Meeting Boonmee Pakviset McElroy is like encountering a warm hug in human form. A refreshingly frank woman, her disarming laugh, bright smile, frequent exclamations and occasional tears quickly make you feel at home. You can’t help but feel connected with her story and want to know more about her life and how she came to live in Rochester. Each opportunity to speak with her and read her new book “I Hate Potatoes, They Make Me Cry” is a chance to dive just a little bit deeper into her story of hardship, renewal, growth and hope. And though McElroy’s life has been unique in many ways, the lessons and wisdom that she shares so generously are truly universal.
A difficult beginning
McElroy was born in Thailand, where she was orphaned at a young age and experienced poverty and abuse. She lost her mother when she was just a small child, and her father also passed away just a few years later. The contrast between the strong, capable woman I met for our interview and the child I can picture while reading her book is striking, and I know that her journey to the life she has now cannot have been easy. What is so remarkable is how clearly she can describe the way.
McElroy’s early life was especially difficult, and description of hunger and her relationship with nourishment are truly eye opening for anyone who has never experienced scarcity of food. The title of her book was inspired by this part of her journey.
Although that part of her life was a very long time ago, years of having to eat boiled wild potatoes for meal after meal inspired a truly well-earned hatred of the food, and she shares that she is still troubled by the waste she observes in American culture. She writes, “This culture seems to take for granted access to food, water, shelter and clothes. People do not seem to realize how important this easy access is.”
So . . . why write a book?
One of McElroy’s gifts is her ability to describe in detail such difficult circumstances and her observations in such a straightforward, conversational way. “I wrote the book exactly the way that I talk—I may not be a great writer, but I’m a storyteller.” And it’s true. You can hardly put the book down after the first page. The story and the lessons that McElroy shares draw you in!
McElroy didn’t grow up thinking that someday she would have lived in multiple countries, become an internationally sought-after speaker, finally finish her GED and go on to study psychology and later earn a master’s degree in social work. She has worked as a therapist and coach ever since and recently started her own coaching business called Above and Beyond Coaching. She definitely never imagined that she would write a book! In fact, McElroy only started to work on it during the pandemic, when she had time to take a breath and consider what legacy she wanted to leave for her two young sons.
“People have always told me that I should write a book about my life—all the time people were saying that! But I really didn’t think about it seriously until the pandemic forced all of us to slow down and I wondered. I wanted to document my story for my boys, and I hope that other people find meaning in it too.”
When McElroy was growing up in Thailand, most children were not able to continue their education beyond the sixth grade. Although she loved school and felt supported by her teachers, going further wasn’t in the cards just yet. Her father moved McElroy and her brother to live with other family members, and her new half-sister did not support her attending school. It was a long time before she was able to finally achieve her dream of completing her GED, with many experiences and hardships in between.
McElroy describes the writing process itself as quite a challenge, in the technical sense, as well as revisiting painful memories from her life. She worried about “airing the family’s dirty laundry” by being honest about her experiences. But ultimately, she took on the challenge in part because she wanted to “walk the talk” of her message to her clients. “How could I keep encouraging my patients to be bold and share their stories of trauma and begin to heal if I couldn’t do that myself?” she says.
McElroy’s experiences as a therapist have clearly shaped her understanding of healing, both on an individual and a societal level. Although she tells the story of her own life, she always ties the lessons she has learned back into the community. Her book is a reminder that we cannot be a healthy society if we allow some members to suffer in poverty and abuse.
Moving to America
McElroy’s description of moving to Rochester is particularly vivid and offers a different perspective than we typically hear from new residents. Although she was already an accomplished professional in other countries where she had lived, for a time her life in Rochester felt like “starting over from the beginning.” She writes, “I did not feel I belonged or had a right to exist in this new country. I struggled to fit in and to be recognized as an equal. My experience and expertise were not recognized in the U.S. My first job was weeding gardens, helping farmers during the summer months.”
McElroy eventually did find her place in Rochester, attending college and learning to speak and write proficiently in English. She was finally able to achieve her life-long goal of completing her education. In the process she describes struggle but also a time of cultivating and appreciating her own strength. “My belief in myself, my perseverance and my faith gave me the motivation to keep moving forward.” Now she finds the most meaning in helping others do the same.
Awakening into your own power
We met just a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine and two years into a global pandemic. There was a tinge of fear and worry on every face around us. I was certain we weren’t the only two people who had shared some tears together in the coffee shop, especially these days. It was a relief to see human faces. At the end of our conversation, I asked McElroy, “How can we continue on when the world feels so dark? How do we remain hopeful in times like these?”
She paused, and the answer surprised me. “Come face to face with your fear and remain grounded. Confront the darkness and do not shy away. After the storm, focus on the ways that you grew during the difficulty. ‘What did I gain, what did I learn, what new muscles did I develop?’”
She smiled, with tears still glistening in her eyes. “Here is what I have learned these past two years: I am a badass. I have awoken into my own power. I am the one putting myself out there. I am ready for whatever the future holds.”
And for the rest of us? “Continue to believe in yourself and continue to work towards your dreams. Keep in mind that you are braver, stronger and more capable than you think.”
Somehow you know that though her journey has been difficult, she is OK, and she knows that you will be too. ::
Boonmee Pakviset McElroy’s book, “I Hate Potatoes, They Make Me Cry” was published by You Speak It Publishing in 2021. It is available on Amazon.
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