By Ashley Sullivan
I’m halfway through a two-week trip to Thailand when a commotion in the house where I’m staying suddenly interrupts a Skype call with my husband. A flash of someone running by, a wild leap onto the adjacent couch, a blanket tossed into the air. I tell my husband to hold and pull out an ear bud.
“What…” I begin to ask, but a muffled voice from under the blanket shushes me.
“Cat’s roommate is just about to arrive! I’m going to surprise her!”
With mischievous laughter the figure pulls the blanket completely over his body. I turn the computer around so my husband can watch the scene unfold from his couch on the other side of the world.
“This,” I tell him, “is Somchai.”
At 5 foot 4, Somchai Thongkao may not be the first person you notice in a room, but don’t be fooled – this young Thai man isn’t easily overlooked. It might be his sweeping, toothy smile or the alluring twinkle in his eye that first draws you in, but it will be his charisma that makes you stay.
My first introduction to Somchai was through the stories his fiancé, Cat, would tell me about him over the phone. The tales of his antics always made me laugh, but it was the account of how they became a couple that captivated me the most.
When Cat and Somchai first met several years ago, they couldn’t communicate verbally – he didn’t speak any English, and she spoke very little Thai. She says it was his smile, his energy, and his jovial disposition that initially drew her in. Despite the language barrier, their relationship blossomed. This guy, I thought, must be pretty unique.
At least part of Somchai’s free spirit could be attributed to his upbringing. In the remote Lahu hill tribe village where he spent his early years, imagination was a crucial element for entertainment and play. Though the way he describes his childhood sounds tranquil– hours spent in nature, ample time for long conversations with family and friends – Somchai admits that his puckish nature was present even in his early years.
“I was a very naughty kid!” he tells me with a laugh. “Everyday, I did only things that made me happy – shooting birds, spearing fish, riding buffalo. One day, I had a race with my friend. I rode my buffalo, and he rode his horse. I think you can guess who won!”
The moment we arrive in a remote mountain community similar to the one in which Somchai grew up, he is like a magnet for excited village kids. I watch as he and Cat work as a team to capture photos: she skillfully operating the camera while he steps in behind her, bouncing up and down and pulling silly faces.
It’s obvious that Somchai is comfortable here and has no trouble with entertaining, but I wonder about the more responsible roles in his life. He’s a ministry leader. He holds a University degree and speaks three languages. Clearly he isn’t lacking ambition. While Somchai’s outer world may appear to be all fun and games, it's hard not to think there’s more to him than meets the eye.
When Somchai was just 13 years old, he left his family to attend a boarding school in Fang, a larger city at the base of the mountains. Because he didn’t have relatives nearby, Somchai lived in a group home during the school year. Not long after his arrival, the manager of the home took notice of Somchai’s enthusiasm and energy. What Somchai previously described as “naughty” behavior, this man recognized as something different: resourcefulness and natural leadership ability. He made Somchai the head boy of the home, in charge of all the other children.
Somchai told me that this appointment presented him with a huge challenge. He is a natural leader, but employing those instinctive abilities to set a positive example for his peers was something new and sometimes difficult for him.
“I had friends who drank a lot of alcohol, smoked, and went to pubs,” he recalls.
“They wanted me to join them and it was hard for me to say no.”
To distract himself from seeking thrills with his friends, Somchai channeled his energy into other things: academics and deepening his relationship with the God his parents had taught him about. He began mentoring younger kids and teaching them how to study the Bible and pray. The satisfaction of helping others and living up to his potential as a positive role model was enough to keep Somchai out of trouble - at least for a while.
Because this season of Somchai’s life seems triumphant, I was sympathetic when he told me about the “rebellious phase” he went through just a few years later. It wasn’t illegal substances or partying that piqued Somchai’s interest in high school, but motorbike racing.
On the surface it seems innocent enough, but Somchai told me his compulsion for motorbike racing could have easily cost him his life. The more I learned about the pastime, the less surprised I was that it could draw him in. These high-speed, electrifying competitions would be hard for anyone with a bent toward excitement to pass up. Still, exhilaration often comes at a price, and by competing Somchai knew he was taking chances with his health.
Almost predictably, it was the death of three friends in a racing accident that forced Somchai to sincerely reassess his dangerous hobby and take stock of how he was living his life. In his grief, Somchai clung to the belief that there must be something more than just “being born, living, and dying.” He decided to recommit his life to what he thought that “something more” might be: following God.
A few days after we return from the mountains, I accompany Cat and Somchai to church. Somchai is the worship leader for his faith community. I don’t need to understand Thai to recognize the passion and assuredness in Somchai’s voice as he leads the congregation. He’s the same person I’ve been around for two weeks – magnetic, engaging, enthusiastic – but when he’s on stage something else emerges: the poise of a seasoned, mature leader.
If grappling with the death of his friends was the catalyst for Somchai’s spiritual growth, it was acceptance into Compassion International’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) that helped Somchai blossom as a leader.
Admittance to the LDP is no easy task. Somchai persisted through three rounds of interviews and a selection camp before his name was announced as a chosen candidate. Out of the 100 people who applied, only 15 were admitted.
Although the news that he made the cut was certainly a cause for celebration, there was one caveat: his Compassion sponsors had to agree to continue supporting him through the LDP. And it comes with a hefty price tag: a quadrupled financial commitment for sponsors.
Ultimately, Somchai’s sponsors, a farm-owning family from Nebraska, said it was God’s leading that prompted them to continue supporting him through the LDP. I can’t help wondering if Somchai’s vibrant, endearing personality had something to do with it as well.
Now, four years later in his position as Ministry Coordinator & Trainer for SIM’s Sports Friends, Somchai teaches Thai Christians how they can use something as simple as a soccer ball to build relationships and mentor the young people around them. The role requires enthusiasm and the ability to inspire. It was tailor made.
It’s my last night in Thailand. Somchai drives Cat and I to dinner and as we near the restaurant, he begins reversing into a parallel-parking space. Without warning, we jolt to a stop and there is a sickening thud. I whip around to inspect the damage. But, to my surprise, we’re not even close to the vehicle behind us.
I hear a familiar chuckle from the driver’s seat.
“Gotcha,” Somchai hoots, and I catch a glimpse of his Cheshire smile in the rear-view mirror. He thumps his fist on the plastic of the door while tapping the breaks, recreating the prank. We collapse into fits of laughter.
This is Somchai. In so many ways he’s earned the title of respected leader, but to stop his characterization there just wouldn’t be fair. Somchai has found a way to play an essential role in his community without sacrificing the purest form of himself. To me, that’s the most admirable thing of all.