Mandarins, forests, and swing bridges: How Nisa became a New Zealander

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

The first time Nisa Promchot saw Wellington from the air, she fell in love with what she still calls “this little city”. “I thought it was so beautiful - the cute white houses up the hills, the beaches, the blue sky, and trees everywhere!” she says. “I found it to be just right: big enough to have everything, small enough to feel cosy like a friendly place. Busy, but not busy like Bangkok.”

Wellington’s wild weather, of course, would later prove to be something of a shock. “It was a bit cold, even though I came here in April,” she says. “It was also a bit quiet, almost lonely, but it’s not now.”

Nisa grew up in Nong Bua, a town in upper north-eastern Thailand about 500 km northeast of Bangkok. With a population of around 59,000, Nong Bua is similar in size to New

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

The first time Nisa Promchot saw Wellington from the air, she fell in love with what she still calls “this little city”. “I thought it was so beautiful – the cute white houses up the hills, the beaches, the blue sky, and trees everywhere!” she says. “I found it to be just right: big enough to have everything, small enough to feel cosy like a friendly place. Busy, but not busy like Bangkok.”

Wellington’s wild weather, of course, would later prove to be something of a shock. “It was a bit cold, even though I came here in April,” she says. “It was also a bit quiet, almost lonely, but it’s not now.”

Nisa grew up in Nong Bua, a town in upper north-eastern Thailand about 500 km northeast of Bangkok. With a population of around 59,000, Nong Bua is similar in size to New Plymouth – but this, too, she describes as a “small town”: “We have few schools, a few markets, a few shops, and four or five temples in the area. We have everything, but nothing is fancy.”

Rice farms and agriculture make up a large portion of the Nong Bua Lam Phu Province. Nisa’s own parents were teachers – her mother at a local kindergarten and her father at a high school.

She has happy memories of growing up: “I think I had a good childhood. We definitely weren’t rich but had enough. We had essential things like power, water, food – we even had extra stuff like a bicycle and TV. But life in that time was so simple, I didn’t think we needed anything more than that.”

Nisa came to New Zealand in 2002 with her then-husband and settled in Paraparaumu. With just two suitcases of belongings, limited English, and no other family or friends, she had a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. “At the beginning, I was too afraid to go out alone,” she says. “I knew enough English from my study but still, I was nervous to have long conversations with Kiwis.”

At first, she spent a lot of time at home on her own, sitting in front of the fireplace for most of the day. Compared to the highly social, community-orientated culture of her homeland, Paraparaumu felt isolated. “It was hard to be far away from everyone and everything I had in Thailand,” she says. “Life in a new place is never easy. You need to learn new things all the time, which can be very overwhelming.”

Determined to make new friends, she set out to improve her English in any way possible. Her neighbourhood proved a good place to start. “I loved to go to the local supermarket to learn the names of vegetables and fruits,” Nisa says. “I have always known ‘mandarin and ‘tangerine’ only as ‘orange’. I wouldn’t know if someone asked me to get some mandarins for them. And New Zealand has many different kinds of apples! Before, I only knew of them as ‘red’ or ‘green’ apples!”

Her hard work paid off, and she eventually became fluent. However, she admits to being conscious of making the odd error. “Thai doesn’t have tenses, so it still doesn’t make sense to me when I have to say, ‘I WENT to the market’ rather than ‘I GO to the market yesterday’,” she explains. “I am still learning, and I still make mistakes every day. There is no way to get it perfect like native speakers.”

Six years after settling in New Zealand, Nisa and her partner separated. By that time, they had a four-year-old daughter together and Nisa was working as a librarian for Kapiti Coast District Libraries. Despite the breakup, New Zealand had already begun to feel very much like where she belonged, so she and her daughter moved to their own home on the Kapiti Coast. It turned out to be the best decision she ever made. “It’s just the two of us, but we have friends and some of them are like a family now,” she says.

Nisa at work

Nisa has now been at the library for 14 years and loves working within the community. She officially became a New Zealander 15 years ago and still feels lucky to live here. “It feels like a safe and friendly place to be in. New Zealand is also beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful,” she says. “The quality of life here is undeniably better than my homeland in many ways. If I were in Thailand, I couldn’t afford to raise my girl on my own like I have done here.”

