By Mia Hansson
Eva arrives forty minutes early to the interview, utterly surprised at the absence of traffic. I find her lounging in a red leather chair with a book, among cats and old black-and-white photographs in the lobby of the Atlanta. She is, dare I say it, statuesque, with a warm smile and naturally graceful gestures as we move to the coffee-shop.
On the telephone she’d said that she doesn’t normally give interviews – “Why would you want to talk to me, I’m not a businesswoman” – and she’d much rather tell you about people she admires than talk about herself. But this Swedish blonde was born and grew up in Thailand when Bangkok was still countryside, married into one of the most pre-eminent Thai families, and developed a passion for Buddhist meditation. She tells us of old Bangkok, lost ambitions, and how she balanced cultural values in a bicultural marriage.
Eva’s father has retired to Sweden, but Swedish Match brought him to Bangkok in 1952, where he became Swedish consul-general. Her parents lived here for twenty years, and Eva was born in Bangkok 48 years ago.
“My parents’ first posting abroad was in Calcutta, which was the real culture shock for my mother!” explains Eva. “The poverty really got to her. In comparison, Thailand was wonderfully easy to live in. Back then, it was the Venice of the East with all the khlongs. My school was called Mrs. Clayton’s and was a little house on Sathorn road. The area was countryside then, with trees, insects, and flowers. We’d study the sidewalk for biology class.”
“I remember buying sweets in Gaysorn after school with my girlfriends. And zipper jeans for girls had just come to town, this was in the 60’s – before that, there had only been girls’ jeans with buttons down the side! Then things became Americanized during the Vietnam war. When Bangkok’s first escalator was installed at a shopping centre where the World Trade Centre is now, farmers would come to town from all over in their wooden shoes and sarongs and stand on it.”
As we drive past an office block on Sukhumvit, Eva points out the Ekmans office where her father later worked. She muses.
“They sold Dynapac machines among many other things. I used to go there and swing round and round on his big chair… Bangkok has lost some of its charm. There’s still Chitralada Palace and the Chinese quarters which haven’t changed much. But I don’t feel like I’m in Thailand when I’m in Bangkok. I have to leave and go on retreats, walk in the national parks. Bangkok is like Singapore or anywhere, although the Thais are here and as a people they’re so kind. I’m always going to live here, and I think my kids will too. Sweden has great nature but I can’t imagine living there all year – the winters are so cold…”
Eva continued her studies in Switzerland, Spain and Sigtuna in Sweden, but always kept contact with Thailand. After graduation she took on work as a tour operator for SAS, and, it turns out, had a host of other ambitions at the time.
“At twenty, I wanted to be an interpreter. I did translation work at convention centres and studied French at university. I also wanted to be a physiotherapist. But my big ambition… was to be a ballet dancer.”
Her eyes become animated.
“All my free time I danced, until I was twenty-two. But my parents thought that it wasn’t a stable career, so I had to stop. I’m grateful now, because I would’ve had such problems with my knees… but ballet was my passion. I loved that hard discipline. I’m going to see Romeo & Juliet this Thursday. We get so starved for culture here! Anyway, we all have certain regrets, but at the end of it, instead of my ballet career I have three wonderful kids.”
While Eva was working for SAS in Bangkok, she met Charn Sophonpanich at the Montien where he was staying. After a four-year courtship they tied the knot. Her parents had met him many years earlier, which helped with her introduction to his family.
The Sophonpaniches are an extremely high profile family, with the father having founded the family business Bangkok Bank among others, and the daughter, Khunying Chodchoy Sophonpanich, working at the senate and pioneering environmental rights as president of the Thai Environmental Group.
“She’s extremely independent. So smart, progressive, hard-working. There are many women like that in Thailand. She works constantly. Even when she got bored watching the men play bridge, she thought she’d pick it up – and ended up being a leading bridge player in the country! All the kids were sent to boarding school in Australia. The whole family always worked together. They have family meetings every weekend and are extremely good friends – I’ve never seen them not get on.”
“Charn and I are divorced now, but we are incredibly good friends.” Eva reminisces, “You go through so much, then go so far that you separate. But he’s like a brother to me.”
The children are now thirteen, twenty and twenty-one years old. The youngest daughter still lives with her, and looks more Asian than the others.
“When we’re together, people think she looks adopted!”
The elder daughter has Eva’s blue eyes and lighter hair. Both of the older kids went to boarding school in England, and then boarding school and universities in the States. The youngest has authorial ambitions, reading and writing voraciously, already penning extensive stories with a view to publication.
“Having kids is such a big responsibility, I made it overwhelming. I worried when they were away from me, when they were sick, I worried about everything. But you can’t think too much. Meditation taught me to deal with these problems in a more balanced way. It’s not that you don’t care – but you have to learn to not overreact. Different ages cause different problems. You want to be fair, you don’t want to be too strict. I know how I was myself at that age… you do things you shouldn’t and you need to do that, but you still need security.”
