Descendants of the Republic of China (ROC) troops stranded in Thailand after the Chinese Civil War are striving to reconnect with their roots — and open up future opportunities — by learning their parents’ language.
Chinese-language education has become a tradition for students in the northern Thai villages where the offspring of Chinese soldiers, largely from southwest China, ended up after the ROC moved its capital to Taipei and the People’s Republic of China was founded.
In Ban Mai Nong Bua, north of Chiang Mai City, about 1,600 students spend their days at regular Thai schools and their nights at Yixin, a cram school where they brush up on Chinese and, for most of the students, learn to write in traditional Chinese characters.
When regular schools take a break in October, these students continue to attend classes at Yixin to learn phonetics and practice reading with books provided by the Taiwanese Ministry of Education.
They are tracing their heritage and, at the same time, setting themselves on a path to a better future.
By arming themselves with linguistic and cultural skills they can find careers other than farming, like translators or tour guides, school principal Shen Qingmin said.
Career choices are also limited in nearby Ban Arunothai, where more than half of the villagers scrape by as farmers, according to Yang Guoshun, the head of a Chinese school in the village.
“A lot of people are in poverty here, living off the land day-to-day,” Yang said.
“The ones who can do so make their way to Bangkok or Phuket to work as tour guides, where they do better for themselves,” Yang added.
Being able to speak Mandarin — an official language in Taiwan, China and Singapore and spoken by ethnic Chinese worldwide — creates other possibilities for rural Thai-Chinese, such as opening their own businesses.
Yang Xueqing, a board member at Yixin, used his Chinese skills to pursue a college education in Taiwan.
After returning to Thailand and working for a few years in Bangkok, he moved back to his hometown to open an orchard.
However, the 43-year-old recalls that despite his relative success, bad weather can hurt his lychee and tangerine yields, meaning he has to endure up to a year without income.
He and his family have since shifted their attention to ranches and he now hopes to draw tourists seeking a respite from city life to his four properties around Chiang Mai.
With knowledge of Thai and Mandarin, ethnic Chinese in northern Thailand are uniquely equipped to thrive in business, as Yang has.
All of the good opportunities lie away from the rural north, Yang said, but as soon as young people gain enough experience and capital in other places, they will be poised to come home and make a better life not just for themselves, but for their communities as well.