Sai-kit Jeremy Lee: Reflection from Thai-Americans in the Thai American National Internship Program
I would first like to thank Mr. Ambassador, P’Gift and P’Mo of the Royal Thai Embassy for giving us this opportunity to connect with other Thai Americans and learn more about the issues impacting the Thai American community. Next, I am grateful to Mary Sue Bissell, Zev Moses, Christina Durham, Alec Bohlemen, and Temi Adeyemi from the US Asia Institute for organizing our orientation and helping us connect with our internship placements. Finally, thank you to Christina Cheng and Julie Wu from APIAVote for giving me the opportunity to serve the Thai American community and the Asian American Pacific Islander community at large.
My name is Sai-kit Jeremy Lee. Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, I wasn’t exposed to the Thai American community outside of my direct family and even then, only my mom is Thai. Even though I was always the only Thai kid in my classes, I was proud. Up until 2nd grade my mom would take time off and ask my teachers if she could give a short presentation about Thai culture. She’d come in dressed in traditional clothing, share history, and even give a dance demonstration. As a result I was seldom bullied for being Asian in elementary school, and my peers only conflated Taiwan and Thailand half the time.
When it was time for me to go to college, at the George Washington University, I was excited to finally find a community of Thai Americans. Others who could understand my culture, my food, and even some of the hardships my family has gone through. Even though I went to school in Washington, DC and had a myriad of experiences on and off capitol hill, I never had an opportunity to engage with the Thai American community and US-Thai relations until this summer. I studied Asian Studies, but our courses focused on East Asia, and while organizing with the AAPI community, Thai American voices were rarely at the table.
I stumbled upon TANIP during one of my many identity spirals. Being mixed, not being able to fluently speak Thai, and growing up with no Thai (American) friends, I desperately wanted an experience like TANIP. When I stumbled upon the TANIP website, I was elated! It had everything I was looking for: an opportunity to learn about US-Thai relations, understand the issues in my community, and meet other Thai Americans. TANIP was everything I expected and more.
We started the summer off with a great orientation hosted by the US Asian Institute where we were able to meet and learn from professionals on and off the hill. I especially appreciated learning about the ways we can be involved with international affairs without needing to be a congressional staffer. While orientation only lasted a week, our interactions with USAI would continue throughout the rest of the summer. For example, we had a chance to attend a reception at USAI where we were able to meet with other summer interns, congressional staffers, and even ambassadors! I appreciated how they tried to give us an immersive internship even though my internship was virtual.
As for the internship, I appreciate that APIAVote allowed me to dive deeper into issues that I was already familiar with. For example, working on our Asian American voter report allowed me to understand the disparities of voting access specifically for Limited English Proficient Americans (32.2% LEP and 42.0% English only), but it also gave me hope after learning about efforts states like Nevada have made to make voting more accessible. I also learned about the importance of redistricting and the history of “cracking’; specifically the ways redistricting hurt the Korean American community in LA. I wonder how Thai American communities have been affected in the past or might be affected in the future if we’re not aware of the harms of redistricting? The NCAPA Brown Bags were great for learning about a whole slew of topics from immigration to digital literacy and granted me the chance to learn from other thought leaders.
The most rewarding part of this internship experience was being able to work on the Thai American Community Report. I was ecstatic when Christine Chen and Julie Wu approved of this project. As a Thai American, I can only imagine the impact this report will have on Thais and Thai Americans in the US. Through working on this project, I’ve been invited to stay in touch with other organizations, such as National Ace and Thai CDC, as they work to serve the Thai American community.
One of the key takeaways from the Thai American Report was that the Thai American community needs to have pathways towards leadership, be empowered to know our stories, and spaces to connect with each other so that we can encourage each other. TANIP has allowed me and my fellow interns to experience this. As much as we were able to learn from our placement and the embassy, I learned just as much from my fellow interns. I was nervous coming into TANIP; I thought I would be an outsider and that I’d just have a professional relationship with the cohort. My fears were quickly squashed during orientation when Zev asked how many of us had been part of a Thai student association. Not only did no one raise their hand, most of us said that we had never met a Thai American outside of our family before. I learned that the sense of loneliness that comes with being the only Thai person in a room was universal. As I heard stories about my fellow intern’s lives growing up across the US (and world!)I learned more about myself; I heard pieces of my narrative and my family’s narratives in their stories. For the first time, I didn’t feel out of place. I am grateful for the ways my fellow TANIP participants have challenged me to grow academically, professionally, and culturally. I look forward to seeing the ways each and every one of us will influence the world and how we will continue to be in each other’s networks.
We have been in the US since 1829 when Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins came to the US. Since then, we’ve had a steady stream of Thai immigrants with 342,917 as of 2019. Thai Americans are less likely to hold jobs in fields generally associated with the Asian American community such as education, business, professional management, and scientific management(10.5% of Thai Americans as opposed to 15.9%). Thai Americans have a disproportionately high representation in service occupations and food services (26.2% as opposed to 10.6%). As we look towards the future, we must continue to empower young Thai Americans through programs like TANIP so that our communities can have a seat at the table, nationally and internationally, and have representation in diverse industries.