As the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, Katherine Tai didn't realize until later in life that it wasn’t until she had left home for college that she regularly ate dinner with a knife and fork.
“On reflection in adulthood, [I] realize how different, maybe, some of my experiences were from many of my classmates. … I’m a bicultural kid,” says Tai, who was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris in March 2021 as U.S. trade representative — the first Asian American, and first woman of color, to hold the post.
“A lot of children of immigrants, I think, grow up in kind of bicultural environments where we spoke one language at home, but every day, I’d go to school and speak a different language,” she says. “I would eat at home with one set of utensils, and for lunch every day, I would eat with a different set of utensils.”
Tai spoke Tuesday at a White House Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month event along with the president and vice president, noting that “just two days before I was sworn in, a gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.”
In a nod to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Tai — who rarely talks about her personal background — opened up in a conversation with NBC Asian America about how her heritage informs her work as America’s top trade negotiator.
Tai’s parents were born in mainland China, raised in Taiwan, and came to the U.S. for graduate studies. Tai, 48, was born in Connecticut; when she was 2, her father got a job at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research; her mother later joined the National Institutes of Health.
After attending Sidwell Friends School, Tai graduated from Yale with a history degree and a sense that “I had spent a lot of time reading other people’s stories, learning history in a classroom — but history’s being made every day. ... There was just a lot of attention [to] what was happening in Asia and in China, in particular, and I was very interested in seeing for myself, [in] large part because of my own heritage.”
Through a longstanding Yale program, Tai taught English at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong (formerly Canton) province. She was there from 1996 to 1998 — right amid the changeover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control, and with a front seat to China’s experimentation with capitalism under Deng Xiaoping.
Tai then began law studies at Harvard. Ideally, she wanted “to marry up the most interesting experiences I’d had — my interest in history, what I had seen happening in Asia, South China and Hong Kong — [and] bring those elements of my experience into a legal practice and a career.” The answer: become a trade attorney.
She clerked and worked in private practice before joining the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative 2007. Created in 1962, the 200-plus worker agency negotiates trade agreements and disputes directly with foreign governments — functions previously handled by the State Department.
Given her background and goals, joining the trade office "was back then, for me, a bit of a dream come true,” said Tai, who describes her own credentials as more technical and less political than some of her international counterparts.
After a stint with Congress, including as chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means committee, coming back to the office "as the U.S. trade representative is kind of like a dream come true, beyond that initial dream come true.” The Senate, in a rare unanimous vote, confirmed Tai’s nomination as U.S. trade representative, which carries the rank of ambassador, in March 2021.
While she oversees trade with a plethora of nations, managing American relations with China right now is particularly intense, acknowledged Tai. She has spoken out against the “negative impacts of the PRC’s unfair economic policies and practices” on the U.S. system (using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China) — matters of course complicated by the pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine and more — without advocating for full-fledged “decoupling” or “divorce.”
Tai is intensely aware this is a super-charged time not only for U.S.-China relations, but for people of AAPI heritage at home, who have long been “othered” in U.S. culture and have seen a sharp increase in discrimination and targeting in conjunction with the rise of Covid. (Tai and the vice president are the only people of Asian descent in the Biden cabinet, Tai’s office noted.)
To a degree, she says, having been raised, lived and worked in both cultures informs her perspective: “I feel like my entire life, I’ve been trained as a bridge-builder and someone who is always bridging two languages, two worlds, two cultures, two sets of expectations,” she says.
In many ways, it’s a unique situation: The first Asian American woman to serve as the country’s top trade negotiator holds the job while China is a top adversary, and she’s navigating the moment at a time when prejudice and suspicion about Asians is spiking.
“I feel like being Asian American, but also being very steeped in these issues, substantively, means that I bring a very high degree of discipline to my policy approach and to the way I talk about these issues” Tai said. “And it’s not necessarily geared to protecting, but geared to ensuring that when we are tough, and we do take on the significant challenges that we have with the Chinese government and Chinese government policies in economic and trade relations, that that discipline means that we stay on message. We stay focused on what the problem is, and we don’t devolve into emotion,” she continued.
Aside from being America’s top trade official, “I am also a regular citizen and member of the Asian American-Native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander community,” Tai says. “I feel like there is an especially important opportunity, but also responsibility for us at this time [to] stand up for ourselves and each other, to stand up and assert our Americanness, our belonging in this country, and frankly, to exercise the rights that we have as citizens. … It is one of the aspects of my job that really provide me with a profound sense of purpose.”
To that end, she praises the Biden administration for taking steps to confront anti-AAPI sentiment: “The fear and anxiety are real, the bias and the hate and the hostility. … It is a very, very tough time — it is an unfair time for our community.”
The ambassador, who co-chairs the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, said she’s “continually inspired by the resilience and perseverance that our communities have shown in the face of increased hate, violence and discrimination.”
Looking back at the path that made her who she is and brought her to where she is now — at the center of some of the highest-stakes economic dealmaking facing the U.S. — Tai recalls that her mother was more the “tiger mom” type, while her father was “absolutely the nurturer in the family.”
Still, she remembers, “he also had a deeply competitive spirit, and his instruction to me always was, ‘Go out and win it.’ It wasn’t, ‘Go out and do your best and come back and feel good about it.’ It was, ‘Go out and win.’ And I feel very much like in my position as the U.S. trade representative, that spirit carries me every day,” Tai says.
“You have to adapt it; you have to read the room. But I understand my job as going out into the world and representing the United States — and looking to win.”