Personal Revelations in 100 Degree Weather

My task at this moment is a simple one: Describe your experience so far as a legislative intern in the state Capitol. However, I hesitate because there are countless angles through which I can illustrate the past four weeks.

I can tell you in great detail about the 100+ degree weather and how I wear two jackets anyways because of my freezing overly air-conditioned office. I can brag about all the “cool political things” I’ve done – recording actions on the budget conference committee, witnessing the state budget pass through the legislature, meeting various celebrity-like legislators who you realize are also just people. Or I can express how quirky and interesting my fellow Cal-in-Sac interns are, and how in Berkeley I would have never had the wonderful chance to befriend them.

But instead I will expound on the personal revelations I’ve had during my time so far in the Capitol.

First, I’ve  become more aware of the fact that I am a Korean-American female. There was not one time in my life when I had actually been the minority whether that was in elementary school, high school, or university. Consequently, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to the fact that there are very few Asian-Americans around me, as legislators, staffers or even peers. Currently, there is not one Korean-American representative in the legislature, and historically there have only been three in total.  (However there is a Republican woman named Young Kim running for Assembly in the 65th district.) Although it slightly peeves me when new peers ask, “So where are you really from?” (since every Asian-American is of course a first-generation immigrant) I just politely respond with “San Ramon, California” and then return the question.

On the flip side, I’ve also realized how small my bubble has been, in that I’ve never had substantial relationships with people outside of the Asian-American community. Thus it’s been exciting developing new relationships in the workplace despite initial difficulty. For example, since I had grown up in a hierarchical culture, it was challenging at first to network and ask people out for coffee. I thought it would be rude if I, as a mere young intern, imposed myself onto these busy older staffers. But after some gentle encouragement by my roommates, I think I’ve gotten the hang of asking for business cards and networking. Or at least it no longer takes me two hours to work up the courage to ask to go to coffee.

Second, I realize I don’t know exactly where I fall on the political spectrum. It was a sort of shock, a splash of reality, when I saw that everyone else knew where they stood on every issue. For some time, I was nervous and fearful for what would happen if someone asked me questions and realized that I’m not firmly on either side. But slowly, I’ve come to realize that it’s okay that I don’t know, normal even. I’m just a little behind those who have already explored what their convictions are. I have the rest of summer, and perhaps the rest of my life to figure out exactly where I stand. It’s fine if I’m not confidently and wholly on one side or the other. The important thing for me is that my political beliefs reflect and stem from my core values, which are rooted in Christianity. So at this moment, that means being on one side or the other, depending on the issue.

Third, I’m no longer confident in my future dreams. See, I had this beautiful step-by-step plan all laid out. I’d take a year off after I finish college and work at some fancy tech company (like the rest of my Berkeley friends) and then head straight to law school, hoping to work with victimized women. But now, I’m a little hesitant. My supervisor put it this way: Accountants are like leaves. They only see tiny details. On the other hand, lawyers are like trees. They see in some detail but their vision is still narrow. Politicians, then, are the sky above the forest. They see the whole picture.

So I’m kind of hooked. Sure, I can prosecute the bad guys and establish justice in some sense, but if the prison system is broken, will it really be justice? What about mercy? Rehabilitation? Re-entry programs and lowering recidivism rates? What about victim services? Healing for the women? Before, I saw only one problem, but now I see this huge systematic issue and so I have to ask myself: Do I want to be a tree or the sky?

My perfect future neatly wrapped in its glittery pink ribbon no longer seems like the only option. And that scares me. Because it’s so much easier having it all figured out. But then the wise words of my staff member ring in my head: “Honey, you’re twenty. You have a loooong way to go until you’ve got it all figured out.”

Wow. What wonderfully, fantastically, liberating words. I don’t have to be the twenty year old senior who knows every detail of the next ten years of her life. All I have to be, at this very moment, is this Korean-American Christian girl who wakes up at 7:30 each morning to head off to her internship in the Capitol.

Therefore, because of all these reasons, I’m grateful for the past couple of weeks in Sacramento and excited for the rest of my time in working in that beautiful, white building.

Natalie Cha is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Political Science and Minoring in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently interning in the office of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner as a Cal in Sacramento Fellow.