Identity at home and work in a time of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.
Like most healthcare workers, I wear (clean) scrubs outside the hospital. Scrubs could be described as the “duct-tape of clothing”; they are multifunctional, comfortable and disposable. Personally, scrubs are much more than a convenient article of clothing. They represent decades of education and a badge of honor in surviving through adversity. Now, scrubs serve as my only shield against bigotry, racism and unfounded paranoia about Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an Asian American immigrant and frontline healthcare worker, I stand in the intersection of it all.
The hate crimes against Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, fueled by the COVID pandemic, have drawn national media attention and provided opportunities for AAPI communities to join together in solidarity and speak out against the rampant anti-Asian rhetoric and xenophobia. In contemplating my own experiences as a Chinese immigrant, physician and target of xenophobia, I would like to recount how the source of these recent tragedies has affected me throughout my personal and academic journey.
My story began when I was nine years old and denounced my birth name, Xiao Chi (pronounced sh-ih-ow ch-ih), in lieu of a Westernized alias, ‘Tony.’ Even as a young child, I recognized the unmistakable facial expression of friends or teachers looking at my name before scanning the room, searching for the nearest Asian face who would embody this foreign name. The look of confusion and the desperate attempt to pronounce as few syllables as possible inevitably forced me to raise my hand in insolation, offering them an English alias as a respite from butchering my name. I hated this, and I hated the change. Meanwhile, I was already terrified at being separated from a world in which I could understand what I saw, heard and touched. However, being different was worse. So, I learned to survive by changing how I spoke, moved and behaved to fit in. However, I also began to develop a dichotomous sense of pride and shame as an immigrant, largely influenced by my parents, who persevered through great adversity to achieve the American dream.
My greatest source of self-identity and perception came from my mother. Narrowly escaping persecution during the Chinese revolution, she graduated at the top of her class, became a physician and was awarded the only scholarship in the entire Northeast Province to retrain as a physician in America. Arriving with only $1,000 and the quintessential American dream, she is now an esteemed and internationally renowned professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, a medical director, former program director at an Ivy League institution and a proud grandmother.
To succeed, she would stay later, work harder and spend hours poring through her Chinese-English dictionary to draft emails that would take her peers minutes to send. Her achievements were always tainted by the insidious belief, fueled by decades of submissive acceptance of stifling oppression, that her cultural, language and racial differences would bar her from achieving success. This has always been a pervading theme, often echoed throughout many of our Chinese dinner parties, where her colleagues would exchange despondent banter about how they had to work harder compared to their white peers, and never made a fuss or spoke up against unrealistic expectations. For that, they were granted model minority status and immunity from racism.
I was angry—angry that she couldn’t speak fluent English, angry that she undervalued her abilities, angry that she had to work twice as hard to earn her protection against racism, angry that she felt more comfortable socializing with Chinese immigrants than with her white peers, and angry at myself for being given the opportunity to bypass these limitations. My mother faced both the glass ceiling and the bamboo ceiling due to her intersectional identity as an Asian woman.
Years later, I followed my mother’s path into the field of medicine. I wish I could say that my parents’ efforts and hard work shielded me from experiencing the same struggles of their painstaking journey, but it would be a lie. I clenched my teeth with a gentle smile every time I was complimented for speaking without an accent, or asked if I knew martial arts, or if I recognized my uncanny resemblance to Jackie Chan. I became hyperaware when interacting with fellow Asian colleagues, fearing the perception of cultural isolation and alienation from my non-Asian peers. However, I stayed quiet, worked hard, blended in and pursued my goals. The further I proceeded with my academic and professional career, the more I benefited from and became increasingly reliant on my model minority status. The stakes of speaking up and denouncing white-supremacist tactics of pitting marginalized communities against each other rose as I completed each step of my medical journey and gained a reputation for being the ‘reliable Asian doctor,’ who worked hard, stayed late, never complained, and always said ‘yes.’
I shouldered these expectations throughout my training, hoping that each day added an extra layer of interest and investment in the future of my family and children. I was always fearful of disrupting my hard-earned efforts and throwing away the opportunities afforded to me by my immigrant parents. As a result, I succeeded – by being unassuming and a proximity to whiteness. I was ashamed of white-washing myself and my identity. However, I recognized that this was for survival, and for my family. I was willing to suppress my discomfort, just like my parents before me.
Fortunately, these uneasy feelings ebbed after I donned my first pair of scrubs and my protective white coat as an emergency physician. When I don my scrubs in public I transform from submissive immigrant to a ‘pandemic hero’—a respected member of society. However, this delicate model minority status shattered once when I was verbally accosted by an unknown, unmasked white man who yelled from 30 feet away across the street, ‘Go Home!’ while I was jogging home while wearing a mask. I was initially baffled, thinking, praying that he meant for me to get home to my loving family so I could cherish the time with them during the most devastating pandemic in recent history. But, I would be lying. He meant for me to go home to China, a country accused of fabricating the COVID virus that has taken so many lives across the world. He fell victim to the baseless accusations against Chinese people, and by extension, the AAPI communities. For the first time since I came to this country, I felt naked, vulnerable and disarmed. When I wear scrubs, I am the healer, but without them, I become the problem, the instigator of COVID. Without the armor of scrubs, I was susceptible to anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.
As a father who wishes nothing but the best for my daughter, how do I protect my defenseless two-year old from an unexpected verbal or physical assault based on the way she looks…based on my looks? As an emergency physician, I am too familiar with the aftermath of violence and hatred, but to imagine a similar act of atrocity against my own daughter or mother has become too much to stay silent.
I wish I did not have to be concerned for my daughter’s intersectional identity. I wish that when my mother comments that my daughter has more physical similarities to my white spouse, she means it as an off-color joke (pun intended), rather than a sigh of relief that she won’t look too Chinese in America. I wish that when my mother chastises us over Zoom for my daughter using chopsticks rather than a fork to eat her food, it was because they were potentially dangerous impaling weapons, not because they accentuate her Chinese culture. Or, I wish that when my own mother speaks English to my daughter, it would be to broaden my daughter’s English vocabulary, rather than to prevent her from facing the same racism and prejudice for speaking, looking or acting too differently than her whiter peers. All I want is for my mother to be proud of her granddaughter’s bilingual and bicultural upbringing, rather than fearing her future alienation.
In this country, being Asian means facing discrimination and violence. Just like my parents, I have lived in silence, complacency and complicity, hoping to create a better world for my daughter, but if I continue to remain quiet, things will never change. I need to make a stand and advocate in solidarity for a world where her rich heritage and identity is not merely tolerated and accepted, but celebrated. As we hope to move forward from one of the deadliest pandemics in memory, we need to focus our attention on healing, love and unity, not division, hatred and senseless violence.
So many of us have silently carried the burden of discrimination and xenophobia, but it is time to send a unified message on behalf of our communities to say that we deserve to be proud of our identities and oppose racist beliefs.. Most importantly, we deserve the equitable opportunity to pursue the American dream in peace, without fear of persecution, and without fear of discrimination and violence against us. As proud as I am of my white coat and scrubs, I would like to walk down the street someday without needing their protection, and without fear.
Xiao Chi Zhang, MD, is an Emergency Medicine Physician at Thomas Jefferson University.
Read more on how to cope with Asian-American bias or hate.