As a foreign student, she witnessed the nineteen-sixties civil rights movement in the United States. As a young woman, she taught economics at a university in Thailand. Both experiences laid the foundation for her career as a broadcaster and editor in VOA's Thai Service. Meet Nittaya Maphungphong as we continue our occasional series of profiles of the men and women who work as international radio broadcasters at the Voice of America.
Nittaya Maphungphong, a dark-haired, compact, energetic woman, was born in Bangkok during World War Two just as the Allies were bombing Thailand's capital.
"My nickname is Pom, which in Thai has two meanings. One meaning is something small and round, which everybody said fits me perfectly," she says, laughing. "The other translation of that word, Pom, is a fortress. I asked my dad why I have a nickname like that, and he said, 'Well, the night you decided to come out' -- I was overdue -- 'was the night that the B-17s started bombing Bangkok, and the word that the Thai people at the time called the bomber was Flying Fortress.' Pom means Fortress. So that's why they nicknamed me like that.
Nittaya remembers growing up in Thailand in the 1950s, when the country had barely a quarter of the population it has today, as idyllic years: playing on the grounds of the temple, swimming in the canals, jumping on trams. After she finished high school and didn't do too well in her first semester at the university, her father sent her to the United States to get an education. It was 1962. She attended Immaculata College in Washington, D.C., and then went on to American University, also in Washington, from which she received a Bachelor's degree in economics. "So I went through the whole civil rights movement in America," she says. "I still remember the day President Kennedy was shot. I saw the  civil rights march. I went through the whole period of the sixties in this country. These were my formative years. My character, or my world view, so to speak, was really formed here.
It wasn't until she went back to Thailand in 1968, however, that the lessons she had absorbed during her student years sank in. She says she began to understand the issues that were driving America's social and political turmoil. "Rights," she says. "What kind of rights do you have? What is democracy? I mean, this is all clichéd, but a Thai friend would say, you're too Americanized. And I would say, well, actually, I'm very Thai, but I just think there are other ways, besides having a military junta -- which was, you know, the way Thailand was governed then."
Nittaya Maphungphong's first job was as a junior economist for the government in Bangkok. Then, after a year of post-graduate studies in economics in England, she returned to Bangkok and joined the faculty of prestigious Thommasat University. A young woman barely a meter and a half tall, she found herself lecturing in economics to classes of 900 or more students. But anti-government demonstrations at the University in 1976 persuaded her to emigrate to the United States.
She recalled, "They [the students] staged a huge protest at the university. The military junta didn't like it, so one night about 2 or 3 in the morning they sent in a special force, killing a whole bunch of people. Fortunately that night I wasn't there. I at the time was also assistant to the dean for student affairs, so I was pretty close to the students and knew what was going on. We were lucky that many of my friends and my students weren't killed. And I thought, 'It's not very safe?' And also, I liked teaching very much, so I thought I'd better get a higher degree in order to be a really good teacher," she says.
Before she could complete her doctorate in economics back in the United States, Nittaya Maphungphong ran out of money, and looked around for a part-time job. She found one at the Voice of America. She liked it so much that in 1984 she became a permanent staffer in the Thai service. She says the transition to broadcasting was not at all difficult for her. The skills she had developed as a teacher served her well.
"I always liked to talk," she says, with a chuckle. "In my family, we have a joke running. Me and my brother -- my brother is a television commentator on all kinds of sports, back in Thailand. In the family, we said the two of us never met a microphone we didn't like," she says, laughing. "I think what helped was the experience I had teaching. The students would come to me, and I learned how to talk with them. I think that helps a lot."
Her first-hand knowledge of the United States, its people and its democratic processes was also valuable, Ms Maphungphong says, in that it helped her in her efforts to project an accurate picture of America to her Thai audience. "We fill a void. We explain to the Thai people what we here in America are doing. It may sound like propaganda, but it's not," she says, "because what is being represented in Thailand is another view. We're being fair, on both sides, and I think that's important: the good and the bad; how Americans do things; what kind of successes they have; what kinds of failures..."
The Thai Service reaches its audience through three half-hour daily programs fed via satellite to 26 affiliated radio stations, two of them major all-country networks. It also provides these stations with special reports when important events are happening. When the killer tsunami recently hit Thailand, Ms Maphungphong says, the service had a specific role to play, in addition to providing reliable information about the situation, and about international efforts to help. "We wanted people in Thailand to know that there are people who are concerned about them. So we talked to the Thai communities here, [about] how the US government is going to provide help. We talked to the Thai consul, the leaders of the community, and asked them what they are doing to help victims of the disaster.
Nittaya Maphungphong says she is proud of her work with the Thai service, and grateful for the opportunity to have served both her native country and her adopted one. In her free time, she loves to read, to walk her two dogs, and to play golf -- not too well, she says, but with a passion. It's that same passion that she brings to her work at the Voice of America.