Born as the first son of a family in Rayong, Kijmanoch Rojanasupya knew all along that he was a girl deep inside. He preferred to be among girls, putting make-up on his face and speaking with a high-pitched voice. He tried his best to never let his parents find out, but there were times his cousin tried to confront his parents about his sexual orientation.
Famed transgender tutor Kijmanoch ‘Kru Lilly’ Rojanasupya and her students.
Worse, his cousin once said something that shot right through his heart _ "you were born worthless".
Now the owner of Pinnacle, the famous tutorial school in Siam Square, Kijmanoch has grown up to be a proud transgender woman who is a well-known and respected Thai language tutor and media personality. Students and her admirers now dearly call her by her nickname "Kru Lilly".
"It was the worst thing a person can say to others, especially when it comes from your cousin," says the 44-year-old. "Thanks to her, I kept those words in my heart and told myself that I would prove her wrong."
In childhood, Lilly always made sure she had good grades, and did whatever it took to make her parents proud. Graduating from a top high school and university, her transcripts are full of As, with a number of certifications and trophies earned along the way.
After completing a degree in Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Lilly began her first job in an employee relations department. As she recalls, it was a painful moment.
"I wasn't myself," she says. "I had to wear overalls because I worked for a manufacturing company. Later, when male colleagues knew that I'm gay, everything went downhill."
One day a teacher friend asked her to fill in for a communications class. Standing in front of the students and getting their attention gave her an enthralling feeling, something she had longed for.
"It was like there's a spotlight pointed at me," she laughs. "The kids loved hearing what I said and had fun throughout the class. That made me very happy."
Luek Dai... Mai Sia Chart Gerd (You Can Choose... Not To Be Born Worthless).
Following this, Lilly applied for and was accepted to a teaching job at a university. After teaching for a while, her carefree spirit led her to take the big step of founding a tutorial school.
"Being the first openly gay tutor was not easy," she says. "And I didn't have a major in Thai, nor a teaching degree. There were so many people against me. But, you know, I love to prove people wrong. I've been doing it since I was a kid. So, I worked hard and let the results of my students say it all." In 1999, a television talk show Tee Sib (At Ten) introduced Lilly to Thai audiences. By this time her reputation at Pinnacle had grown among young students who were fascinated by her teaching style and quality, as well as her kind and funny character.
After the early television appearances came a number of media interviews, plus advertising and acting jobs. Her name skyrocketed. And, with all the fame and money, she admits that she got carried away.
"I spent millions travelling overseas," she recalls. "My friend even called me Miss Five Continents, as I've been everywhere, except South America. I dined at luxurious restaurants. When shopping I bought expensive, brand-name clothes."
But throughout those years, there was still an emptiness deep in her heart.
"I realised that even though I had everything, I still felt like something was missing," she says. "Even in my relationships, I had been dating, but every time it ended badly. I felt frustrated."
Five years ago a dear friend asked Lilly to take a week off for a meditation retreat. It was a struggle, but she felt that it was the first time she truly learned about Buddhism.
"My father is Buddhist and my mother is Christian. So my siblings are divided when it comes to attending religious ceremonies. My younger brother and me follow my dad, while my youngest sister is a Christian like mum," she says.
"I learned Buddhism at school. I even won a prize for a dhamma quiz contest. On top of that, I've been ordained as a monk, since it is believed to be a duty for a son to do it for their parents. But, I never truly understood what all the Buddha's teachings really mean."
While studying dhamma as a beginner, Lilly's mother passed away. Luckily, she says, she has been slightly immune from sorrow, thanks to meditations and Buddha's teachings about the truth of life.
"I still remember a picture of my maid, who was trying to put a banknote in the palm of my mother's hand, her intention was to pay respect to the dead and she believed that the money would with her to the next life.
"But the banknote kept falling," says Lilly. "Seeing that banknote falling from my mum's hand, it got me thinking that when we die, we can take nothing with us. So we must make every day count."
The study of dhamma not only helped her cope with the grief, it also taught Lilly an important keyword that changed the way she sees herself and the world.
"Each of us has jit [mind or spirit], it is what controls our body. Jit is asexual. There is no male, female, gay, lesbian or transgender jit. It is pure. By purifying our jit, we can reach the ultimate truth or what is called, in Buddhism, Nirvana," she explains.
"I was born in the wrong body, but I have the chance to purify my mind like others."
After finding her peace of mind through dhamma, Lilly thinks that she has been teaching Thai for so long, it is time for her to offer dhamma classes for her students and their parents too.
Secluded in the beautiful Pak Chong district in Nakhon Ratchasima is Baan Pootmontha, a dhamma retreat built on Lilly's land. Taking a break from her teaching, she offers a workshop for beginners which she conducts herself, and invites guest speakers including monks and professional practitioners.
"I named this place Pootmontha by combining my dad and mum's names together," she says. "It was first bought to build a house for my parents. After my mum passed away, I thought that I should do something with this land. And this seems to be the best idea to make it meaningful.
"Baan Pootmontha is going to be a place where parents and their children can bond through learning dhamma. It also offers the chance for people of all ages who want to learn dhamma at the beginner level."
Early this month, Lilly launched her book Luek Dai... Mai Sia Chart Gerd (You Can Choose... Not To Be Born Worthless), which she penned about her journey to becoming "Kru Lilly" and how learning changed her life.
"I want to share my story and what I have learned from dhamma. I am thankful to my students who have trusted me, and have always been supportive of me. Without my students or without Thai people who accept me the way I am, I wouldn't be where I am today."
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About the author
- Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer