One of these is not like the other

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It’s been awhile… my apologies! I’ve been trapped in my apartment studying for our second neuro exam and a couple weeks ago I traveled to New Orleans for a conference. The conference was for Student National Medical Assoc (SNMA), a student group which I have the joy of being involved with at my school’s chapter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with SNMA, it targets med students of color, minorities, and first generation scholars. While I’m technically not considered a minority (in the medical field), as someone who wants to work in a medically underserved area, SNMA seemed like a good fit for me. Also as only one of four Asian-American students in my class, I feel like a minority more often than not.

Let me start with a story from our NOLA trip that I feel sums up my conference experience (aside from eating as many beignets as fast as I could shovel them in). At a conference after party one night, I was getting busy on the dance floor. I think my girl T-swift said it best when she described her dancing as “a baby giraffe learning to walk.” Yep, that was me. Then something happened… the DJ started to play “Back that Ass Up” and the room instantly fell silent, like a kind of lull before the storm. My friend grabbed my arm, looked at me with both exhilaration and terror in her eyes, and said “Jenny. You are not prepared for what is about to happen.” She was right. If you haven’t been in a similar situation before, see this buzzfeed for appropriate response.

This little anecdote was one of the most evident examples of how “not prepared” I was for this conference. If you haven’t already guessed it by now, I was one of the only Asian students at this conference. Most everyone in our chapter and even at the national level of SNMA is Black or African. Given that SNMA is focused on minority medical students and serving minority populations, this racial make-up should not shock you. Yet, this poses some interesting questions, one in particular that I’ve wrestled with for several years since I began to consider practicing medicine with a focus on health disparities: Why am I one of the only Asian students at this conference?

At present, it’s no secret we have a shortage of med students of color, moreover students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including inner-city, rural, international, and first generation to attend college. Yet health disparities for these general population groups continue to widen. The numbers just don’t add up. The supply of black and hispanic physicians does not nearly meet the demand of their patient counterparts. That’s where I come in, the random Asian girl who found herself at a conference in New Orleans for minority med students. Throughout the conference, I sometimes felt like an outsider looking in. Did I belong here at this conference? What part do I have to play in serving a community where I don’t look anything at all like my patient population? I was explaining this to an older med friend (who is herself Black), and she pointed out that under-represented groups could not have gotten to where they are now without non-minorities standing by their side. While true, does that historical vantage point have as much weight today in modern medicine?

A relevant experience: during my research in undergrad studying diabetes disparities on the South Side of Chicago, I had two PI’s, one a Chinese male and the other a Black female. During community outreach days, our team would set up shop at local events around the South Side to do basic physical exams and check-ups. Take a guess at which doctor all the community members would line up to see. There is an inherent trust when your doctor looks like you. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Yet it makes me wonder what sort of role I will have as a practicing physician in such communities. Will I always feel like an outsider looking in? And if so, will it even matter? If I believe that my patients have a voice worth listening to, stories worth being amplified from a physician’s platform, then does it even matter that I feel like “a baby giraffe learning to walk” when the DJ puts on Back that Ass Up?

Thoughtfully yours,
J

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“Excuse me, do you mind me asking…”

Whenever anyone starts off a question like this, my immediate response is to blush. Because it usually prefaces a question that will make me feel awkward, embarrassed, annoyed, or a combination of all three. The elderly lady in a frumpy coat and harry potter-esque glasses continued her question, “Are you Chinese?” Color me unsurprised. When old white ladies approach me in the middle of the bread aisle at Trader Joe’s, it is usually to ask me where I’m from. Another hint: I also spotted her when I walked in the sliding doors, loitering near the entrance with religious pamphlet in hand next to her preacher most likely.

I replied with my standard: “Ethnically, yes, but I was born here in Kentucky.” When perfect English came out of my mouth, I registered her fleeting expression of surprise. She replied, “Oh that’s wonderful. I am learning Chinese and was hoping I could practice with you.” First of all, who skulks around Trader Joe’s stalking unsuspecting Chinese to find a free language partner? No one (should), that’s who. To her great disappointment, I informed her that not only do I speak perfect English, but it is also my only fluent language. I know, I know, I am the twinkiest of twinkies. Not learning Chinese is without a doubt my biggest regret in life (and one that I hope to rectify one day). But anyways, I wasn’t about to stand around and chat it up; for Pete’s sake I have a neuro exam on Monday… I was only in there to grab supplies for my inevitable hermit weekend of studying. Ain’t nobody got time to practice Chinese with you.

