Reid Arné: Reflection from Thai-Americans in the Thai American National Internship Program
First, I want to express my gratitude to the Royal Thai Embassy, the U.S-Asia institute, and the East-West Center in Washington for collaborating to make my TANIP experience possible. Thank you to the Royal Thai Embassy, Mr. Ambassador, P’Mo, and P’Gift – for your devotion to serving the global Thai community. The commitment and support you have shown me during our short time together make me feel like I truly have a role to play in strengthening bilateral relations between our countries. I would also like to thank the U.S-Asia institute, specifically President Marie Sue Bissell and her colleagues Zev, Alec, and Christina. Coordinating this program, especially during this past year posed its challenges but you were all so accommodating and helpful. Lastly, thank you to Satu Limaye and Spencer Gross at the East-West Center in Washington for welcoming me into your Young Professionals Program.
My name is Reid Arné. I am a second-generation Thai American, originally from California but lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. I hold a bachelor’s degree from Westminster College, where I studied Finance and International markets and served as a 2-year volunteer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Thailand and Laos. Currently, I am pursuing a master’s in International Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science.
My entire TANIP experience can be framed by a single question. What does it mean to you to be Thai American? This is a question that I have been asked my entire life, and when I was young, I struggled to formulate a sufficient answer. I do remember a turning point though. It was on my eighth birthday when I was gifted my grandpa’s Thai dictionary. I remember opening its pages— it was the first time in my life I saw Thai script and I was spellbound by the elegant curves of the “letters”. Up until that moment I had been told by my parents that I was half-Thai, but for a young boy living in suburban Connecticut, I struggled to assign meaning to this fact. With the dictionary in hand, this began to change. Now I had evidence, I had something that I could hold, a book that I could read and feel. I took the dictionary everywhere.
My time in Washington, D.C as a TANIP participant has provided a similar effect as the Thai dictionary did on my eighth birthday. The program has given me something that I can hold onto, experiences that I’ll take everywhere—more evidence of what it means to be Thai American.
During my placement at the East-West Center in Washington, my racial identity encouraged my involvement in the center’s collaborative project with the Thai Embassy, entitled The United States-Kingdom of Thailand Alliance and the Indo-Pacific. This project is ongoing but, in its entirety, will produce a series of public webinars, closed workshops, and article publications highlighting areas pertinent to the U.S-Thai alliance and Asia-Pacific’s regional order. Providing research for this project has enabled me to understand security issues, investment relations, climate issues, and people-to-people ties from both a U.S and Thai perspective. The habitual practice of engaging with each country’s view on a singular issue reminded me of the dual responsibility Thai Americans have in representing Thailand and the United States. To be Thai American means to operate in two places at once – it means having to cross the Pacific Ocean and return without ever leaving. Interning at the East-West center emphasized the unique position I am in to passionately advocate for both countries that I love, bridging cultural gaps and extending an already historic 200-year friendship.
In my time in Washington, D.C I also was able to work at events and attend briefings on behalf of the East-West Center. One memorable event was the East-West Center’s and the U.S-ASEAN Business Council’s joint launch of the 5th Edition of ASEAN Matters to America publication. It was at this event where I met Royal Thai Embassy staff for the first time. In a sea of people full of high-profile diplomats and D.C executives, Thai Embassy staff members made it a priority to stop and spend time with me. Their kindness and consideration shown to me on that day reinforced a message that is oftentimes lost in a country that is so large: Thai Americans matter, our people matter, and our stories matter.
My mother was born in Chonburi, Thailand. She was taken from her home and sold as a young girl. After two years she was finally rescued by my grandmother and grandfather and they moved to the United States. Even though they were very fortunate to start a new life, they lost a huge part of their Thai identity in the process of immigrating. If they had the support and community that I have here today, my Thai family would not have felt like they had to sacrifice who they were as people to succeed as Americans. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I have reconnected to our roots.
The TANIP program has left a deep impact on my life. Though I still have so much to learn in Washington, D.C I now understand how the efforts of organizations on and off the Hill coalesce to drive our country forward. Perhaps the most significant takeaway from my experience in TANIP however, is a fortified connection with my heritage. Now when I am asked “What does it mean to be Thai-American”, I know exactly what my answer will be. It means having Justin’s devotion to his country, Lisa’s quiet yet powerful strength, Ty’s beautifully inquisitive mind, Ashleigh’s emphatic passion for life, Jeremy’s love for people, Kendrick’s sound leadership, and Kathryn’s ability to deeply empathize with others. Thank you for your friendship and your example. Though the Thai American community is small, it is strong and resilient because of people like you. I hope all Thai Americans across the world will consider participating in TANIP. I am aware now more than ever of the importance of diverse representation in the public policy arena. This program with push you to use your voice but more importantly it will strengthen the bond between your own Thai community and the United States of America. U.S-Thai relations has a bright future, and I am grateful to be a part of it.