May 25, 2021 | By Kaew (Kat) Ngern
TEKsystems recruiter Kat Ngern shares a personal perspective on embracing diversity and reconciling with her Asian American identity
At TEKsystems, we’re committed to nurturing an inclusive employee culture and welcoming diversity into every part of our business. In this series of personal essays, we’re highlighting the unique perspectives and reflections of our employees. We aim to not only see and recognize the diversity of our teams but also to better understand how we all play a part in fostering an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive.
As we look back upon the attacks on Asian Americans over the past few months and forward to recognizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans during the month of May, I’ve spent so much time reflecting on the fight for equal representation. The current narrative has forced me to look inward at my own personal history. As an Asian American, it feels like the right time to articulate my Asian American minority experience and the deep diversity of what that identity means to me.
I came from a war-torn country as a refugee. My parents fled a dictatorship government during the 1988 pro-democracy movement in Burma, which is now known as Myanmar.
Before I was born, my parents escaped death and were forced to flee to Thailand so they could simply stay alive. My dad was wanted by the Burmese government for leading demonstrations, and my mom was a student in the 1988 pro-democracy movement, both of which were anti-government. Shortly after I was born, my parents smuggled me through the jungles of Burma to live with my grandmother, who raised me in Ye, Myanmar. My parents came back for me, and that was the last time I would ever see my grandmother who raised me as her own.
After constantly running from the Thai police for five years, the United Nations recognized my parents as displaced refugees, and we were able to settle into a refugee camp, which became our safe haven. We barely had food, running water, a place to bathe or a toilet to use. We lived in a hut made from bamboo sticks and cardboard boxes without doors. We had so much fear—but we still had hope.
On October 28, 1998, we immigrated to the U.S. with the clothes on our backs and a bag that said (UNHCR) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We felt like we won the lottery. We were sponsored by Lutheran Services and a few families that took us into their homes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These people played important roles in our lives and helped my family adapt to America.
In 2000, my parents decided to move to Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has one of the largest populations of Burmese immigrants in the U.S. Growing up as an immigrant, I saw the struggles that my parents went through and how they were taken advantage of because they didn’t speak English very well. This made me determined to take every opportunity I had to make a difference. With grit, a strong work ethic and perseverance, I learned English and tested out of English as a Second Language when I was in 7th grade. I was offered a scholarship to attend Canterbury, a prestigious private school in Indiana, that prepared me for college. I then received a full ride to Purdue University. I am a first-generation college student and now a voice for the Mon community.
I used to feel like I had to hide my authentic self, but my experiences as an Asian American have shaped my unique strengths and who I am today.
As an Asian American, I struggled with always wanting to fit in and be Americanized. I wanted to be accepted by my peers and colleagues without being seen as “different.” I hid or covered my identity out of fear it would be seen as a weakness or a disadvantage. Throughout my child and adulthood, I didn’t have the ability to articulate these frustrations or internal struggles, and it wasn’t until I began my career with TEKsystems that I realized I wasn’t living my true, authentic self.
The culture at TEKsystems is driven by embracing diversity and creating inclusive spaces where individuals are encouraged to engage in conversations to help understand one another. During my initial interview with the company, I was continually—and genuinely—asked about the “real me.” Throughout my tenure, I’ve come to understand that TEKsystems values the adversities I’d been though, my personal stories and experiences—how I was shaped to who I am today. I’m empowered to show up authentically and drive meaningful relationships through my experiences, and to use those things to accomplish my professional and personal goals.
Inclusion and diversity require bringing all of our own experiences and reflections together.
Sharing my story has been a humbling experience. It has reminded me to always be grateful to have our basic human rights and freedom. In the past five years of being at TEKsystems, not many of my team members really knew my true story. Embracing open conversations that our company has fostered has allowed me to build deeper relationships with my team members and further build an inclusive culture where I, myself, feel like I can thrive.
My advice to anyone going through a similar experience is to continue to discover your purpose, be vulnerable, lean on your peers and make your voice known. Remember that growth means being uncomfortable, but that ultimately, we must be comfortable sharing these dialogues to embrace the diversity we all have to offer.