Kathryn Wangthamkua: Reflection from Thai-Americans in the Thai American National Internship Program
My name is Kathryn Wangthamkua and I am a rising senior majoring in Political Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont California. I am from Bainbridge Island, Washington and have been living in Seattle for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. I want to thank the Royal Thai Embassy, the U.S.-Asia Institute, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and her team for everything they did to support me this summer.
Thank you to Mr. Ambassador, P’Gift, P’Mo and the rest of the Royal Thai Embassy for continuing to represent and advocate for Thai-Americans like myself and Thai nationals like my family. I have an expanded understanding of U.S.-Thai relations thanks to your mentorship and support. Thank you to Mary Sue Bissell for your guidance and for working to ensure the TANIP program could happen this year. I also want to thank Temi, Alec, Christina, and Zev from USAI for working to coordinate our program. Finally, thank you to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and her team who welcomed me into their office this summer. Although I was interning remotely for most of my internship, I was fortunate to be able to go into the office last week and meet Congresswoman Jayapal in person. My time in person on Capitol Hill and in D.C. has been brief, but I am forever thankful for the chance I got to spend time here with the rest of the TANIP cohort. I feel honored to be here today representing my family and the larger Thai-American community.
This summer was the first internship experience I have had that has truly inspired me and given me direction for the future. I have always been interested in politics, but it wasn’t until my experience with TANIP and my time with the Office of Congresswoman Jayapal that I truly understood why politics is so compelling to me. Not only has this summer brought new perspectives on politics, it has also encouraged me to explore my identity as a Thai-American.
During my internship with Congresswoman Jayapal, I quickly learned that the aspect of politics that appeals to me the most is the connection between policy and people. One of the main components of my job was constituent outreach. I read and replied to many constituent letters from the seventh district in Washington state. In addition, I handled phone calls and disseminated information from the Congresswoman and her staff back to the constituents. One of the best things about listening to constituents is that I learned so much more about the state I grew up in, as well as the many perspectives that exist on issues that I care deeply about. Furthermore, st. Since I was interning remotely in Seattle, I was able to empathize closely with constituents calling in expressing their concerns and fears about the climate crisis and the extreme heat we were experiencing. At the same time, I learned more about how the heat wave was affecting people and what their responses to it were. One constituent called specifically concerned about the work hours of postal workers who were still expected to complete their whole route in the extreme heat. After their call, I was able to pass along this message to my superiors. This showed me how important individual voices can be in terms of informing our political leaders.
I was also given the opportunity to attend various Congressional briefings in which I learned more about our political process and got to explore the issues I am passionate about. One of my favorite briefings that I attended was focused on building Asian American and Pacific Islander inclusion in federal policy. The panelists focused on discussing the importance of data disaggregation, and understanding the disparities between Asian ethnicities in the United States. They also promoted the importance of critical race theory for the future of AAPI inclusion and emphasized the need to collaborate across racial groups to work towards progress for everyone. At times, briefings were difficult to watch because the issues at stake are personal to me. However, it was inspiring to see conversations like this happening before Congress.
Not only has my experience in the TANIP program fostered my interest in politics, it has also given me a space to explore my own identity. I have struggled with my Thai-American identity throughout my life. My father is from Thailand, and immigrated to the United States after he met my mother. I was raised in a mixed-race household, in a majority-white community with very few Asian Americans and even fewer Thai-Americans. I never addressed the complexities of my mixed-race identity because it was uncomfortable. People questioned my Asian heritage and as a result I did too. Upon reflecting on my discomfort with my ethnicity, I realized that I lacked the language and community that I could decipher my Thai-American identity in. My own denial of my ethnic heritage was the insidious result of systems that have silenced Thai-American voices.
I am a Thai-American who is just beginning to come to terms with my own identity and reconciling years of pain and confusion. For the first time, I am in a space with other people who have similar lived experiences to me. A space of Thai-Americans. Finding this community has changed my perception of myself and has further motivated me to continue advocating for Thai-Americans everywhere. I want to promote the development of a racial consciousness within the Thai-American community by ensuring that Thai-American voices are elevated in political spaces. My commitment to diversifying and improving the political field is intertwined with my commitment to myself. As I comprehend my experiences, I am sure my understanding of my Thai-American identity will continue to shift and grow with me. I want to take this growth and synthesize it with my passion for policy and public service in order to support the empowerment of all Thai-Americans. My hope is that through this work I will simultaneously heal communities and continue to heal myself.