It was that love of New Zealand’s outdoors that helped heal some of her personal struggles.

Nisa took up running as a means of clearing her head and found the natural beauty of her local surroundings to be therapeutic. “I suddenly noticed how beautiful my local beach is, how wonderful the bushes and tracks around are,” she says.

Then, when a friend posted photos of a recent tramping expedition, Nisa realised just how much more there was to see. “I have always been an indoor girl. Tramping, hiking was never ever in my head. If you were in Thailand, you would see people using umbrellas to walk in the sun – we wouldn’t go out in rain or less than perfect weather,” she says.

Eager to try out this new ‘tramping’ activity, Nisa joined her friend on the club’s next trip. It was a tough one – 22 km – which was longer than she’d ever walked before. But she was surprised to find how much she enjoyed it. Nisa was hooked and joined the club just over a year ago.

Tramping is now one of her greatest pleasures, and she has notched up over 15 trips with her local tramping club. She joins them on most of their Sunday walks around the Kapiti region and Tararuas, as well as the odd overnight trip. Some of her favourites have included Eastern Hutt Hut, Sheridan Creek, Waiotauru River, and Otaki Forks, as well as some further afield: Sledge Track near Palmerston North and Kaweka Forest Park in Hawke’s Bay.

She says that each trip has its challenges and different experiences. “I have climbed up and down hills, crossed rivers, slept in a tent and a woolshed, cooked and eaten in the rain,” she says. “I have done a flying fox across the river!”

Every hike is another adventure

She never tires of the splendour New Zealand’s bush has to offer. “I love swing bridges. I love moss-covered trees. Some forests have been magical – like Alice in Wonderland or Jurassic Park. It’s amazing.”

Being out in the bush is only the tip of her obsession with all things green. A self-confessed “crazy plant lady” and keen gardener, Nisa’s own home is a veritable haven of potted flora and fauna. She especially loves succulents. “If I am not out on a hiking trip, you will find me in my glasshouse or in the garden all day long,” she says. “I wish I had more time to work, run, hike, garden… and watch movies!”

Her Thai roots are never far from her mind, and there are many things Nisa misses: her family, the culture, and the food. Both of her parents are now enjoying their retirement back in Thailand, and she keeps in contact with them as often as possible. Sadly, the Covid situation has thwarted any plans to travel home. “I don’t know when I will see them again. But I can talk to them often with the technology we have now.”

Kapiti has a small but strong Thai community, which helps, and there are several Buddhist temples in the Wellington region. Although she doesn’t have many chances to go to temples as often as she’d like to, Nisa feels strongly about living a Buddhist way of life: “It is in your heart and your way of living. I believe if you are doing good, the good things will be returned to you. You live your life by being kind to others.”

Nisa also does her best to educate her now-teenage daughter, Rayna about Thai culture and teaches her Buddhist values where possible. She admits, however, “She was born and raised here, so it won’t be the same as growing up in Thailand.”

Rayna does share her love of travel, and the two even went backpacking through Europe together a few years ago. Nisa plans to travel solo again when her daughter has grown up, so she can move around on her own steam: “Mother needs to live her life, too!” she says.

For now, there is plenty to keep her busy. Work, gardening, her daughter, and upcoming trips with her tramping club – including a much-awaited Tongariro Crossing adventure. Her local Thai friends are also a panacea for her homesickness and they meet up regularly to reminisce about their roots and share traditional food from home. “I do love Thai food. I miss the 24-hour markets where you can go out to get a bowl of noodles at any time,” Nisa exclaims. “Luckily, we can get most of the stuff here and we are able to order some rare ones if we want to – even durian!” (For those who haven’t heard of it, durian is a famous Southeast Asian fruit known for its rich, creamy texture and pungent smell. As Nisa says, “you either love it or hate it!”)

Nearly 20 years after stepping off the plane in windy Wellington, Nisa knows there is nowhere else she’d rather be: “I am Thai as much as I am a New Zealander. I love both countries. I see both as my home.”

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