spoke about her heritage and her family’s experience moving from Thailand to the United States.
“For those of you who have not figured out my ethnicity, I am Thai Rican,” Somnuk said. Her father is from Thailand and her mother is from Puerto Rico.
The youngest of five children, Somnuk’s father moved to a small town in Minnesota with his family when he was eight years old. Somnuk explained that the town had been burned down and never rebuilt, so only a few families lived there. Arriving in October, the family felt both a climate and culture shock.
The children also faced a language barrier. Somnuk said her father and his siblings had been taught English in Thailand, but their accents were so heavy that they had to write everything they needed to say to be understood.
“They were the only Asians in town, so they were teased and bullied quite often. My dad’s oldest brother, he was definitely a rebel. He almost got in trouble because he almost threw another kid out of the window because he was picking on my two aunts,” Somnuk said.
She said her father also recalled being bullied in school and fighting one of his bullies.
The school tutor helped the kids learn English and three of the children graduated high school with honors. After high school, Somnuk’s father and three of his siblings enlisted in the military.
“I wanted to tell you the story of my dad just to show you how hard of a worker he was and how far he’s come,” Somnuk said. “He went from (being) a non-English speaking kid from Thailand, to (being) a distinguished 24-year career U.S. Army officer who helped raise us three kids, who are all currently serving as Army captains.”
Somnuk’s brother, Victor, and sister, Christina, are both Army captains stationed in Hawaii.
Somnuk also spoke about her struggles being of Asian descent. She said her biggest problem was doing the 12-mile run in three hours because she has a height disadvantage. She said the good part of having an Asian background and a Puerto Rican mother is that she was always around rice and other good food.
“I am very proud to call myself an Asian. They are an incredibly talented and passionate group of people that have contributed immensely to this nation. Both Asians and Pacific Islanders,” Somnuk said. “They’ve contributed in terms of food, technology, entertainment, social norms and fashion, to name a few.”
The event welcomed performers from Desert Polynesia from San Antonio, Texas. In a fun-filled performance, they sang and performed Pacific Island dances. Then, they taught several audience members, including Somnuk and Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, a few dance moves. At the instruction of the Desert Polynesia dancers, they reached up with one hand to ‘pick the coconut’ and reached down to ‘pick the pineapple’ with the other hand. They ‘tied’ the fruits to their hips and ‘bumped’ the fruits away using their hips. The final step required them to make a ‘fruit salad’ swaying their hips left and right.
“A few years ago I had the privilege to travel to Thailand and I found out that Thailand’s motto is the city of smiles. So, truly they were very warm, gracious, and friendly people,” Bingham said as she proceeded to award Somnuk with a coin and a certificate.
The month of May was chosen as Asian-Pacific American Heritage month in honor of the first immigration of Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, built mostly by Chinese workers on May 10, 1869.