Christmas in Mae Sot

With just a few days left before I begin my new job, I took the opportunity to join a group of friends from Project LOVE Asia for four nights of volunteering in Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Myanmar border. Our job was to help bring Christmas to the children at the Heavenly Home orphanage and the young adults at the Love & Care learning center.

Let me share some pictures and some brief notes about the experience.

Day 1


The first day, we went to a “day care” that is run by the orphanage. Located a few miles away in the midst of rice paddies, the structure is just a shack and a broad roof over a packed-dirt floor. Volunteers provide free lunch and basic education for the children of itinerant farmers and laborers four days a week.


Our group of volunteers (who are not the normal day-to-day volunteers at the day care) played games with the children and then before lunch, gave them a lesson in proper hand-washing technique including teaching them the “hand washing song”.


Given that these children mostly speak Burmese or a local dialect based on their ethnic group (mostly Shan or Karen), I’m not sure they learned the song. But hopefully the basic lesson of the importance of good hand-washing was learned.


This day for lunch, the children had rice with chicken and curry. Most of the time, the orphanage cannot afford to feed them meat so today’s lunch was a special treat. The children’s parents, who are dirt-poor, do not have to pay for this day care. It is provided by donations to the orphanage.


In the afternoon, after finishing at the day care, our vans drove for nearly an hour over bumpy roads until we arrived at the middle of the provincial dump. There, we met families of illegal immigrants who earn a living sorting through the refuse and selling materials for recycling.

2013-12-22 01

Their rickety shacks line the roads and their children, who are now able to receive some education thanks to a nearby school recently built by an NGO, were happy to see us and receive some Christmas treats.


That evening in the guest house while we were debriefing the day, the sound of Christmas carolers filled the air. A group of students from the Love & Care secondary school (which we would visit on Day 3) had come to sing us songs. I felt so bad for them as they had piled in the back of a pickup truck and driven 20 minutes in the chilly weather. It was a lovely surprise, though, and quite festive.

Day 2


The next day we spent at the Heavenly Home orphanage, playing with the children, organizing games, bathing and feeding them, and singing songs.


This was a particularly rewarding experience because the children are used to visitors and are very eager to play with them. It wasn’t unusual to have four youngsters balanced on my knees with another two or three trying to climb up.

P1040805The founders of the orphanage, Thantzin and his wife Lily, are a Burmese couple who lived many years in Singapore. Unable to have their own children, they felt called by their faith to help the children of Burmese refugees and migrants in Thailand.


What started initially as a day care has expanded and they now care for more than 50 children whose parents have given them up as well as another dozen whose parents pick them up each evening.


While children can stay up to the age of 18, right now they only have children from the age of 3 months up to about 12 years old.


Our primary mission was to spread the spirit of Christmas so early on the evening of the 23rd, after the children had eaten their dinner and been bathed, dried, and dressed, they lined up for cake. We then went upstairs to sing songs and give gifts.


The happy family of Heavenly Home orphanage, crowded into the upstairs living area, which is also the girls’ bedroom. It was a chilly evening so everyone was bundled tight, happy at having such a fun evening.

Day 3

Our final full day was spent at Love & Care, a secondary learning center about 15 minutes outside of Mae Sot. Burmese migrants and refugees face a challenge: undocumented in Thailand, they cannot attend local public schools, but they education they may have received in Myanmar isn’t sufficient for meaningful work in Thailand. Love & Care is one of many learning centers (not “schools” as they don’t follow the curriculum of the Thai Ministry of Education) serving this group.


About 70 students live at the school, which boards all its students. They range in age from about 16-21 and many have already matriculated from secondary school in Myanmar. Love & Care offers grades 10-12 taught in Burmese, English, and Thai.


While there, I did interviews of several of the students and faculty. Their parents are almost uniformly farmers or laborers and one common thread is that none of them seem to be the oldest child. While I didn’t clarify why this is, I would guess that the oldest child is needed to help on the farm and it is only once you have several children that you can consider sending them for education.


