speak english: thoughts i wish i’d scream

The Au Bon Pain in our hospital is like most others: yellow lighting and tiles, clear plastic cases showcasing flaky pastries, the scents of savory and sweet mingling as customers line up with their orders. The customers are as diverse as their purchases: nurses grabbing a quick sandwich on their lunch break, physicians downing an iced coffee as they scramble to return to work, patients and their families trying to break the monotony of hospital food with a Danish. I am one of those customers, grateful for the temporary respite from the mounting list of to-dos clamoring for attention while I enjoy the prospect of eating a vanilla yogurt with granola, per the recommendation of a friend who is currently enumerating the many positive qualities of said yogurt and granola. While she is in the emphatic middle of point number three, a customer behind us abruptly interjects our conversation,

“Good for you two, speaking English!”

My friend’s sentence grinds to a halt. We stare at each other as the stranger, whose interruption has immediately evaporated from his own attention span, proceeds to chat with the woman behind the cash register. We pay for our yogurts wordlessly and step out into the hospital lobby, still stunned.

My friend speaks first.

“Did that seriously just happen?”

My response is not profound.

“What the fuck?”

My friend and I work at one of the top hospitals in Boston, a city known for its racism in a state known for its liberalism. We’re both doctors, and we’re both of Chinese descent.

In rewriting this encounter, a part of me wishes that my response was more heroic. I wish I could’ve stood my ground, justified my existence, proclaimed that I was born in the U.S. and that English was my primary language, detailed the history of Chinese Americans living in the States since the 1800s, defended the sacrifices that my parents had gone through to become Americans and to allow us to be born here. Or at the least, I wish I could’ve verbalized my anger aloud and in time, with a blunt “Fuck you.”

But I didn’t do any of the above. At the moment, we were wearing our long white coats, our badges declaring our DOCTOR status, cloaked in the professionalism that teaches us to prioritize patients and our work over ourselves. We took the incident in strident silence, and as we debriefed afterward, we came to the same conclusion: we weren’t going to change his mind, so responding with silence was the best course of action.

I’ve had these encounters more times than I can count. Coined under the term “microaggression,” they represent moments of insidious racism that nonetheless reinforce the normality of heterosexual male whiteness as standard. They count in my mind as “racism lite”-the moments where your safety and life aren’t immediately threatened, but serve as jarring reminders that you do not meet the confines of normalcy, and therefore don’t belong. If we’re measuring racial self-awareness on a spectrum, I’d consider myself overtly conscious of my identity as a Chinese-American woman. I believe that my culture of being raised by first-generation Chinese immigrants as well as my race as constructed by American standards has deeply shaped all aspects of my life-good and bad. I consider my race and its impact in social interactions multiple times everyday: does my quietness on morning rounds contributes to the stereotype of the subdued and subservient Asian woman; dates with non-Asian people requires an added screen for yellow fever; my being East Asian means I’m less often randomly checked by TSA or pulled over by cops.

As a result, you’d think that microaggressions wouldn’t catch me as off guard as they often do, but they often come in the moments where I am not harboring my Asianness in the forefront of my mind-when I’m completing mundane tasks that are in no shape or form influenced by my Asianness, like standing in the ABP checkout line with yogurt, with a friend also not thinking about her Asianness because she’s first and foremost a yogurt spokeswoman. It comes often when I’m doing my job, and it hits hard when it undercuts the relationship we’d built prior. I had a patient whom I had built good rapport with; she was telling me personal aspects about her life, her family, and we got onto her subject of her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law who is Thai. She asked me if I’m married, to which I said no, and then she asked me what I am. With the familiar dread that sinks into my stomach with this question, combatting with the insistence that we had good rapport, I responded that my family is Chinese, to which she gestured to her unmarried son and exclaimed that she doesn’t have “one of those” yet.

There are tools available instructing on how to better navigate these situations-folks at our residency actually created a “microaggressions toolkit” to workshop and coach both recipients and observers of microaggressions through appropriate responses. There are great breakdowns of this topic online to practice our own responses and to provide vocabulary for ourselves and others, for either when we’re targets or aggressors, too. (See here and here). For those who are frequently on the receiving end of racism lite, we’ve all developed methods of dealing with it, whether it’s to ruminate for days and dissect them versus laugh and dismiss them or something in between. Do what works for you, and affirm yourself and others that yes, you do belong, and yes, no matter how you respond, the primary goal is not to change the minds of others but rather to do what is best for your own mental health.

And for those who are frequently the deliverers of these inquiries, ask yourself what is the purpose of your inquiry? Do you honestly know enough distinction between all the countries of Asia to make something substantial and non-stereotypical of the answer? Does the knowledge contribute something useful to the conversation?


Then just don’t.

Originally published at http://bambiinamby.wordpress.com on September 18, 2019.

internal medicine resident interested in health equity, primary care, and narrative writing. i also welcome dessert, fiction, and houseplant recommendations.

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