Apisra Srivanich-Raper: Experience as a Thai-American Second Generation in Washington
This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to meet other young and politically interested Thai and Asian Americans; get exposed to the inner workings of American and Thai government and policymaking; learn directly about the Asian and Pacific Islander American (including Thai American) community’s history, desires, issues, and actions to help our community; and develop my own skills and passions. This experience has helped me recognize that as a young Thai and Asian American woman, I truly have the power to help others and create change.
I am so grateful for the support of the Royal Thai Embassy and Consulate; His Excellency the Ambassador Pisan Manawapat and for initiating the idea for this program; the US-Asia Institute for helping to make it a reality; Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) for extending my internship beyond the original six weeks, which allowed me to attend the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the Presidential Townhall in Las Vegas; my family; and last but not least family friend and host Carmen Requena, who graciously opened her home to me—without her help, despite the scholarship I may have been unable to afford the internship.
As a Thai-American who grew up in southeastern Idaho with no wat and little diversity, I was raised without a Thai-American, let alone Asian American community. My luke krung mother and I did not regularly visit her or my father’s family in Thailand or other Thai-populated areas in America until I was in high school. I always wanted to learn more about our heritage and culture, but it wasn’t easy. While my mother tried to teach me to be bilingual at first, she felt it would be too difficult in an environment with few Thai people. Between visits to see Thai relatives and vice versa, I picked up Thai numbers, common phrases, and traditions and customs, such as how to wai in the temple and the importance of Loi Krathong. In college, as I began to study International Political Economy with minors in Asian Studies and Journalism, I arranged an independent study with my Southeast Asia political economy professor, who taught me the Thai alphabet, sentence structure, and grammar. At the same time, through classes and newfound resources I started to learn the rich historical, political, and economical picture of Thailand that put family visits in perspective. Finally, in my third year I took the leap and studied abroad in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Alongside issue-specific language learning, we students learned firsthand about development and globalization issues with locals, NGOs, government agencies, and businesses involved in the problems throughout the Northeast. After this program I stayed longer to be a cultural adviser and volunteer English teacher, where I further developed my language skills. Although I appreciated my experience and had gotten to know my family, more Thai people, and the culture better, I could still count the number of Thai Americans that I knew on one hand: Two.
Thus, as a recent graduate unsure what to do with my degree, I was excited to learn of a program where not only would I intern in DC, the heart of American politics and a dream come true, I would meet other Thai Americans like me—passionate about politics and the policymaking process, with a similar experience of not just being American, but also Thai. I was eager to meet other Thai Americans who had actually grown up with that community and hear their experiences, as well as to create our own community. So when I actually got accepted to the program and was also awarded the scholarship, I was thrilled! It was hard to believe it was actually happening.
The first week the US-Asia Institute took us to meetings they set up with representatives from different branches of government, agencies, nonprofits, and organizations that gave us a glimpse into the day-to-day process of their jobs, the goals of their leadership, and the policymaking processes, as well as what was being done for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. I particularly enjoyed meeting China expert Wayne Morrison from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and his story of how he got to where he is; Piyachat Terrell from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and how she also tries to help the AAPI community through her work, such as education on the concentrations of mercury found in fish and the US-Thailand collaboration in regulating and decreasing air pollution; the White House Initiative (WHIAAPI) and how President Obama has increased AAPI representation in the political process; Kristina Law as Thailand’s Desk Officer from the Department of State; and other representatives from the International Monetary Fund, Department of Commerce and Defense, and more.
The second week was the start of our six-week internship placement, although I extended my internship after the last week of the program at the Royal Thai Consulate. I was placed at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) (www.apiavote.org), a national nonpartisan nonprofit we had visited during the first week meetings. Their mission is to help the AAPI community be civically engaged—to register to vote, get out to vote, and be educated about their voting rights, the issues before them, and the concerns of the AAPI community. This was an extremely valuable internship: I learned firsthand about the Asian and Pacific Islander American community, our history, importance and not unutilized potential power, and work with other communities of color. I got to meet other Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in and out of the office, learn about other organizations that help AAPIs that I never knew existed (NAPABA, NCAPA, AAJC, JACL, CAPAL, etc.), go to informational panels or events on education, racial discrimination, the Voting Rights Act, and difficulties facing AAPIs and the damage of the Model Minority Myth, participate in voter registration training, research and compile contact information for AAPI student organizations across the nation and reach out to them via email and phone calls, which helped me improve my computer and outreach skills. I also had the opportunity to extend my internship and help at events at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and historic APIAVote and AAJA Presidential Townhall.
Specifically, I attended a Voting Rights Act panel that my boss Christine Chen was part of, alongside a representative from NALEO, a Latino American voting organization similar to APIAVote, and an African American representative from a lawyers’ bar association at the League of Women Voters National Convention. At the leadership conference sponsored by CAPAL, I got to meet other young AAPIs as we learned about hot topics such as criminal justice or participated in good workshops that got us thinking about our passions, such as one hosted by Teach for America’s Sarah Ha. At APIAVote I first learned that Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial demographic in the country, and many of our youth are very involved in the community, but the AAPI community hasa low voting turnout rate. At the Democratic National Convention, I got to help host a reception and briefing for APIAVote, attend caucuses and councils (AAPI, LGBT, Interfaith, more), and go into the arena for the nightly broadcasted speakers. I met AAPI leaders such as Representative Judy Chu of California, the first Chinese American woman
elected to Congress; Senator Mike Honda of Califonia, who advocates for transgender rights; Representative Grace Meng of New York, who championed the bill to remove “Oriental” from US law; and Representative Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, my personal she-ro, Iraq war veteran and only Thai American elected to Congress who also advocates for veterans. I witnessed her-story as Hillary Clinton was officially nominated the first woman presidential candidate, listened to Michelle Obama, disability advocates, mothers of tragically killed African Americans, members of CAPAC (Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus), President Obama, Khizir Khan, and others speak. At the Presidential Forum hosted by APIAVote and the AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) in Las Vegas, I witnessed the largest gathering of AAPIs in history gather to hear presidential candidates or their representatives speak, such as Bill Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and the attorney general of Utah for Donald Trump.
The last part of the program, the week at the Royal Thai Consulate, was a glimpse into how visas, national ID cards, passports, legalization, and birth/death certificates are gained, renewed, or processed. I had no idea that what for many is simply shipping something in the mail or turning in a form turns into stacks of paperwork and passports. The Royal Thai Consulate’s kind and hardworking staff have multi-tasking down to par. We TANIP participants learned how to process these from when people queued up or mailed them in, and helped answer the phone and answer Thai or potential visitors’ questions. It was fascinating to see the difference in how diplomats’ passports are handled versus ordinary citizens and see passports from around the globe.
I cannot express how grateful I am to the Royal Thai Embassy, US-Asia Institute, APIAVote, and everyone who helped me for this truly incredible opportunity to come to Washington DC. I have met other Thai and Asian Americans, learned firsthand about issues facing our community and country and actions being taken to remedy them, and am inspired to continue as a change-maker and be politically involved. I better understand how passionate I am about public service and realize that as a Thai American and thus, Asian American woman, I have the power to shape the future not just for myself, but in helping others.
Apisra (Annie) Srivanich-Raper
Click HERE to learn more about the Thai-American National Internship Program (TANIP)