We played many games with the students, mostly focused on team-building and other types of skills. After the games, we talked a bit about the lessons learned. A common theme among these students is that they came from different tribes – Karen, Shan, etc. – and it was at Love & Care that they first met people different from themselves and learned that people are all basically the same. Perhaps the most important lesson they have learned, considering they come from a place where deep-seeded animosity exists between different ethnic groups.


In the afternoon, we did an exercise where each student created a dream board, using paper, pens, old magazines, etc. The objective was to illustrate the dream they hold for their future. They then took turns sharing their dreams with each other. Most wanted to be doctors, nurses, teachers, or other professions that would enable them to return to their communities and help others. It is easy to imagine what a powerful impact these young people will have on the future of Myanmar.


In the evening, about half the children from Heavenly Home joined us and we had a large Christmas show. Different groups of students and children performed, gifts were given, and songs were sung. By the end of the day, many of the students had asked to connect with me on Facebook and I left with many new friends.


In the days after this trip, I’ve had several people say nice things about how generous I am, how nice it is that I did this trip, etc. In truth, it is the children and students who have been so generous and I have to admit that I’ve taken a great deal from the experience.

Each visit to Mae Sot serves as a reminder that it takes precious little to be happy in life, and that so many people barely have that. Our common humanity binds us and there is great power in showing compassion and sharing love.

What is a cause you really believe in? What causes do you support?

There are many causes that are important to me, especially those related to education and opportunity for young people.  But the cause that speaks most closely to me is immigration equality.  A citizen of the United States can marry a foreign national of the opposite sex and sponsor his or her immigration to the US and eventual citizenship.  In fact, a citizen of the United States can sponsor the visa for his or her unmarried partner of the opposite sex so long as they get married within six months of moving to the US.  But because of the federal government’s “Defense of Marriage Act“, I cannot sponsor Tawn for immigration to the US even though we have been together more than a decade and been legally married in a US state more than a year.

Immigration Equality

The sad thing is, most American citizens (including gay ones) are not aware of this.  Many people, both conservative and liberal, to whom I’m explained this nuance of the law find it disturbing because it goes against Americans’ general sense of fair play: laws should be consistent for all citizens.  But for me, because I’m gay, there’s a double standard.  Immigration laws do not afford me the same rights and privileges as those of my married and even unmarried heterosexual fellow citizens.

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Ever Thought About Moving Back?

In response to my recent entry about my fourth anniversary of moving to Thailand, Jason asked a pointed question: “Ever thought about moving back?”

From such a question is born a good blog entry, so here is my answer.

Why am I here?

Before I can think about moving back, I should explain why I’m here in Krungthep in the first place.  Tawn received his Master’s degree at University of San Francisco in 2003.  As part of the educational visas the US government provides, students are usually allowed to work for one year following the completion of their degree in order to get some practical experience.  After that year, though, the student needs to apply for a non-resident visa, usually an H-1B.

Without going into a lot of detail, H-1B visas are difficult to come by, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 when the quantity of these visas was reduced to 65,000 a year, down from around 150,000 previously.  Because of their scarcity, only people with highly specialized skills are generally able to get employee sponsorship for the visa.  In this case, Tawn’s skills didn’t meet that threshold.

Because of that, Tawn faced the choice of either overstaying his visa or returning to Thailand.  He chose to follow the legal path and, not wanting to end the relationship, I chose to follow him here.

The Big Mango: Love It or Leave It?

They say that expats in Krungthep usually either love or hate living here.  I find myself somewhere in between, but closer to the loving it side.  There are many benefits to living here beyond the fact that Tawn is here.  From a cost of living standpoint, for example, we live significantly better off than we would if were living in the US, especially if we were still back in the San Francisco Bay Area.

There are things about life in the US, though, that I miss.  Most of all, I miss being near my family.  My grandparents both turn 90 next year and my nieces turn four and seven.  Everyone is getting older and seeing them once every nine months or so isn’t often enough.  Time is short and the opportunities to spend time with loved ones are fleeting.

At the same time, we have ties here, too.  Tawn is an only child and his parents are more demanding of his time and attention than mine are.  While it is hard for me to be far away from my family, I think it would be harder for Tawn to be away from his.

