FEATURES

2004 SOUTHEAST ASIA TSUNAMI
James Aaron Parmelee 1943-
Benjamin Edward, George Washington, George Washington, Moses Edwards, Moses, Oliver, Jonathan,
Joshua, John, John

Lebanon (Mo.) Daily Record, Jan. 7, 2005

A HELPLESS FEELING
Local family fearful for school, friends left behind in wake of tsunami

By Matt Decker

Lebanon, MO. -- "We were here when all of this happened, so we were not able to be very much help," James Parmelee said.

The former Lebanon resident and his wife, Sureepon, who live in Thailand, were four days into a holiday visit to their children in Springfield when tsunamis swept across a dozen southern Asian nations Dec. 26, 2004, including parts of their home country.

While the Parmelees make their home in Bangkok, which was not affected by the storms, they feared for an English-teaching school they own on the island of Phuket, and were extremely concerned about the school's staff.

With phone lines down across the region, the Parmelees' first attempts to call friends and family members failed, and they watched helplessly along with their children, 19-year-old Jeynah and 16-year-old Ben, as news channels reported an ever-rising death toll from the tsunamis. Later, a cell-phone call from Sureepon's sister and subsequent e-mails from one of the school's instructors brought good news: all family members and staff members at the Phuket school were accounted for.

"We have a school about 500 yards from Patong Beach, where the tsunami hit," James said. "Luckily, our school is about 200 yards beyond the area of devastation, so our school was not damaged. We weren't hit by the wave, but the flooding did reach our school. So, no one from our school was injured or missing. However, friends of theirs may still be missing or may be dead, we don't know. A lot of people did lose their lives."

The Parmelees had been to the beach -- a popular area with tourists -- many times, and had frequented a below-ground-level food market that the tsunamis turned into a death trap.

"I had just gone there about one week before we came to America," Sureepon said. "When we stay in Phuket, and we go to the supermarket, we usually go to the underground to buy food. When this happened, the wave hit, the water went into the underground and many people died -- they could not get out. It took about three days to get the water out, and they found 300 to 400 dead."

James said that the news was especially shocking because of Thailand's normally stable weather.

'Thailand, to my knowledge, has never had an earthquake. Thailand does not have tornadoes. Down south, there may be the occasional typhoon, but very rarely. There is flooding during the rainy season, but overall, it's a very stable country, and a very delightful country to visit or to live in," James said.

James Parmelee has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years. Originally from Forsyth, James moved with his family to Lebanon when he was about 6 years old. After graduating from Lebanon High School and attending the University of Missouri-Columbia, he served in the U.S. Army in Thailand after serving a one-year tour in Vietnam.

"I had a little more than a year remaining in my military service, and I spent that in Thailand, and I liked the place so much that after I got out of the service I went back," James said. "America is a wonderful place to live -- it's a great country. It's not the only wonderful place to live or the only great country. In Thailand, not only is the weather more moderate year-round, but the people are very sweet, kind, gentle, helpful, and above all other things, tolerant. So, people go on an innocent visit to Thailand and very often they fall in love with the place, they fall in love with the people, and very often they end up spending the rest of their lives there."

James said that, like many other Americans and Europeans who settle in Thailand, he made his living for many years teaching English.

"Obviously, foreigners cannot go into Thailand and take over the job opportunities that rightly belong to the Thais," James said. "The Thai people have a strong need to improve their ability in English in order to make their way in the world marketplace, so there is a huge demand for qualified English teachers. So, most of the foreigners who make their home in Thailand end up teaching English. ... When I first went to Thailand, I probably tried two or three different types of jobs, but I ended up teaching."

In 1999, James and Sureepon opened their first school to train English teachers in the country, called the Text-And-Talk Academy. Today, they own four schools, including one in Bangkok, the towns of Pattaya and Chiangmai in addition to the school at Phuket.

"On our side, since 1999, we have conducted a teacher-training program, so that foreigners coming into Thailand who want to stay and want to receive the qualification as a teacher are able to attend our course. And up to now, we have trained nearly 1,300 professional English teachers," James said. "Most of those are still teaching in Thailand, although we have them teaching all over the world."

Four years ago, the Parmelees sent their children to Lebanon to complete their education.

Today, Jeynah, who graduated from Lebanon last year, is a freshman attending Ozarks. Technical Community College, where she maintains a 3.7 grade-point average. Ben is a junior at Lebanon High School, where he wrestles and plays tennis. Both maintain dual citizenship and say they consider both Thailand and the U.S. their homes.

"We really hate to be away from the children. Even though we have language schools in Bangkok, the Thai people are so friendly, but they prefer to speak their own language and only speak English when they have to," James said. "So, I thought I want my children to be educated abroad so that they become like English native speakers. Lebanon is still as nice and friendly as ever it was, and it's a great place for them to get their education. They'll end up living in Thailand, I think, but obviously they will have a great command of English."

While they feel fortunate to have escaped the devastation, the Parmelees say they are anxious to return home and to the Phuket school to do what they can to help.

"I would say we were lucky not to be on the beach at the time. Obviously, we feel lucky at this time of the year to have a little time to spend with our children. Other than that, I don't feel lucky at all. If were a different time of year, I would feel better being there so I could see what was going on," James said. "... If we could have, we probably would have gone back earlier, but it's almost impossible to change an airline reservation at this time of the year."

James has been inspired by reports of heroic rescues and stories of those who simply stayed to help in Thailand and elsewhere. Ultimately, he believes Thailand will recover from the devastation more quickly because it has more infrastructure than many of the surrounding nations.

"I must say there are a lot of heroic people there, both Thai people and foreigners. Even some foreigners who have lost loved ones have stayed to help other people and to help find people," James said. "There will be a tragic aftermath of the whole event in terms of diseases, however, I think these in Thailand will be fairly well controlled. In areas such as Indonesia and India, it may be that diseases such as cholera and smallpox and other diseases will actually kill more people than the tsunami did. But Thailand is normally well organized in terms of preventing and curing disease."

Like their parents, Jeynah and Ben say they were very concerned about the fate of the Phuket school when they first heard about the tsunamis. Both brother and sister also say their hearts go out to the victims of the disaster.

"We were kind of wondering if our staff people were safe," Ben said.

"We are really sad for the people, and people who lost their loved ones," Jeynah said.

When asked what his opinion about how Americans can best help people in Thailand and other areas affected by the tsunamis, James Parmelee said he believes making monetary donations through established charities will do the most good.

"I think without a doubt, if comes down to the form of assistance, it's far better to donate cash so that it can be spent in a way that is needed," he said. "If they have too many blankets and not enough food, that's not so good. So, cash donations to established charitable organizations that can be trusted is the best way to go, I think."

James said he also hopes Americans and European tourists will return to Thailand.

"Thailand is a very nice place to live, there are very nice people there, and certainly it is a wonderful place to visit and do some exotic shopping," James said. "I think if people have a chance to go and visit, they should not be worried about tsunamis. This is something we hope never happens more than once in a lifetime, and certainly, it had never happened before there."