Christy Innouvong-Thornton is a Lao Isan American daughter of refugees. Shortly after the Secret War, her father was sponsored to move to the US from Laos. She was born in Seattle, where her parents settled in white suburbia with several Mormon families who were caring for other Southeast Asian refugees. “I grew up in Seattle and was ashamed of being Asian. This is embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t know about my history or wasn’t surrounded by people who looked like me,” she admitted.
Growing up, Christy had many questions about herself and her identity, she had no genuine ties to her motherland or the Lao community, but her desire to visit her motherland and service has been instilled in her since. “With my meager savings, I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok and figured I would just teach, volunteer, and live my best life. Eat, Pray, Love if you will,” she said.
She spent several months with a host family, learning the ins and outs of their everyday lives, but despite the fact that people looked like her, she felt completely alone. She didn’t understand their culture or speak their language. She felt as if she were a stranger in her own home.
Christy began seeking English teaching jobs and was met with a lot of rejections. “Doors literally being slammed in my face. Why you ask? Because I wasn’t white. Because I looked Thai.” she added, “And because if ‘parents see you, they think you cannot speak English.’ I had no idea the deeply rooted discrimination that I would face. I was condemned for being an English-only speaking Asian American.”
On the other hand, she didn’t let this stop her from doing what she loved, and she even began to see her purpose in Thailand. She soon met a friend who was in the feeding and housing of refugee families, including Thai women who were victims of torture and trauma. She also started volunteering to teach English, and in her spare time, she would spend some evenings cooking with her students, visiting them in the detention center, or going to the red light district to try to rescue them from being trafficked.
“In those days I spent fellowshipping with them, I came to love them and we became like family. I saw in them, a reflection of my own family who only by luck and circumstance changed our positions in the world.” Christy told the AHN community.
The majority of the kids she worked with were underweight and couldn’t concentrate on their weekly English classes. When she started cooking with them, she observed a difference in their engagement with Christy and their learning. The children’s curiosity about food and foreign ingredients sparked, and the neighborhood also gained interest. This led Christy to co-found Courageous Kitchen, a non-profit charity for internationally displaced persons, including survivors of forced migration and trauma. They started hosting dinners and pop-ups all around the city, and on top of that, she would also spend every weekend in the kitchen training the kids.
At the time, Courageous Kitchen employed four young women full-time and served over 400 refugees and asylum seekers. Airbnb requested them to host their classes on their ‘Experiences’ platform a few years later. Christy had an idea to develop the charity into a social enterprise model, organizing Thai cooking courses and street food tours with all earnings going back to their initiatives. They have been featured in several publications, and the students have had the opportunity to cook alongside Bangkok’s most prominent chefs like Ian Kittichai and Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, of the now-defunct Bo.Lan.
As it was for many others when COVID struck in 2020, her students and her entire way of life and livelihood were flipped upside down. All clients and contracts were canceled, but Christy continued teaching and cooking stateside. For her, having no money doesn’t scare her as much as not living her dreams.
“In over 7 years working at Courageous Kitchen, I have never paid myself a salary. I would be ashamed to take if that meant 2 or 3 students could instead be trained and earn a salary to help their families,” she said. Christy did whatever she needed to do to make money: nanny, dog sit, teach, personal chef, bartend, consult, and many other things.
Not being able to cook in person was heartbreaking for her, “My whole income and existence were dependent on in-person activity and human interaction. I panicked a bit, but knowing that I always figured it out, I hustled.”
Christy then started crafting a dream she’d had for years and in late 2020 she and a long time volunteer of Courageous Kitchen founded Tuk Tuk Box, a specialty food retailer and subscription box company focusing exclusively on Southeast Asian products and purveyors, working with people from the diaspora or identify as BIPOC.
Courageous Kitchen receives 10% of all subscription earnings, “Throughout this process, I have learned that even though it’s in a different way now, I am still feeding and serving people which is all I ever wanted. The beautiful part about being an Asian hustler is our resilience and finding ways to adapt. Constantly shifting for survival.” Christy expressed.
Not only that, but she also launched Tuk Tuk Box’s Spread Asian Joy Campaign, reframing the “Stop Asian Hate” sentiment and rewording it into the affirmative to uplift, encourage, and center stories of joy. Proceeds from all SAJ products are donated to My Sister’s House, a Sacramento-based organization that helps AAPI survivors of domestic violence.
SAJ aims not to overlook the real issues that are happening, but to humanize, celebrate the community and come together to heal and be better equipped to combat the system. “Mainstream media aka colonialism doesn’t want to highlight our accomplishments, usually just paints us as victims and tropes.” Christy expresses.
And this is how far Christy was brought by her strong belief in pursuing her dream “I believe you can be both a hustla and humanitarian. I believe when you share a meal you become family.”