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A Chinese American Physician’s Reckoning with COVID19 and Race

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following post was first published at https://junehng.medium.com/

Street scene Chinatown NYCIn eighth grade I won an essay contest. It was hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the prompt was: “Is Freedom Really Free?” With the help of my older sister, also an immigrant from Hong Kong, I wrote about Hobbes and Locke, about social contracts and about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the awards ceremony, I nibbled nervously at a cookie while white Vietnam War veterans clapped me on the back and told me I had a bright future. But the events of this past year have made me question these ideas.

I would go on to finish college, medical school, and residency, fulfilling the supposed dream of every Chinese immigrant parent: for their child to become a doctor. I brushed off the casual incidences of racism: the time I was called a “chink” at the ice-skating rink by a white girl, who stared at my bewildered face and laughed, the countless times I had been told I was “the prettiest Asian” they’d ever seen or the “konnichi wa’s” from total strangers on the street. But I also ignored the requests from my family: “Why don’t you try to learn Chinese instead of French and Spanish?” “Have you thought about practicing medicine in China?” “When are you going to visit your family in Hong Kong?” Later, I would say. Soon. But in my mind, these were always second to my American Dream of becoming a successful doctor for whom race didn’t matter anymore.

It didn’t stay that way though. In 2019, when protests in Hong Kong against the control of the Chinese government reemerged on the global stage, I instinctively took the side of the protestors, defending democracy. I thought it was my way of giving back to my community — by giving the gift of Western-ness. But as I finished my Ob/Gyn residency in June of 2020, as the pandemic in NYC peaked, reports of anti-Asian sentiment were starting to appear. I brushed them off initially. “The pandemic will calm down in a few months,” I told myself. Yes, there were a couple hate crimes against Asian Americans, but nothing that made me personally fear for me or my family’s safety.

But then it got worse. Between March 2020 and February 2021, there were 3,795 reported anti-Asian hate crimes. Then, in January 2021, I got a text from my dad: “I tested positive for COVID.” In the span of 3 weeks, he felt a mild cough, had a couple visits to the hospital, then quickly deteriorated, got intubated, and died. And then, about 4 weeks after we buried my dad, a white man walked into 3 Atlanta-area Asian-owned massage businesses and murdered 8 people, six of whom were of Asian descent. It feels like an attack from so many sides. I witnessed my dad’s life painfully taken by COVID19 while my Asian American sisters were murdered for their race.

And now, all of a sudden, I feel like my entire existence has been a walking contradiction. I have spent my whole life trying to fit the model minority myth, trying somehow to be more American and ignoring my Chinese identity. I subconsciously believed that if I could somehow prove that I deserved to be American through advanced degrees or watching American football, no one would ever comment on my “slanty” eyes again, and my family would stop asking me to come back to Hong Kong. But it has become clearer and clearer to me that I’ve been working for an American Dream that doesn’t exist. I will never be equals with my white counterparts because of my race. And I have spent eternity defending a country and a political system that has so obviously shown it doesn’t care about my people. In fact, it doesn’t think about us at all.

And yet, I continue to go to work as a physician, testing and treating people with COVID19 on the regular. I always wear my mask in public, I socially distance, and I received my vaccine right on time. I’ve done everything right, but in the rest of my professional life, it’s glaringly obvious to me that Asian Americans are ignored. Research on sexual and reproductive health, if it includes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), often group them together as “Asian,” even though we represent over 30 different countries and 100 languages. Although AAPI comprise 6.5% of the US population, they are the focus of <1% of NIH-funded studies. When putting together a conference proposal on sexual and reproductive health in AAPI groups, an Asian colleague remarked to me: “I’ve wanted to do this in the past, but a lot of people didn’t think there would be enough interest.”

It’s not just our presence in research that is troubling either. We think of AAPI as successful doctors, lawyers, or bankers, but that myth has shielded the public’s view of our reality. In 2016, more than 25% of AAPIs in New York City lived in poverty, and that number has only grown during the pandemic. In New York state, unemployment claims rose 6900% for Asian Americans compared to 1840% for their white counterparts. The few statistics that do exist are troubling, and yet we are invisible.

While we have little representation in healthcare, our image in movies and television speaks to the problems of race and gender in the Atlanta shootings. In the famous opera and musical Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, a shy submissive Asian woman is saved by her strong, white, savior of a man. That trope has been repeated countless times. To say that race played no role in the Atlanta shootings is to miss the point entirely. It has always been about race. It was about race when Japanese and Korean mothers and daughters were taken as “comfort women” in World War II. It was about race when American soldiers raped local women throughout the Vietnam War, but especially during the My Lai Massacre.

The recent Atlanta shootings have, in a way, helped to unite the AAPI community against a shared, but perhaps forgotten, trauma. But let us not forget that the importance of activism extends beyond AAPI people or their friends. Let us remember that Yuri Kochiyama, an activist who survived the Japanese internment camps, fought alongside Malcolm X during the civil rights movement, and that Black, Asian, Native American, and Chicano students formed the Third World Liberation Front to collectively fight racism in the 1960’s. As American celebrities like Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, and Olivia Munn join local organizations like Stop AAPI Hate to combat anti-Asian hate crimes, where do other minority communities stand?

When I come home from work these days and take off my N95, I carefully balance my anxieties of being the victim of a hate crime against my desire to go for a run. When I talk to my mom on the phone, I don’t know whether to tell her to stay away from others for fear of losing another parent to COVID19 or to stay close to groups of people so she won’t be pushed, kicked, or have acid thrown at her because she is Chinese.

There is no doubt in my mind that to live in the United States as an Asian comes with a price. At best, that price is the daily pressure to live up to the model minority myth, to not cause trouble, to keep your head down. At its worst, that price is your life.

Is my Chinese-American freedom, in the end, really free? Resoundingly: no.

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