Blogpost: Anti-Asian Violence in America

Apr 5, 2021

We at the Perelman School of Medicine are deeply saddened by the rise of anti-Asian violence over the past year. Our previous statement is published on our website.

We honor and mourn the eight victims who have lost their lives in the most recent Atlanta shooting, six of whom are Asian-American. We’ve listed their names here

  • Hyun Jung Grant, 51
  • Xiaojie Tan, 49
  • Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33
  • Paul Andre Michels, 54
  • Yong Ae Yue, 63
  • Suncha Kim, 69
  • Soon Chung Park, 74
  • Daoyou Feng, 44

In an attempt to examine how these tragedies have affected some of our medical students, we solicited volunteers who were willing to share how their race and ethnicity have affected different aspects of their medical education and identities. Here are a few of their stories.

Selected Quotes  

What I discovered was that for many of us, the immediate reaction wasn’t outrage or anguish; many of us didn’t know what to feel. Fetishization of Asian women is real, and it kills. So please, stop ignoring our pain.

-Yuchen Chen

As the daughter of immigrants, providing equitable care for immigrant patients and patients who identify with me is of particular importance to me.

-Michelle Guo 

I realized that in my attempt to learn American medicine, I had forgotten that I should value my own immigrant point of view.

-Tong Wang

Yuchen Chen, First-Year Medical Student

Starting medical school in the middle of a global pandemic is…well, weird. And stressful — which I expected. What I didn’t fully expect or realize, however, was the extra stress that came with my identity – a Chinese American woman – during this chaotic time.

I moved to the United States from Beijing, China when I was 14 years old. Don’t get me wrong, immigrating to this country has brought me countless exciting experiences and opportunities. I would 100% do it again. On the flip side, I have also experienced many incidences of xenophobia and microaggressions that serve as stark reminders of my forever “otherness”. I have heard “where are you really from?”, “ni hao”, and sometimes “konichiwa” from too many strangers. I have even gotten used to both seeing and experiencing the fetishization of Asian women – on the internet, in the media, and in daily life. But getting used to does not mean being comfortable. Every time a man “flatters” me with his “yellow fever” or calls me “exotic”, I still feel violated – dirty – even though I’ve done nothing wrong.  Unfortunately, this happens too regularly.

What happened in Atlanta on March 16, 2021 was absolutely disgusting and heartbreaking, but it isn’t unprompted. Underneath one horrific act is a long history of racism, xenophobia, political propaganda, misogyny, fetishization of Asian women, and white supremacy.

Since the incident, I’ve spoken to a few of my Asian classmates and friends. What I discovered was that for many of us, the immediate reaction wasn’t outrage or anguish; many of us didn’t know what to feel. I remember having similar feelings last fall, when I was walking around Rittenhouse Square and heard a white man shout at me “go back to your f***ing country, you Wuhan whore.” I just walked away and didn’t say anything. Sometimes I look back and wish I had. But it isn’t that easy, is it?

When a young child falls, he or she would first look up at the parents’ faces to see their reactions, and then react based on their reactions. So if the parents look terribly worried, the child would cry. If the parents look unfazed, the child might just dust off and get up.

In a similar way, the outrage didn’t come right away for me because before Atlanta (and before getting yelled at in Rittenhouse Square) I had seen very little reaction to or acknowledgements of racism toward Asians and Asian Americans. Anti-Asian racism is real. Fetishization of Asian women is real, and it kills.

So please, stop ignoring our pain.

Michelle Guo, Fourth-Year Medical Student

“Ni hao…” “Ni hao?” “Ni hao!?”

I was heading home from a long day of my clerkship in obstetrics and gynecology. Initially, I didn’t think the middle-aged woman wearing a sticker that said “Patient Visitor” was speaking to me. Then, I realized that I was the only Asian person standing in the hallway, waiting for the elevator, and that her words were directed toward me. She expected a response. I wasn’t sure what to say.

Before I could say anything, however, I heard:

“You’re looking at me like you don’t appreciate that.” The woman angrily confronted me, waiting for a response.

I looked around, wondering if anyone else in the hallway noticed this woman interrogating me. No one else seemed to care about what was happening. I felt invisible.

She repeated: “You’re looking at me like you don’t appreciate that.”

The elevator arrived. Silently, I got into the elevator and tried to leave that woman, and her words, behind me.