But homegirl couldn’t take a hint. She went on to explain to me what a darn shame it was that I wasn’t fluent in Chinese, because — get this — “you make so much more money if you’re fluent in Chinese these days.” Fo’ real, gurl? You’re going to lecture me about learning Chinese because it would be advantageous in a career? To all the non-ABC’s (American-born Chinese) out there who are learning Chinese, know that the greatest “shame” of not speaking Mandarin for some of us twinkies is not about another accomplishment on a resume. It is the fact that I have been and will continue to lack an integral part of my, my parents’, and my grandparents’ heritage. Language is interwoven with a culture and its history, and that gaping hole in my proverbial race card is something I will forever feel an emptiness. There was so much I wanted to say to her. That the reason my parents never taught me was so that I wouldn’t be bullied more than I already would be (in my small birth town in eastern Appalachia). That her idea of a “darn shame” is vastly different from the actual shame that I feel when my I try to talk to my grandparents who are separated from me by oceans both geographically and linguistically.

But I didn’t. I had bigger fish to fry, and peanut butter to buy. Maybe I should have taken the time to speak with her. But at that moment in time, all I wanted was to get home and get back to my neuro notes and anki cards. And also erase the thought of a white lady lecturing me that I needed to learn Chinese. True as it may be, it stings a little, ya feel? I quickly dropped a loaf of challah in my basket and said I really had to run. That didn’t stop her from calling out after me, “By the way, you have such lovely hair!” Ah… there it is.

So an Asian girl walks into a bar…

One obvious truth about being Asian in Kentucky is that you are surely a minority. There are simply not very many of your fellow people living here. Herein presents a case of simplified supply and demand, specifically in social interactions. Let me be specific. I don’t go out much. When I’m not studying on a Friday night, I love nothing more than staying in with a mug of tea and as many Hint-of-Mint Newman O’s as I can shove in my mouth whilst watching Scandal. But every now and then I get the urge to act my age and venture out to some bar or club. One of these rare urges happened a couple weeks ago, and I found myself with a few friends at a hip bar, complete with faux taxidermy and $10 cocktails.

Later into the night, a guy came over, wingman in tow, and pitched a really gentlemanly proposal of buying our entire table a round of drinks. With no strings attached. WHAT. He specified he would act as our personal butler and just take our orders, deliver the drinks, and then go on his way. Again, WUT. We were all pretty flustered, so he switched gears, and got straight to the point. “Well… the real reason I came over here was to actually buy you a drink,” he said while staring at me. Hold up, what is happening?! After his continued spiel about the no strings attached offer, I eventually said we were leaving soon but thanked him anyways.

Truth be told, I wasn’t used to attracting attention from grown ass men, much less a man with enough money to throw down for bougie cocktails for an entire table just to talk to one girl. To be even more honest with you, I was newly single and didn’t know how to react to drink offers from strangers. Perhaps another post is required on notes-to-self about fielding drink offers, but for this post, let me focus on the fact that this gentlemanly, financially stable(-ish), adult male was Asian(/-American). Part of me wishes I would have said yes because he was Asian. Is that weird? Probably. I felt as the only other Asian-American twenty-something there, I had the responsibility to support this guy’s move. (I mean come on, it takes some confidence to come over and introduce yourself cold turkey). Maybe because I was the only other Asian in the room, he felt like I was the only person he could buy drinks for? Is this thought process race-contained racism? I don’t know. Supply and demand, guys. It messes with my social cognition. For a split second in that bar, my inner thought dialog was that he might be one of the few Asian-American guys I’ll meet in Kentucky so I should probably just say yes.

Ethnicity aside though, he had the thoughtfulness to ask permission before condescendingly sending drinks over (like some masochistic guys do), was incredibly gentlemanly, and had that classic nice guy look. I think his name was Steve? Steve, if you ever read this and find me in a bar, try that offer again. Because I believe I’ll say yes. Not because we’re both Asian, but because you were a nice guy with good manners. A lady appreciates that.

Yours truly,
j