Exchange student from Thailand finds home in Decatur
DECATUR — Since the end of the second World War, countries around the world have opened their borders to allow the trading of the best and brightest high school students in what would become the foreign exchange program. Decatur became the host for a year to one lucky Indochinese student.
Airbus Dungsungnoen, from Bangkok, Thailand, arrived in Decatur Aug. 8, 2017. Six days later, she began her nine-month journey into the American educational system and Decatur High. Airbus recalls that the first day of class was far from easy and she felt self-conscious about fitting in.
“On the first day, I wanted to go home so bad,” she recounts. “I would go home (in Decatur) and cry because I didn’t think I could fit into this school.”
After about a week, she adjusted to her new surroundings and did eventually “fit in.”
To answer the question of whether Airbus is her real first name, it is. Her father, Panom Dungsungnoen, is a pilot for Thai Airways, a small international carrier headquartered in Chatuchak, Bangkok, Thailand. Panom is not only a pilot but a huge aviation enthusiast — so much so that he named each of his children after one of the planes he flew as an airline pilot.
“I have one older sister who is named Boeing,” Airbus said. “And a younger brother named MD (McDonald-Douglas MD-11).
Airbus’ father is not the only member of her family that works in the aviation industry. Her mother, Aree, works as an air traffic controller.
In Bangkok, Airbus attends a private Christian school. There, the core curriculum is completely different from that of Decatur.
The schools are governed by the Mattayom Suksa system, which was developed by the Thailand Department of Education. It stresses eight essential subjects each year: Thai language, math, science, social-religious-culture, health-physical science, professional works-technology, foreign language and art.
“When we are in our sophomore year, we want to go to either Mat-science or Mat-English or Matlanguage,” said Airbus. “I choose Mat-English because it is not too hard.”
Airbus has transitioned very well to the United States and Arkansas educational system. She is currently taking 11th-grade English, algebra III, U.S. history, geometry, anatomy and athletics.
“It was a lot easier in some classes like math,” said Airbus. “Some topics I already learned in my sophomore year (in Thailand), so I kind of know already.”
In Thailand, there is little emphasis on sports in the schools. They do have classes similar to physical education that work to keep the student physically fit. There is a class that teaches the basic fundamentals of more popular forms of sports, but there is no emphasis on the competitive nature of these sports.
“We have a PT class,” Airbus recounts. “Each year we learn a different kind of sports. My freshmen year, I learned basketball. We didn’t really play it (in competition).”
So when she went out for the Lady Bulldog varsity basketball team, she had no idea what she would face in a competitive environment. But Airbus learned quickly and became an excellent defensive player for Decatur. Toward the end of the season, Coach Ashley Riggles and Airbus’ teammates tried to give her the ball to put up the first points of her career. But true to the game, Airbus passed off the ball to one of her teammates because she didn’t have a clear shot. She had three opportunities but never was able to make that first basket.
The entire process of competitive sports was a new concept for Airbus.
“It was new to me,” Airbus said. “Everybody expects a lot from us, to win and to go to state. It made me want to get better every day and I wanted to prove to everybody that I could do it.”
From the basketball experience, Airbus entered two completely different sports, soccer and softball. Airbus became a senior member of the first Decatur varsity girls’ soccer team, which restarted after more than five years of inactivity. Once again, she was entering new territory. But she joined sports for a very interesting reason.
“At first, I joined sports because I heard that if you play sports you would get a lot of friends,” said Airbus, “I didn’t think that I would get a lot of friends. At first, I didn’t know that they loved me as much. But on the senior night (basketball) when they gave me the balloons and the book, that made me cry.”
But of all the three sports, basketball, soccer and softball, Airbus admits that she liked the softball experience the best.
“I like softball the most,” Airbus admitted. “I played badminton before and I kind of like the batting thing the most.”
She will graduate from Decatur High School in May before returning to Thailand at the end of May to complete her education there. But she will take home a lot of lasting friendships and memories of a small community and its many loving people that is Decatur, Ark., U.S.A.
Decatur’s Airbus Dungsungnoen (30) tries to line up a shot from inside the lane during the Decatur v. Life Way girls’ basketball game in Decatur on Dec. 15.
Airbus Dungsungnoen (right) cuts off a Lady Yellow Jacket player’s attempt to drive toward the basket during the Decatur v. Kingston game Dec. 5 in Decatur. Dungsungnoen never played competitive basketball before coming to Decatur from Thailand.