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Spotlight on Commerce: Thomas Choi, International Program Specialist, Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP)

Guest blog post by Thomas Choi, International Program Specialist, Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP)

I am humbled to write a blog post in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and to share my story, especially now, when this month is more important than ever. My name is Thomas Jungwoo Choi, and I serve as an International Program Specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP). I work on the Central Asian team and cover regional and bilateral relationships with the governments of Central Asia on customs, procurement, and issues on women’s economic empowerment. CLDP provides technical assistance to help develop the legal infrastructure to support domestic and international businesses. I was lucky enough to join the team in August 2020 after being evacuated from Ukraine, cutting my Peace Corps service short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I have only worked virtually over the past 8 months, I have had the pleasure of working alongside a group of diverse and dedicated individuals from all reaches of the world.

I graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Chicago. After a brief stint working in finance in New York City, I decided to become a Peace Corps Volunteer as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Advisor in eastern Ukraine, where I worked with government officials, businesses, and civil society organizations to promote local and regional economic development through entrepreneurship, tourism, and civic engagement. While there, one of my most memorable experiences was interacting with ethnic Koreans in Ukraine whose families had been deported decades ago from the Russian Far East. It was a surreal experience tracing back our roots, using a mix of English, Ukrainian, Russian, and Korean to discover that our families had come from neighboring cities of North Korea. My grandparents had been forced to flee their homes during the Korean War and had been lucky enough to find themselves in Seoul, eventually giving my family and I the opportunity to move to the U.S.

When I returned to New York a year ago, I had found myself in a country further divided due to the pandemic, with a large rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. I was born in South Korea and moved to the United States when I was six years old. I relocated to a new city across the U.S. every few years of my life, from the sunny beaches of Los Angeles to the snowy city of Boston. I grew up trying to adapt as much as possible. As a first-generation American, I experienced feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, adopting an English name to avoid explaining how to pronounce my given name. I struggled with my identity and attempted to hide any parts of my Korean heritage to the point where people were shocked to know I spoke Korean at home or at all. I worked hard to blend in, falling into the myth of being a model minority.

As I further reconcile what it means to be a Korean American, joining CLDP has been one of the first times that this part of my life has been valued alongside my love of foreign languages and cultures. I am grateful to work with such wonderful colleagues who inspire me to work harder while embracing my heritage. I am thankful to all those that have come before me and worked hard to give me the privilege to have come this far. And I am honored to be able to work at Commerce, where I can do the same for others in nations around the world. 

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce employees during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

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