Photo: Phimphakan Lebel

I came into this world on a Wednesday night. The year 1993, July 28. My mother is Thai and father Australian. They are both researchers. I have one younger sister. She wants to be a film director. Our family’s last name, Lebel, is of French origin.

I grew up in a gated community in the cultural city of Chiang Mai; a nice neighborhood and not far from my school, Dara Academy. I was an average student with big dreams; to become an astronomer and work at NASA. On the weekends I enrolled in extracurricular activities, which would change from year to year, including: piano, violin, taekwondo, acting, singing, math, Mandarin, etc. All lessons and skills of which I have now unfortunately forgotten.

I was introduced to the Star Trek universe at an early age; “Star Trek Voyager” was my favourite of all the series. Their high philosophies inspired and shaped my principles. Meanwhile, watching “Star Wars” films was always a family event. Harrison Ford is my father’s favourite actor.

In 2007, at the age of fourteen, I migrated to Western Australia, where I lived with my grandparents in the hills of Perth. The reason for this move was to improve my English language; though a good reader, my writing was weak. I attended Helena College; a short drive from my grandparents’ house. English class was not my favourite hour, and writing essays decidedly not fun; the formula tedious, the execution difficult, and the analysis extravagant.

However, while I did not like learning English at school, at home I enjoyed reading French and Russian literature very much; my grandparents collected a small library of worthy titles in their drawing room. I was around fourteen when I read my first classic, “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; recommended to me by my father. And though I might not have understood every sentence, the writing style of that period impressed me in a very influential way. To this day, I continue to prefer novels written before the 20th century. “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy is my favorite book, and author Honoré de Balzac my literary idol.

During high school my friends liked to teasingly compare me to Sheldon Cooper from the hit comedy TV show “The Big Bang Theory”; a genius physicist with comical OCD. In actuality however, unlike Dr. Cooper, physics turned out to be my worst subject upon graduating from Helena College in 2010; and math my best. Still, at the graduation ceremony I was awarded Dux of Sciences. I applied to only one university; which in retrospect, was mightily arrogant of me.

Photo: Helena College

In 2011 I relocated to Canberra to commence undergraduate studies at the Australian National University; “the Harvard of Australia.” I decided early on to continue studying physics, in spite of my high school results; first because of pride, and second I’m a glutton for punishment. Besides, it seemed like the most glamorous thing to study; I was after all enrolled into the Bachelor of Science (Advanced) (Honours); even if the offer came during the second round. I didn’t stay in advance science for long though, my grades not highly distinguished enough to remain in the program, and thus in second year I was demoted to a normal Bachelor of Science.

While struggling to pass the vainly chosen difficult courses, my English skills, on the other hand, improved significantly. So much so that I even began to receive some compliments; which tickled my ego. To wit, the course convener of Creating Knowledge told me that my writing style reminded her of David Sedaris. Admittedly I had no idea who that was at the time, but the remark sounded like words of encouragement.

By the end of second year I began contributing articles to the student newspaper, Woroni. Perhaps not entirely unrelated to the flattering comparison made to that worthy humorist, my early submissions to the publication were highly satirical; the one about McDonald’s multicultural menu in particular.

Around mid-2013 after watching the documentary “The September Issue,” a highly recommended film that takes us behind the scenes of American Vogue, I penned a profile piece about editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Not long after submitting the article, Woroni’s Life&Style editor offered me the position of Fashion Columnist. The opportunity was rare and attractive, and thus I accepted the role despite having very little knowledge about fashion at the time; the editors didn’t know that though.

Aside from writing for Woroni I didn’t participate in any other university activities or social events; the taste of alcohol did not agree with me and all my friends were virginal nerds. Speaking of these friends, they were incredibly smart; in the top one percent of the country if we were to go by the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). Suffice it to say here, I was the dumbest person in the group.

At the end of 2013 I graduated from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of Science; majoring in physics, and theoretical physics. Still, I never quite mastered the field; my marks remained as low as they were in high school. In retrospect, if I did not have a genius for a best friend, who helped me a lot with assignments and moral support, I don’t think I would have finished that year.

After graduating I returned to Thailand, feeling somewhat disillusioned and not sure about the future. In truth, my failure to do well at university made me significantly less confident. Given these doubts and a waned ambition, an internship seemed like a good place to start. Thus, with the support of my parents, I moved to Bangkok.