Would I?  Could I?

Even if we wanted to move back to the US, could we?  Tawn and I were married this summer in Iowa, one of only five states that currently allow same-sex marriage.  Here’s the bad news – news that most Americans (even gay ones!) don’t realize:

We can’t move back as a couple.

Thanks to the poorly named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the US federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages.  Immigration is a federal matter, so as long as DOMA is the law of the land Tawn and I cannot move back as a married couple.  Tawn could only move to the US as either a student or by applying for one of those hard-to-get H-1B visas.  Even if he did get in, we would be facing a ticking clock with little prospect of him being able to remain in the US over the long term.

[Update: In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down the section of DOMA that is referenced above. Read about the impact of that decision on us here.]

Where Do You See Yourself in the Future?

I am asked this question each year during my annual performance appraisal, not so much because my boss expects the answer to change but because it is part of the Human Resources-designed appraisal process.  If I had to pull out my crystal ball, where do I see myself in the future?

In the near future – say the next three to five years – I see myself still here in Krungthep.  Even if Congress repealed DOMA, Tawn remains an only child and so I don’t see us moving back to the US anytime soon.

Looking beyond the five-year horizon, I think a lot of the future will depend upon events that happen, particularly regarding the health of both sets of our parents.  Changing circumstances may dictate where one or the other of us spends more of our time, be it here or back in the US.

As we get to about ten years, I think we will likely look for options outside of Krungthep.  Maybe that means having a country house where we can spend most of our time.  Maybe that means living outside of Thailand (not necessarily in the US) for a portion of the year.  If we could split our time between Paris and Krungthep, that would be great!  Of course, this all depends upon developing jobs where we can move about readily.  I already have that job.  Tawn doesn’t, yet.

Yes, but would you move back to the US?

In a way, I’m dancing around that question.  As much as I miss people (and a few restaurants) in the US, I don’t particularly miss life in the US for several reasons:

There is a lot of arrogance bred of insularity and ignorance.  Too many Americans not only have never traveled abroad, they don’t care to inform themselves of the perspectives and values of other countries and cultures.  Witness the horror with which Americans react to the suggestion that Canadians, French or Japanese might have something to teach us about how to run a health care system.

Discourse is increasingly shrill and intolerant.  Thanks to the splintering of the media, people increasingly seek out and find channels that serve only to reinforce their already-held beliefs and perspectives.  I don’t see how that serves democracy well and it certainly hasn’t improved the level of discourse within the US, either on political or social issues.  I want to be able to communicate with others, not be shouted at by them.

Finally, the influence of corporations on public life and politics in the US continues to expand to dangerous levels.  Many other countries have done a better job putting limits on the legal rights of corporations, deferring instead to the rights of individuals.  Many other countries have also done a better job of limiting corporations’ involvement in politics.

To answer your question, Jason, I have thought about it.  But even if the legal barriers to moving back were to fall away and even if there were no family ties holding us here in Thailand, I don’t think we would move back to the US, at least not full-time.

Families United

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the US, most often for reasons that are purely political rather than practical.  On a practical level, though, immigraiton rights have a very human impact and America’s tangled web of immigration policies results in families being kept apart and even torn apart.  This is the case for me and Tawn.

Two years ago I wrote about this issue and I’d like to take a few minutes of your day to write about it again, as there is some recent action taking place in the US Congress and if you are a US citizen or resident, we could use your help.

Immigration Equality

Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)

Under current United States immigration law, an unmarried citizen or permanent resident can sponsor an immigration visa for his or her opposite-sex partner. 

Same-sex couples, however, are not afforded this right.  Binational same-sex couples (one partner is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, the other a foreign national) make up an estimated 36,000 couples in the US, plus an untold number who, like me and Tawn, now live abroad.

Here’s an important point: Even though same-sex marriage is now legal in a few states, those marriages are not recognized by the US Federal Government including for immigration purposes.

This year for the fifth time, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have introduced versions of the Uniting American Families Act (HR 1024 and S.424) in both the House and Senate.

The act would add the term “or permanent partner” to those sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to legally married, opposite-sex couples. 

