This summer, I entered the shark infested waters of our Nation’s capital, Washington, DC. 98 degree humidity, two suitcases, 11 roommates, and post-grad with a degree in American Ethnic Studies from the University of Washington, my ambitions seemed only an arm’s reach away. Out of a nationwide application process, I was granted the opportunity to be inducted into the Organization of Chinese Americans—Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA-APA) 2015 Internship class, the second largest and longest running Asian Pacific American Advocacy and social justice organization.
As OCA-National interns, we had a unique opportunity. Unlike most internships, the 22 of us had dual identities. We were first OCA-APA interns, and we were also placed into greater institutions to work in. Mine was straight at the top, working in the House of Representatives.
The work as a Congressional intern, was predictable. Answering letters to constituents, learning public policy, and networking. Initially, it was light hearted and productive. But within a few weeks, the depth of my Congressional experience really came to show.
To backtrack, I come from families that immigrated from Japan and the Philippines to the United States. Through the stories of my grandparents and relatives, I also understand the hardship that came with it. Coming to Hawai‘i, my Japanese relatives survived degrading treatment on the sugar plantations. My grandfather was denied promotion after 20+ years at Merrill Lynch, simply because he was Pinoy and too “foreign.”
Being raised in Seattle, I had the privilege to learn about the complexities of immigration from a safe distance. But my experience from a safety net only touched the surface of what my forebearers and other families today have to face. At the time, I didn’t recognize I still had a long ways to go understanding the impact of immigration on the Asian Pacific Islander community. As a recent graduate, I naively assumed I knew it all. But my time in Congress quickly turned my perception into hard reality.
The center of attention was the H-1B visa. A program that allows migrant workers to temporarily work in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act. It’s a process our society has used time and time again. Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Braceros, etc. A process that is nothing new. But just as history repeats itself, so did the backlash.
As an intern, I witnessed immigration become a source of opportunity into a political agenda. Undocumented immigrants were “illegal immigrants.” Opportunity for work meant “stealing” jobs from “good” Americans. On a daily basis I heard constituents, members, and even tourists in the gift shop criminalize innocent families, who just wanted better for the next generation. It was easy to brush off as sheer ignorance at first. But then the questions started to be directed at me. “Where are you from?” “Are your parents American?” “So you’re a real citizen?” One hundred plus years since my families came to the United States and we were still the perpetual foreigners. I was seen as less and after hearing it enough, I began to feel it too. Listening to phone calls to meeting with other interns, I felt I was invading a space that was created to shut me out.
Interns were also allowed to go to hearings and sub-committee meetings, where I watched the testimonies of witnesses from Vietnam and the Philippines to West Africa. Some individuals were from war stricken countries. Others were displaced by Western industrialization; forced to relocate with almost nothing. Everyone had their own unique story and a commonality of survival. For many that meant sending a family member across seas for work. Listening to their anecdotes was tragic. The ones who shared pictures will forever be engrained in my memory. The worst aspect however, was the fact that as we heard these stories, we were still sitting in the same institution that housed individuals creating policies to deny opportunity for these families. As a woman of color and a descendant of immigrants it was difficult to accept the realities I was a part of. I had the privilege to work in one of the most powerful institutions in our nation, but I didn’t have the representative power to challenge the systemic issues affecting our communities.
In the end, working as a Congressional intern was the most challenging endeavor I have experienced. As Asian Pacific Americans, we are the fastest growing racial community in the States, yet we are one of the smallest represented communities in government. Seeing that first hand in the Congressional offices was at times disempowering. As weeks went by, I became more complacent with my surroundings. I allowed myself to accept the flaws in our system and in doing so I lost my voice. Don’t get me wrong, the staffers in my office were brilliant and generous mentors. But the greater institution itself was a feat I was not ready for. My post-grad eagerness convinced me I would find my purpose and dream career advocating for Asian Pacific American justice. But in the end, I’m probably more confused than before. Post-internship I recognize I still have a lot to learn. I came in thinking my academic background would be enough to navigate through DC’s jungle. But shortly into my stay, I realized I still have not had enough experience within my own community to understand the obstacles that affect us today. Whether it’s healthcare, education, or immigration, our identities as Asian Pacific Americans are singular. I’ve learned facts and statistics but that can only go so far. The time you physically put into the community is what counts. For years I have been able to grow inside the safety of the classroom, but I can’t expect change to come unless I get out of my seat.