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By Alicia Cai

Summer 2022

I want to start this reflection by reflecting on this moment, this paper, this process. Right now, as I sit here typing this final draft, I want to note that I’ve already spent countless drafts trying to type this out, only to hit walls of un-generativity. Not because anything major happened: the internship in itself, I think, was ultimately just a disappointment, on many parts. The part that my brain is stuck on, the site of my writer’s block, however, is what was going on underneath. Perhaps part of what took this reflection so long was my inability to tell where the blame should be placed. Everyone has been telling me it is my employers’ fault. And I do believe that unpaid interns do not owe it to their employers to fulfill their every expectation, especially when it seems unfair, or outside their capabilities or interests. But something then needs to be excavated, to explain why for months after the internship ended, the one emotion that lingered with me was guilt.

I have decided to use this reflection space to offer you my honesty and my full deconstruction of my experience, external and internal. As someone invested in dismantling Model Minority during this internship (and always), it would be disingenuous to not vignette the places where this theme showed up the most this summer: in my personal, embarrassing entanglements with it and my distangling efforts.

My internship with the AAC - the Asian American Caucus - started at the end of June. Advertised as an opportunity to support legislators, educators, teachers, community members, etc., in the implementation of the TEAACH act., I was excited to work with/in the education sector, a field I am interested in, and for such an important cause. The internship’s flyer seemed vague - five bullet points, consisting of ideas such as ‘education and outreach’, ‘supporting AAC events with elected officials’ ‘planning/strategy sessions’, ‘social media support’, ‘research on Asian American history curriculum’. However, the AAC gave us the idea that they would flesh out the particulars as we went along, and it would be partly up to us what we wanted to get out of it. But in the end, we were given one research project for all ten weeks.

In the beginning though, before problems arose, I thought it would be a challenge that would teach me a lot: about how to conduct research; about major issues facing AAPI - about local examples that would directly undermine the Model Minority myth, and contributing toward making this information widely known.

I should state what exactly our project was. In 2018, UIC published a 100-page report about the state of Asian Americans in Chicago. Our job was to update the report. It seemed simple enough: find data from after 2018.

Two issues. One, AAPI lack data, chronically and continuously. Two, restricting the data search to be only within this locality - Chicago - means excluding national databases, such as censuses; and sometimes, state databases were only marginally useful. I ran into both of these issues quickly. However, I was shy about it at first. I kept thinking, I just didn’t look hard enough. I just didn’t put in enough work.

Something else to mention: I was feeling major imposter syndrome. I was also fully burnt-out (and burning myself out more every day, with a second job). I bring up these struggles not to present some side-issues I was facing, as a vulnerability-moment to spice up this reflection. I bring these up because they were prevalent issues that I believe majorly impacted the trajectory of my internship.

My burn-out and imposter syndrome impaired my problem solving abilities. Specifically, my desire and confidence to communicate. When I ran into problems, I gaslit myself, instead of bringing them up to the AAC.

This is where I could have done better. My superiors, Josina and Megan, told us time and time again for us to communicate when we ran into issues, knowing AAPI data mining is hard. I did not. Here is a place where I owe responsibility.

On the other hand, we were exploited. In the end, another student and I wrote an email to Megan and Josina, detailing why we could not do the project as they asked. I will summarize our main points:

  1. We were ill-prepared for the project: We had no experience in research or data science. Josina and Megan did not properly teach us how to conduct the research, nor give us a procedure—besides two sessions on how to use the census (which ended up being unhelpful).

  2. The project itself is intrinsically hard: We were often confused on many different levels—where to find data, what even to write up, since we found so little data.

  3. The researchers who wrote the 2018 UIC report had an advantage over us: they accessed data not available to laypeople.

  4. We lacked an overall sense of direction: We weren’t given an adequate sense of the larger goal — what was the final product supposed to look like? Would we be the ones even writing it? Often we didn’t know what we were even working for. It was hard to stay motivated.

In writing this reflection, I feel that I have also written myself through my guilt. It is true that I could have taken more initiative, made my internship what I wanted, which is what someone who, perhaps, with more experience and better mental health, could have done. I also felt that I owed a huge amount of time and labor to the AAC, because I was given this grant; and that I was continuously failing these expectations since I was too drained to work the amount of hours I was supposed to. I am not excusing myself for my failures in communication and expectations. I acknowledge my failures squarely.

However, I also felt—I was—alienated in my work. The project was simply not meant for us, and I do not believe I contributed meaningfully to it. I believe I owe, dually, responsibility to future people I work with to not repeat these mistakes, as well as grace to myself.

I’ve written this to share my experience—not every internship, no matter how good the intentions, go as intended; burn-out is serious, and it does impair. This story is not one I believe to be particularly meaningful, nor unique to me. (Like I said, I would not write about this if I wasn’t obligated). But therein lies the point: this is so common. This is not new. Yet this is a story that, embarrassingly, we who have been conditioned by white supremacy the culture of “model minority”, keep writing:

Hyper-functionality, burnout, failure, guilt/shame, dissociation from said failure.

I ask that anyone reading to not take for granted their abled-body, or the belief of a perpetual abled-body. This was my mistake. Despite being neurodivergent. Acknowledging this, in my mind, is part of how we move away from “model minority”, into full humanity and true solidarity. To consider mental health, body/mind failure, and make space for care—self-care, community-care.

To end this reflection, I want to bring in a quote from Cara Page, a leader of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective:  “Our movements themselves have to be healing, or there’s no point to them.”

Take care of each other, and yourselves. We’re in here for the long run, not to perform some once-in-a-life-time-feat., then promptly burn away.