A physician’s response to anti-Asian racism

“Wait, are you Chinese? I don’t want to get COVID.”

First of all, I am Vietnamese, and second, not all Asians look alike. And third, what? Those were the thoughts going through my head while working at the San Carlos Respiratory Clinic in April 2020. Initially shivering from the cold weather underneath my scrubs and PPE, I could now feel my body hot with anger as I listened to a patient’s concerns, not about my skill or knowledge, but about my ethnicity.

“I’m not racist. I just don’t want to get sick,” he said as if this absolved him from his prior comments. I said nothing more than, “You may want to tilt your head back for this,” as I completed his nasal swab. Can a person say whether or not they are racist? Or do their actions speak louder than their words? I drove home that day in silence.

Growing up, my dad reminded me constantly to keep my head down and to not draw attention to myself.  I grew up being quiet and shy (I even won an award in kindergarten for “best manners” because I would never speak up in class). Digging into his psyche, I see this has come from years of living under communist oppression followed by years of keeping his head down by cleaning cafe tables for $1.25 an hour in Rochester, Minnesota. Occasionally, my dad would recount moments of racism he faced as a young Vietnamese immigrant in college; it never seemed to faze him, but now I wonder if he needed to hide it deep down inside or else it would cause him a lot of pain, sadness, and anger.

A few weeks ago, I was taking care of a Korean-American health care worker. During her exam, she started on a tirade about the “China flu” and how “dirty jungle Asians” are to blame for the pandemic. “Wait, you’re Vietnamese, right? I have to be careful who I say these things to,” she said jokingly. I awkwardly laughed and regrettably said nothing.

When Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many more innocent Black individuals were murdered, I proudly participated in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and knelt for 8:46 alongside my clinic colleagues to protest police brutality against people of color. It was a small thing I could do to help advocate and speak up for our Black community. At the same time, I read stories about Asian-Americans being verbally and even physically assaulted, but I hesitated to speak up or share any of these stories. Is it appropriate to share this right now? Will I decrease the importance of BLM if I bring something up about Asians?  What if I say something wrong? How do I speak up against Anti-Asian violence without downplaying another’s cause? I couldn’t answer these questions, so I chose to remain silent on the matter.

“He said my people were responsible for all of this and that I will go to hell for it,” said the phone interpreter. We were doing a phone appointment with my elderly Chinese patient now experiencing panic attacks. Earlier that month, she was verbally assaulted on her routine morning walk. Her normal 2-mile walk around her neighborhood, a walk she had done countless times, was a walk now tainted with fear. She repeated her assaulter’s hateful speech, how it now haunts her daily and causes her to have palpitations, shortness of breath, and trouble sleeping. I could hear the interpreter’s voice crack from sadness as she translated my patient’s story from Mandarin to English. It took every bit of strength in me not to let my own tears break my voice as I stayed quiet listening to the patient’s story.

In the last few months, more and more articles about Asian hate crimes started to appear. When I read the stories, my heart stopped as I looked at the victim’s photos; they looked like my grandparents, like my parents, like me. Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man living in San Francisco who was violently shoved to his death during his morning walk; Pak Ho, a 75-year-old Oakland Asian man, who was assaulted and then robbed during his morning walk (he died later from his injuries); Tiffany, a young San Jose health care worker who was physically attacked in broad daylight by a man yelling ethnic slurs as she was getting onto the Caltrain heading to work. These are only a few of the many anti-Asian crimes that have occurred in the last year. Stop AAPI Hate says it has received nearly 3,800 reports of what it describes as hate incidents, including verbal harassment and physical assault, since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March. Nearly 44% of all incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate have come from California. 

This past month, a white young male went to three different massage/spa parlors and killed eight people; six were Asian women. I was outraged. This must be condemned.  And yet Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office said, “He [Long] was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” A really bad day for him? What kind of a day was it for Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Yan, Daoyou Feng, and the other four innocent people who died? What kind of a day was it for their loved ones?

This morning after the shooting, I expected to walk into my clinic, and people would want to talk about what happened in Atlanta, about how hate has no place in our world, about how we can be allies to our Asian-American community. I expected people to be outraged like me.  And you know what I heard? Nothing. Silence can be so loud.

By being silent, I’ve realized no one else will speak up for me; I am doing more harm than good by being silent about this. But no more, I’m done. I’m done being quiet. I’m done keeping my head down. I’m done being the “model minority.” I will not stay silent when my people are being bullied, harassed, and assaulted; I will not stay quiet when I hear people spew hateful rhetoric against others. I have a voice that should be used to speak loudly for the millions of Asian Americans who cannot speak for themselves, who remain invisible, who are attacked maliciously for just existing.

I think we are quiet because we are afraid; Afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to offend, afraid to hurt others. We are afraid that if we speak up, it must mean we care about one community more than another community that is hurting.  How did this thinking come to be? Why do we have to choose? Why can’t we fight and speak up for ourselves and for others?

Spoiler alert: We can, we will, and we must.

Jennifer Tran is a family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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