Photo: Boripat Lebel

My first internship in the capital was at the Stockholm Environment Institute, Asia office located in Chulalongkorn University. In all honesty this opportunity came largely through my father’s connections with the institute. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that I was able to prove myself useful during my time there. It was a very good work environment. So much so that I was very happy to return three years later to help out as a volunteer at the SEI Science Forum.

After completing my internship at the institute, I still didn’t know what to do with my life, so I decided on doing another internship. This time in another industry and without connections. For this purpose, I emailed my CV to a lot of places; and since fashion columnist was on my résumé, Vogue Thailand and GQ magazine along with some fashion brands were included on the list. The PR department of Dior got back to me first. The interview went okay I think, but the call I got back informed me that the company wasn’t taking any interns this year. Moving on. GQ was next. I went to their office, co-shared with Vogue; the decor of which was decidedly white modern chic. The interview went well, sort of, I guess; for it was the first time anyone had ever told me that I was overqualified for a job. So basically I was rejected in the most flattering way possible. The interviewer was the editor-in-chief.

Not long after that I landed an intern position at Nestlé, in the HR department. It was my first time working in a big company; the private sector being largely unfamiliar territory. I lasted one week. The corporate style just wasn’t for me. But that is not to say it was a bad experience; the people were nice and professional, the office impressive and busy. It’s just that I couldn’t shake off the feeling like I didn’t belong there. Then again, I wasn’t there for very long, so admittedly my decision to quit might have been a bit premature.

Still, determined to do a second internship, I continued my search and interviews. The third place I landed was at an online marketing company called Syndacast, with the Content and Optimization team. I worked there for 3 months. The online marketing is an interesting industry; there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes for one web page. The knowledge and skills developed here proved very useful later on.

While working in Bangkok I lived in a 25-storey, twin-building complex next to the On Nut BTS Station; the Skytrain made mobility convenient, but also uncomfortable at peak hours when the compartments felt like one was stuck in a tin of sardines. The apartment my mother rented for me was a compact, modern studio room on the eleventh floor. Though it had a kitchen, I never cooked in it; for I had only to walk out of the building to meet with food stalls along the street and a supermarket across the road. All that said and done, however, after sojourning in Bangkok for a year, the big city life started to feel a bit too much; and I began to miss the relative peacefulness of Chiang Mai.

When I was back home, my father invited me to come work at his research center, Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Chiang Mai University. I was hesitant to work with family, as it seemed like something to be embarrassed about. But my father promised a variety of work and experiences. Moreover, I really did miss being in an academic environment. Thus the offer was accepted. My job titles included Research Assistant, Communications Specialist, and Research Coordinator. Indeed, reflecting the range of work I do at the center; from literature searches, drafting surveys, conducting interviews, to editing papers destined to peer-reviewed journals. From November 2017-2020 I also took on the role of Project Coordinator for AQUADAPT-Mekong; a research project focusing on innovations in aquaculture that can help the sector adapt to climate change, involving five participating countries in the Mekong Region.

Photo: Phimphakan Lebel

It was while living and working in Chiang Mai that I was able to finally finish writing “A Vomit of Diamonds”; a novella eBook based on my experience attending astronomy camp during the semester break of first year at the Australian National University. I had started the project at the end of third year, and after going through multiple versions of the story, along with some extended periods of writer’s block, it felt great to get it out at last. A few months later, on the eve of 2016, I started as a platform to publish, archive, and showcase my work throughout the years.

When the Unit for Social and Environmental Research relocated to the Chiang Mai University School of Public Policy late 2017, just as the school was being formed, I was able to participate in its inception; assisting in various tasks, from paperwork to social media marketing. The Director later gave me the title Integrator. Since then I helped organize the school’s activities at TEDx and facilitated a workshop on smart city among other things.

All in all, life is currently going well. I’m making lots of new connections and have the opportunity to travel for work; most recently I visited Yangon, Myanmar. I enjoy the coordinating and managing aspects of my job, and hope to develop these skills further. And though I still don’t really know what lies ahead for me in the long term, where I once was afraid of the future, I’m kind of looking forward to it now.