Ty Kiatathikom: Reflection from Thai-Americans in the Thai American National Internship Program
I am endlessly appreciative of P’ Gift and P’ Mo from the Royal Thai Embassy for hosting me and my fellow TANIP members this summer. I thank the Ambassador and his staff for the immense courtesy of inviting us into his home recently. I also thank Mary Sue Bissell, Zev Moses, Temi Adeyemi, Alec Bohlman, and Christina Durham from the U.S.-Asia Institute for making TANIP possible. Finally, I am grateful to Jessica Lee and Michael Swaine from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for allowing me the immense privilege of assisting their research over this summer.
My name is Ty Kiatathikom and I was born and raised in the city of Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is different things to different people, as cities are. But to give you a sense of what Rockford is to me in specific, I would say this: Rockford was the closest thing I ever had to Thailand.
By that I mean that my home was a Thailand of its own. My mother and father, aunts and uncles and cousins–whenever we gathered together, that was Thailand. I grew up in a boisterous family of factory workers, waitresses, and cooks. I came of age in the immigrant fashion: in an overwhelming flurry of sights and smells and sounds. When I think back on my childhood now, I see it as a gallery of projections–flashing sensory images that capture the world as it existed in each remembered moment. On one side, I see high school football games; milk cartons in public school cafeterias; me and my friends driving aimlessly down a country road one cool summer night. On the other, I see greasy hands clutching warm rice; flames dancing on slick woks; my mother clutching me to her breast, smelling of sweat and cooking oil, telling me stories of her life in a city on the other side of the Earth. As a child, I achieved, without even trying, a perfect balance between my Thai and American selves.
As I grew older, though, the balance began to shift. I spoke less Thai, and spent less time around Thai people. Living in downstate Illinois, I naturally had no Thai friends, and no Thai community to rely on when I outgrew the confines of my childhood. As I went through high school and then college, I was becoming more American all of the time. I came to worry that my American side would swallow my Thai side. Compared to my identity as an American, which felt solid and unquestionable, I came to fear that maybe I had been a counterfeit Thai all along. I had never actually been to Thailand. My interaction with that country was secondhand: a patchwork of movies, TV, news clips, and the grainy photographs and faded memories of my loved ones. Could I really claim to be Thai after all?
When I first applied to TANIP, these fears came bubbling to the surface. I was a Thai-American college student and I was interested in politics, so I should have been a perfect fit. But could I actually represent the Thai community in a way that was genuine, when I never felt all too genuine myself? To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think I could. But when I was accepted for this program, I got the idea that maybe the U.S.-Asia Institute and the Royal Thai Embassy had seen something in me that I myself was blind to.
I met my fellow interns and instantly saw myself in them. I interviewed with staff from the Embassy and found myself oddly entertained when a diplomat repeated the very same tease I had heard over and over again in youth: “Oh, that’s funny! You’re Thai and your name is Ty!” A common refrain in my life, from the playgrounds of Illinois all the way to Washington. It became clear that what was being asked of me here in D.C. was not to reinvent myself, but to simply be myself. The question of whether I was counterfeit was irrelevant, because the truth is that there are no counterfeit people. Our selves are always genuine, so long as we are genuine with ourselves. The architects of TANIP had seen that truth, I believe, and in conducting this program year after year, the Royal Thai Embassy and U.S.-Asia Institute help young Thai-Americans all across this country to see it for themselves.
As Thai-Americans, we have a unique role to play in this life. The bond between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America is one of the oldest diplomatic relationships in the world today. But a relationship is like an orchard: to remain beautiful, it requires constant maintenance. As Thai-Americans and soon as TANIP alumni, we have the privilege and the responsibility to serve as lifelong caretakers of the U.S.-Thai relationship: to ensure that it bears fruit for generations to come.
I was able to bring my genuine self not only to the Embassy, but to my internship placement as well: the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. This summer, I assisted their East Asia team by researching possibilities for peaceful resolutions to conflicts in the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea. Quincy is named after John Quincy Adams in recognition of his maxim that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Quincy believes, as we all ought to believe, in an America of peace. It shudders at the thought that America will descend deeper down the dark steps of aggression and great power conflict, and works tirelessly to convince this country to embody the better virtues of diplomacy and multilateralism. It was an honor to intern for an organization whose mission aligns so perfectly with my own, which is to build strong relationships, generate trust among people, and imagine a better future for the Earth we share.