January 17th, 2011

japan, possibility

my story as a Thai-American...

Hello community!   I've been meaning to write to my community ever since coming back from Asia and really thankful to the Thai Community Development Center for hiring a great gentleman to encourage a few of us Thai Americans here in Los Angeles (young and old) to share our message with our communities.    What I discovered while presenting Friday night is regardless of whether you are Thai or not, my story is fundamentally about the joy of volunteerism and an invitation to go out there and make a difference!!!

A few of you have requested to read my last draft and thanks to those of you who have already provided feedback - I'll incorporate these changes into an upcoming Pecha Kucha piece and yes, there is a video of Friday night that has yet to be posted.   Enjoy!

Engineer Turned Dancer

Sawadee-krup.  My name is Chinarut Ruangchotvit.   I am an American-born Thai and raised on the east coast before I moved out to Silicon Valley to start my career as an engineer.   I love to experiment with my life and one of the best things I’ve ever done is commit to live in Thailand for 4 years.   Not only did I discover my roots but I also discovered the unexpected results that happen when people get your passions in life!

So let’s set the record straight, I love technology - my dad handed me a computer when I was 8 and it became my best friend.   You can imagine at 8 years old, it’s pretty much a toy like everything else in life!   So ever since then, whether it’s a computer, programming, being on the Internet, the latest gadget like the iPad - it’s always fun.  I mean if it’s not fun, just like any kid would, you’ll put it down and go onto the next thing that grabs your attention.  and as you know in our modern world, there is no shortage of technology to play with!

I eventually took on engineering and my first job was at Intel.  I’m really grateful for Intel for having a “new-hire network” - a place to socialize and make new friends.   It didn’t take very long to realize for some reason the network was dominated by Asian folks.   In case you haven’t experienced this yourself, women who want to learn how to social dance need guys to drag to lessons.   You can just imagine how awkward this was but hey, we were young and we played along!   I eventually found a salsa teacher I could really learn from and have never since lost my partner dance spirit.

Now the interesting thing I discovered next is there was another network inside Intel that was mostly non-Asian.  they were the smartest people who you think of when people say “work hard, play hard”   We would go to all kinds of parties and sometimes I’d find myself dancing all night long!   We even found a “dancing happy hour” that amazingly enough had people after work *dancing* by 6pm on a wednesday night in downtown SF.   we would finish by 9pm and it was always enough time to go home and go to work the next day!   That was the beginning of the end of late night dancing for me and is also an aspect of American culture I fell in love with is how creative we are in socializing.

So how does this fit with my career as an engineer?    I had to take my love for “building things” somewhere!   That is when I stumbled upon a seminar that changed my life.   I started to realize the kind of community I wanted to build was a dance community and one that was really passionate about working together and creating something bigger than ourselves.

One day, we ran into a gentleman who said he doesn’t dance because people laugh at him.   Well - we thought this was pretty normal - why don’t you show us how to dance?   WOW - we couldn’t believe someone could dance so badly! :-o   So with his permission, we coached him on some basic movement and a week later, I’m dancing at a party and he comes up to me and gives me a big hug and says “You don’t know what you’ve done!   I can dance in front of 200 people and have fun!”

That’s when we knew we were onto something.

So we invented a workshop called “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” - we wanted to address the issues people encounter that stops them from dancing.   Everyone knows dancing is fun - you can see it on people’s faces!    We wanted to help people get to the bottom of what they were dealing with around dance.   We saw a vision of everyone having fun with dancing - I mean EVERYONE.

We experimented with a career center and realized we had discovered a really great way to open people up - we had job searchers who were depressed and ESL students who were afraid to speak chatting away after 2 hours.

This is when my opportunity to volunteer in Thailand for 4 years showed up.   I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, be able to support a live-in partner and make ends meet - whatever money we received was always enough!   We were invited to share our work with kids and never dreamed it would turn into a 4 month program that would open kids up to creativity and give them the desire to learn.   The parents of these kids called it “Dance Chalat” - Chalat in Thai means “smart” - parents realized dance was a fun way to make kids smart!

As an engineer, I see dance as a “tool” - dance has the means to change the culture of organizations, teams, and groups and we just stumbled upon the power it had on communities - we struck gold!

I think one of the most memorable moments is when we got our kids up on stage and they invited 40 adults to come up on stage - one child invited all the adults to jump around like cats & dogs - these are kids - so they did it!   One woman next to me eventually stood up and said “are we in Thailand?!?  I’ve never seen anything like this ever before!  This is not what Thai people do in front of 200 strangers!”

That’s when we knew we were making a contribution to Thai culture - we had something we developed in America and through some stroke of luck - had the opportunity to share what we loved in Thailand and it opened up people’s eyes as to what’s possible in life.

So this is a bold invitation you bring your passion back to Thailand and have everyone get what makes you so proud to be a Thai-American!!

Thank you!