This is a featured member contribution by Kyson Bunthuwong.
As a kid, I grew up eating khao niew ma muang (mango sticky rice). I took it for granted as a staple dessert here in America and carried around this false sense of the delicacy’s normalcy. When asked in a class by a teacher, “What is your favorite dessert?”, it was only then that the generic roars of “cake” or “ice cream” from other kids would start to unravel my singular perception. I’m the son of a Thai immigrant father who is both proud of his heritage and unable to adequately communicate why the complicated concoction of warm rice, cold fruit, and salted cream sauce was never served outside our community. The subtle othering I felt from a simple food dish was just the beginning of a long list of things over the years that would make me feel like I didn’t quite belong.
As the years went by, I learned to adapt, grow, and shift how I used my identity to avoid the existential and terrifying question of Who am I? In school, I played up the model minority myth. In sports, I deeply repressed my queerness and sexual identity to excel. With certain friends, family, and acquaintance groups, code-switching my verbal and body language made gliding through vastly different social circles just a tad more bearable. True acceptance–not only outwardly but inward as well–always seemed to feel unattainable and yet still just a stone’s throw away. Answering that deeper question around my real, and complicated, identity meant challenging the oppressive norms and systems that kept my identity as passive, reactive to these environments.
The one area of my life that I felt the most expansion and contraction was my racial identity. As an Asian American fundraiser meandering through the dynamics of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, I never felt fully able to just be. I learned about this abstractly in ethnic studies and political economy college classes, but not until I stepped into the working world did I have to live the crash course in what bell hooks so aptly calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” My early career self would contract like dried ramen noodles in spaces of power and jargoned language, but I would expand and untangle around the safety of other minority colleagues–people who looked, spoke, and acted like me. It was an unfamiliar feeling, and at times, I pushed it away. But I longed for a sense of fullness in community and an authentic space that felt close to home.
Growing into leadership positions and finding my way in new communities of privilege among major donors and philanthropists, I was not immune to the white-washing of my environment that occasionally silenced the courageous, bright spots within me. With fundraising and philanthropy becoming my all-consuming persona I put out into the world, I found myself placing a high sense of worth on wealth, money, and my ability to secure funding, and this wasn’t natural to me. Ultimately, my value for any cause was the unique ability to dissolve into the mission and vision. At every turn, no matter what grant or donation, I checked my humanity at the door and made myself a chameleon to blend in and fade into the background. Donor-centricity is how I justified it. So when donor microaggressions like “So, where are you really from?” or “I’m not even going to try and say your last name *chuckle*” inevitably came up, I put that grit behind my smile and carried on.
It’s easy to become conditioned to the power dynamics and over time it slowly wore down my hope for true partnership in the journey towards impact. However, I would slowly find glimmers and pockets of my community in this world. Donors of colors that gave all sizes of gifts and types of resources. Foundation program officers holding secretly radical agendas. Philanthropic leaders that spoke about equity and justice truly coming from the communities I had been a part of. These connections reinvigorated me and brought me a new sense of hope that there can be a place for us to rabble rouse and build something new.
I rediscovered a relationship with myself and MY POWER. Repression was a tactic for survival, but it did not put me on a path towards the type of freedom that could unleash the wealth already within me. The divorcing of my Asian American genderqueer neurodivergent identity and whole self from the work was no longer how I wanted to move through the world. I began to acknowledge that my culture, heritage, and identity, the underpinnings for so many of my values, should be what gives me strength, even in a professional setting. I began to rediscover the spice and flavor in how I showed up.
Thankfully, I also had friends and family whose guidance and mentorship helped me lean into my natural curiosity and further deepen my analysis of the interwoven systems and histories of capitalism, the nonprofit industrial complex, and the extractive roots of US philanthropy. In a sector where I was constantly bombarded with explicit and implicit messages that fed into self-doubt and inadequacy–not scaling enough, missing impact data to show your work really matters, efficiency and leanness in overhead–it felt challenging to be confident in myself and my ability to drive change without having to feel pressure to put in two, three, four times the work. I often compared myself to others who were leading better and faster, measuring my worth by external markers of success and feeling like I wasn’t enough. On top of that, with the latest racial reckoning, I found the additional emotional labor being placed on BIPOC leaders to define and hold the next iteration of “impact” while maintaining the responsibilities of holding together our communities. We became everything for everyone all at once. Every person I knew that was BIPOC and had intersectional identities struggled to say: I am enough, just as I am, and I have so much to offer to the world.
But I now knew the work started from within. Liberation started within myself.
For those with intersecting marginalized identities, it is important that networks like AAPIP exist. They create spaces for people like me to just be, and they create a community where we can unlearn and practice new, equity-oriented philanthropy with authenticity, love, compassion, and care, all while making critical connections.
Grace Lee Boggs said, “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
We need more and need to nurture the existing power building environments that help individuals grow together and transform together so that the systems and outdated structures we live in feel the heat and pressure of a new wave of justice-oriented AANHPI leaders. My giving circle Lacuna is celebrating 10 years of philanthropy towards AAPI social justice organizations, and I’m part of a field catalyzing organization called Philanthropy Together that focuses on diversifying and democratizing philanthropy. This field of collective giving has felt so remarkable to be a part of and is growing every day. The incredible people I met through this network and broader community see me (like, REALLY see me), deeply hold me, and embody the Asian futurism I want to be a part of.
With a new sense of pride, I continue to re-learn and deeply understand that our cultural traditions and histories hold within them a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that can inform our work today as advocates for a better tomorrow. New, unimaginable visions for a more just and equitable future sometimes reside in the most unexpected places and sources of inspiration. This took me back to understanding the history and journey of mango sticky rice.
What I found was that the dish truly has come very far. Mango sticky rice can trace its origins back to the late Ayutthaya period (1351 – 1767), according to the earliest historical records. Pan-Asian ingredients (mangoes from India and glutinous rice from Laos) clashed and solidified into the Southeast Asian revered amalgamation that it is today–a recipe that even the Tourism Authority of Thailand uses for “soft power” in the West. It’s a recipe that was birthed out of culture and has stood the test of time because of popular love and sweetness.
The dish even made it into the zeitgeist in 2022 when female rapper MILLI ate it while performing on stage at Coachella. It is easy to say that never in the recipe originators’ wildest dreams did they think that this dessert would go so far. MILLI said in an interview: “Mango sticky rice symbolizes the bond between me and my family because we always stick together.” I’ll definitely cheers to my new family at AAPIP for that.
So these days, I feel a strong sense of belonging, and I get to ask the fun questions: What will the next khao niew ma muang dish taste like? Where can we go next from here?
This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Poh-Poh and Goong Goong, who taught me generosity and love. This is also dedicated to Poh-Poh & Goong Goong’s early community here in San Francisco whose mutual aid and philanthropy laid the foundation for us, and so many others, to continue this spirit of abundance.
Kyson Bunthuwong (ze/he) is an explorer of connections, design thinker, and a gritty optimist in the face of challenges. Ze leads fundraising and strategic partnership work at Philanthropy Together with the north star of mobilizing more resources to the collective giving movement. Previously as Senior Director at CCS Fundraising, ze led consulting and management projects with nonprofit organizations across a multitude of sectors on large-scale capital campaigns and transformative fundraising projects. Kyson is passionate about building local community in xučyun Ohlone land (Oakland) where ze resides with zir husband and two rescue pups. Most weekends you can find zim with friends and family supporting a local event or working on zir garden at home.
Cover image credit to Thai PBS World.