Eva spends her days teaching IB and GCSE French and Spanish voluntarily at Bangkok Pattana.
“I’ve done it for ten years – voluntary work at schools is all I do. People in Sweden don’t like to hear that I don’t do paid work – they find it really weird. I also co-ordinate the community work the kids do together with Thai schools. It’s very simple, but it’s a way of spending my time. Then on the weekends, I teach meditation at my home. I teach eight to twelve-year-olds and thirteen to sixteen-year-olds meditation, in Thai.”
Looking at this tall blonde who grew up speaking Thai, I ask Eva if she feels that she’s Thai, or Swedish.
“I did feel that I never belonged… you can never be one of them. I was always the foreign expat. When I speak Thai, I do know it’s good enough for people to stop and notice. Every day of the year I can get the same question – “You speak such good Thai, how long have you lived here?” They’re sweet that way. They say I have the same accent as Thais. But I would be really embarrassed to read a newspaper now, I’d be sitting there following the lines with my index finger. And I can’t follow news reports. Political phrases and so on are a complex form of Thai, and I’m lost. I didn’t learn to read and write Thai until I joined my kids when they were learning at school. But to keep that up, you need to practise daily.
Until Eva went to boarding school at Sigtuna, she hadn’t spoken fluent Swedish. Even there, all her letters home were in English. But her parents felt she should carry her heritage, and forced her to go. She’s passed that heritage on to her kids.
“We have a summer place in the archipelago, and I want the kids to feel at home there. But they’re probably never going to live there. When I go to Sweden, I never say I’m going home – I always say I’m going to visit, which people find strange! I feel at home in both places, but this is where I’ve lived all my life. I’m not one hundred percent Thai; I’m very Swedish in my thoughts and roots. I’m independent. I was married for many years to a famous Thai family where there are certain expectations, traditions, that sort of thing. But my husband was westernised in his education and upbringing, so that helped.”
“I feel very Swedish. I felt Swedish even when I couldn’t speak the language! Then I went there, and realised that I’d never live there because I missed Thailand so much. I counted the weeks and months to when I could come back. There were so many of us who came from abroad, and we were all homesick together… I had an international childhood, if you can say that, with Swedish traditions. In Dad’s first posting, you only got holidays every third year, then eventually every other year, so we were here almost all the time, and tried to keep up traditions as much as we could. We hardly saw relatives, and couldn’t ring them either back then.”
“I’m happy wherever I am, I’m very flexible, but this is home. I want to be what I am – I don’t want to be ‘more like a native’. When I was married, I was so different from them. For example, I like to take my kids into nature and sunshine, and I leave them to their independence and freedom during weekends and holidays. But the family didn’t do it that way – you have to avoid the sun, you have to stay in all weekend and get extra tutoring… I felt locked in, there were so many expectations and I couldn’t always handle that because I was what I was!”
“In the Asian way of thinking, the woman has to stay with her husband. My ex-mother-in-law, when I had meetings abroad, she said I can’t leave my husband too long… there’s something fantastic and fascinating about the Asian way. Sometimes I feel the Swedish women are so tough and independent. Here, the key word is tolerance and patience, and that’s what helps Thais get through their days much easier than Swedes who stress so. My Swedish friends have such high expectations of themselves – they have to manage everything, I almost get a complex. There, you have to do all the home stuff yourself too, like painting and making curtains. It’s not that I don’t have high expectations of myself – I do – but because I have home help, and they love kids here, it’s a totally different story.”
The subject that really lights up Eva’s eyes is meditation.
“I’ve done it here for ten years, and before that I went to International Forest Monastery in Ubon Ratchathani, where all the monks are foreign. There was a Canadian abbot for fourteen years, and now it’s an English one. I took my kids there – it’s great for helping concentration for instance. You feel amazing after a retreat – so happy and light.”
She clearly loves talking people into it, and before I know it I’ve agreed to spend ten days at a free silent retreat outside Bangkok.
Eva used to rise to her high social profile in Bangkok, constantly attending society balls and clubs.
“It was a lot of fun, but it’s not so much fun anymore. I’m alone and I have other values now. It all changed through meditation. For example, I don’t drink. I do go out and meet friends, but not at crayfish parties for instance. It’s tiring also to meet people who’re always leaving. I keep to those who really live here, and mothers who have kids the same age as mine. It’s lots of fun to meet people but I put up a wall.”
“Meditation teaches you that only you can take responsibility for the way your life turns out, only you can take the blame for your problems. It happens so easily that we blame others. I’ve tried to teach a lot of what I’ve learned to my children.”