The act will afford equal immigration benefits to permanent partnerships – but it will also apply the same restrictions and enforcement standards including steep fines and jail terms for immigraiton fraud.



On June 3rd, for the first time ever, this proposed legislation received a hearing.  Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, bypassed the sub-committee process and held a full Judiciary Committee hearing for the bill.

The hearing featured Shirley Tan, a Filipina mother of 12-year-old twins from Pacifica, Calif., who is facing deportation despite having been with her partner for 23 years. Though Tan’s children and partner are American citizens, she cannot be sponsored for residency because her partner is female. Unless Congress takes action to pass UAFA, Tan will be forced to return to the Philippines.

Joining Tan as a witness was Gordon Stewart, Vermont native who was forced to sell his family’s farm and relocate to London to be with his partner, a Brazilian man. Stewart, who transferred his job with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to the United Kingdom, has been welcomed in that country, where his partner received a visa to be with him. Under U.S. immigration law, his partner was unable to join him in the United States, and Stewart was forced to leave his family behind to be with the person he loves.

Other witnesses included Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and attorney Christopher Nugent, who represented the American Bar Association (ABA).

Here is an embedded playlist of the witnesses’ testimony, the first two of which are espcially compelling:


Reuniting Families Act (RFA)

Last week, California Representative Mike Honda and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez introduced the Reuniting Families Act (RFA), an omnibus immigraiton reform bill that address the need to reform America’s family-based immigration system to end lengthy separations of loved ones, promote family stability and foster the economic growth that immigrant families have provided throughout our history.  Specifically, the bill: 

  • Recaptures unused family-based and employment-based visas previously allocated by Congress which remain unused.
  • Allows a green card holder to reunite with their spouses and minor children: The bill classifies the children and spouses of lawful permanent residents as “immediate relatives.”  This would allow lawful permanent residence spouses and children to immediately qualify for a visa.
  • Increases the per country limits of family and employment-based visas from 7% to 10%, eliminating the absurdly long wait times for individuals to immigrate from certain countries like the Philippines, China, and India.
  • Allows orphans, widows and widowers to immigrate despite death of a petitioner.
  • Ends discrimination in immigration law, allowing same-sex partners to reunite

The RFA is the first time that issues of binational same-sex couples has been included in comprehensive immigration legislation.  Effectively, if RFA is passed it would address UAFA’s concerns.


Why Now?

The Democrats have been promising GLBT constitutents that once they control the White House and Congress, our families and our rights would finally be protected.  That time is now and despite my feeling that there are also many other important issues which need to be addressed by the President and the Congress, I don’t think they have any good excuse left to not take action.  Inequality is not excusable.

I would ask that you consider this proposed legislation and how it impacts people such as me and Tawn and then take the simple step of making your opinion heard.

There are two easy things to do:

  • Email your Representative. If you do not know his or her name, you can go to and look it up using your zip code.
  • Email your two Senators. If you do not know their names, you can go to and look them up by state.

Online forms on each Representative and Senator’s website make it easy to quickly submit your thoughts.  If you are at a loss for words, the most important thing they need to hear is that you want them to support the Uniting American Families Act and the Reuniting Families Act.

It is time to right this wrong and protect all American families.  Please get involved and thank you for your support.


I was asked by Sion to provide a sample letter to your Senator/Representative.  Nothing fancy is required; something as simple as this will suffice:

Dear Senator/Representative ______

As your constituent I encourage you to support the Uniting American Families Act (HR 1024/S 424).  This act would bring an end to discrimination that results in American families being torn apart, discrimination that has already ended in countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Israel and the United Kingdom.  Permanent, committed bi-national couples where one partner is an American citizen or permanent resident should be allowed the same immigration rights regardless of whether they are a same-sex or opposite-sex couple.





A Village Called Versailles – First Public Screening

A Village Called Versailles is a full-length documentary about the struggles and triumphs of the community of Vietnamese refuges in Versailles, located on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River just east of New Orleans. 

 Versailles 1

After Hurricane Katrina, Versailles residents impressively rose to the challenges by returning and rebuilding before most neighborhoods in New Orleans, only to have their homes threatened by a new government-imposed toxic landfill just two miles away.

