Grace Academy's Poa Thithiphagon talks with a coach before batting Thursday, April 13, 2017 in the game against Howard at Grace.

Photo Gallery

Thai teen embraces American life, including sports, as Grace student

Tsipsagon Tsiptsipsagon is 8,000 miles from his parents, but he has a home away from home with Carlton and Millicent Garland and their son, Adam.

"They call me Pao," the exchange student from Thailand said. "Almost all Thai people have a nickname, because their names are so long. Now in high school (at home) we use our full names."

A physician's son, he has made lifelong friendships with fellow students at Grace Academy while embracing the lifestyle of an everyday American teenager.

He's been to Walt Disney World and, as a Harry Potter aficionado, relished his time at Universal Studios. Sprite is his beverage of choice and Taco Bell's Dorito hard-shell tacos are his favorite snack. They have McDonald's in Thailand, but, he said, "I think here it is better because it's real American."

He has had chores — no more, no less than Adam, his host brother — whether it was cleaning their bathroom, emptying the dishwasher or mopping the kitchen floor, and he has come to love grits, especially cheese grits. Also, he has become very familiar with Krispy Kreme donuts and chocolate chip cookies.

"When he first got here, he was like a kid in a candy store. He has a passion for American food," Millicent said with a chuckle. "I think he's put on something like 35 pounds. He thinks he's fat, but he was slight when he came to us."

He has learned much of American history, including its racial inequities and its politics, yet to get a true feeling of American culture, Pao knew he had to try his hand at sports — cross country to start, then basketball and finally baseball.

It caught his parents off guard because he'd never participated in sports — including globally popular soccer — in Thailand.

"I'm not sure I will play any sports when I go home," he said.

"Cross country is a lot of running," he added with a rueful grin, "and basketball — I'm not good at it, the plays. I did OK with dribbling."

He shrugged, almost with a shudder, when asking about his shooting skills, but teammate Jared Thompson came to his rescue.

"At first it was frustrating for him and for us. We'd do a three-man weave and he didn't know what he was doing," Thompson said. "By the middle of the season he was going as fast as the varsity guys, and it went in pretty often whenever he shot in practice."

Pao carries a 3.8 grade point average but admittedly was no world-beater athletically. Yet his always present smile and his eagerness led to quick friendships in both basketball and baseball.

"That first week of school I introduced myself, and after that he'd always speak. He's the type that puts a smile on your face," Thompson said.

Even without home runs, RBIs or a varsity start, Pao has been an inspiration to his diamond teammates.

"He's always excited to be out on the field, even when he misjudges a fly ball," Dalton Morrison said. "Some guys take (the sport) for granted. You can see that he's so happy to be out there. I wish I could have his attitude toward the game."

Coach Tommy Morrell, also the Golden Eagles' athletic director, is just one of those in the Grace family who's been surprised, even delighted, by Pao.

"After he batted for the first time, he got on first and then scored. I asked him how he felt, and he grinned real big and said, 'Happy.' But he's always happy," Morrell said. "He has improved every day."

Morrell recalled one specific incident when weather issues drove the team inside for an afternoon the coach always will remember.

"He was in a (batting) cage and there were three kids waiting their turn. But one was behind the screen and another was telling him how to watch the ball," Morrell recalled. "He didn't know the difference between a bat and a glove when he got here, and it was so gratifying to see our kids take what they knew and share it.

"They had this youngster where he could enter a game, step in a batter's box and not be afraid of a fastball. It's been fun to watch our kids give back, and they're excited to see him excited."

Millicent, his host mom, couldn't agree more. A friend had hosted an exchange student from Spain, and the idea intrigued her for her family to host an exchange student.

"I took a leap of faith, and it has been a godsend," she said. "I'll feel lost when he leaves. He's become so much a part of our family. I think what I'll miss the most is his loving spirit. He is so giving of himself — never a harsh word, even with my son, who's a big prankster. I've had so many parents at Grace come up to me and thank me."

Morrell feels the experience has been good for all parties involved.

"I think Grace Academy has been good for him, and I think he's been good for Grace Academy. He comes from a different culture, but he's one of us."

Contact Ward Gossett at or 423-886-4765. Follow him at