Unfortunately, these types of experiences have occurred more often than I can count. I have been particularly surprised when people confront me, sometimes rather aggressively, as if I owe them a response. From patients and families, intrusive questions about where I am “really” from, where my parents are from, where I grew up. My perception is that receiving answers to these questions does not necessarily further their medical care. Rather, these microaggressions add to the emotional and mental burden of managing several sick patients, coordinating their care during their hospital course, and making plans for a safe discharge.

At the same time, my cultural background has allowed me to transcend language barriers to get to know my patients and help them to achieve their goals. Several patients stand out to me:

  • The mother of three who had diabetes and was admitted with a kidney infection. After we got the infection under control, I shifted to helping her optimize her diabetes and provided counseling for when she went home and would have to deal with the stressors of caring for her children and her parents. She expressed to me how grateful she was to have an Asian female physician-in-training providing her care. “You get what it’s like to have Asian parents,” she said to me. “Thank you.”
  • The immigrant from Cambodia, who spoke little English. Her son met me in the Emergency Room, his mother on the stretcher clutching her abdomen. After I took her history and reassured her son that she was in good hands, he said to me, “My mom means so much to me. She’s all I’ve got. You get it, ‘cause you’re Asian too.”
  • The immigrant from Taiwan who had recently received a diagnosis of end-stage cancer. When I met him for the first time, I took note that his medical record said he spoke Mandarin, the language that I spoke in my house growing up. I knocked on his door quietly and entered the room. We made eye contact, and his tired face seemed to soften. “Ni hao,” I said with a smile, and there began the journey of understanding his goals of care, helping him and his family members understand his prognosis, and finding ways for him to pass away peacefully at home, surrounded by his family. This was his final wish, and I am honored to have been able to connect with my patient and help make his wish come true.

As the daughter of immigrants, providing equitable care for immigrant patients and patients who identify with me is of particular importance to me. I look forward to serving diverse patients throughout my career and connecting with them over our shared cultural values.

Tong Wang, MD-PhD Student

The COVID-19 pandemic has made me acutely aware of my race, and this is something I’ve previously written about publicly. While it may be easy for me to denounce overt racism, I wanted to share my own reflections about some of my own more subtle microaggressions—even ones I may have developed against other Asian Americans.

My mom and I argued a lot at the beginning of the pandemic. Since January of 2020, my mom, who was regularly reading Chinese social media, was urging me to take the new coronavirus pandemic seriously. I had even flown home to Wisconsin to visit during a long weekend in February of 2020, and I remember scoffing at her recommendation of wearing a mask on the plane to protect myself. This was the norm in all Asian countries, so she wondered, “why wasn’t America taking it seriously?”

Like any son, I could definitely listen to my mom more. Of course I didn’t, and I pushed back aggressively on the idea of a mask. I was going to be an academic physician. No data on masks! No CDC recommendation! Would spread mass hysteria, and people would contaminate themselves! Terrible idea, Mom.

Of course, we all now know that by April, the CDC would catch up to what most Asian countries had already figured out long ago and recommend everyone wear a mask in public. It wasn’t just masks! Most Asian countries handled the pandemic well, despite utilizing different strategies. It wasn’t just “authoritarian government lockdown” or “obedient culture” like some of the theories I’ve overheard in public. Each country had a slightly different strategy because they had prior experience.

As a medical student, we are always taught to make data-driven decisions. But in the absence of data, we utilize the next best thing: expert opinion and experience. By summer of 2020, I found myself wondering, where were all the Asian experts? The bilingual physicians? These experts had to be around and be ahead of my mom, who despite having no scientific training, had already figured out the basics.

I realized that in my attempt to learn American medicine, I had forgotten that I should value my own immigrant point of view. I told myself that as an academic, I had to be objective and critical. But this obsession with data also stopped me from seeking out my international peers who might have had more practical pandemic experience.

When I look back at March of 2020, I now wonder, was there really no data? If there was no data, how did so many Asian countries handle the pandemic so well with less time to prepare? Or maybe there was data but no Western data, published in the most prestigious and reputable Western journals? In one conversation with my mom, I remember arguing that “you can’t trust the recommendations coming out of China. Please just go with the CDC and wash your hands.” I didn’t really follow up on why I held this belief of Western superiority, but I am sure it must have been so frustrating for her to hear. After all, she was only suggesting that I put on a mask. Why was that so hard for me to do?

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