Versailles 3 Versailles 2  

The film recounts the empowering story of how this community, who had already suffered so much in their lifetime, turned a devastating disaster into a catalyst for change and a chance for a better future.

Leo Chiang A 15-minute version of Director S. Leo Chiang’s (left) film has aired on PBS Frontline’s “Rough Cut” series.  You can watch that version here.

The full-length version of A Village Called Versailles will have its first public screening at 3 pm on Saturday April 11 at the Vietnamese International Film Festival in Irvine, California.  It will be followed by a panel discussion.

Please tell your friends and family in and around Orange County to go see this powerful film. Ticket can be purchased online at the ViFF website.


Same-sex immigration on Dem’s agenda

As many of you are aware, the reason I live in Thailand is because Tawn, my partner of 8+ years, is a Thai national.  US immigration laws being what they are, it is increasingly difficult for citizens of other nations to find legal means of residence in the United States.

When I speak with my American friends and acquaintances, even well-educated and liberal ones, I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t realize that, unlike opposite-sex couples, Tawn and I have no immigration rights as a couple.

For example, if Tawn and I were an opposite-sex couple, even an unmarried one, as the US citizen I would be able to apply for an “engagement visa”, which would allow Tawn to move to the US and, provided we were subsequently married within six months, apply for residency and then citizenship.

And, of course, if we were an opposite-sex couple and were married, the path for him to move to the US would be smoothly paved and well-marked.

That, unfortunately, is not the case for us.  Even if we were to get legally married in Massachusetts or to have a civil union in Vermont, we would still not have immigration rights, nor any of the 1,200+ other rights afforded opposite-sex married couples by the United States Federal Government.

I say this not to complain – I’m quite happy living in Thailand – but to make all of you aware of these facts.  As we head into the election season, I would ask that you evaluate candidates on, among other things, whether or not they support allowing committed, loving same-sex couples to receive the same rights and privileges of opposite-sex couples enjoy, particularly with regards to immigration.

Here is a press release from Love Exiles, a group with which I’m involved that specifically advocates for the rights of same-sex couples in which one of the partners is a US citizen and the other is a foreign national.

Thanks for your support!


Same-sex immigration on Democrats’ agenda

Amsterdam, Sunday, 20 April 2008 – For Immediate Release


With the presidential election looming, Democrats have set their sights on immigration rights for same-sex partners of U.S. citizens.


At their recent Global Convention in Vancouver, Canada, Democrats Abroad adopted a platform that calls on Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). The bill would amend U.S. immigration law and allow a U.S. citizen to sponsor a same-sex foreign partner.


“It hurts to be a second-class citizen,” said Bob Bragar, an American attorney who moved to Amsterdam in 1994 to be with his Dutch partner. “I am effectively deprived of the right to live in my own country. My husband Rik and I can only visit as tourists.”


Bragar chairs the Dutch branch of Democrats Abroad and, in August, will be a delegate for Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.


One of Bragar’s top goals at the Denver convention is to ensure that changing America’s unfair immigration law is a priority for the eventual Democratic candidate.


Recently, both Democratic candidates have spoken out in favor of change.


On April 7, Sen. Hillary Clinton told talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres that she would defend gay rights as president and eliminate disparities for same-sex couples in federal law, including immigration policy.


In an open letter to the LGBT community earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama declared his support for UAFA and equal immigration rights for same-sex couples. “I have worked to improve the Uniting American Families Act, so we can afford same-sex couples the same rights and obligations as married couples in our immigration system,” wrote Obama.


Bragar, who is legally married in the Netherlands, is a board member of Love Exiles, a community of American citizens and their partners forced to live outside the USA due to immigration restrictions.


Love Exiles represents thousands of couples who do not have the freedom to live with their chosen partners because of issues of nationality and sexuality.


Today, only 17 countries provide any possibility for their gay and lesbian citizens to sponsor a foreign partner for immigration. 


Contact Love Exiles via Martha McDevitt-Pugh (+31) (0)6 2150 4249