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Podcast: Personal Stories of the Impact of Racism against Asian Americans during COVID-19

In this episode, emergency medicine physician Dr. Xiao Chi Zhang and Sara Campbell share their experiences of racism and how they’ve found support by telling their stories. Plus, psychiatrist Dr. Deanna Nobleza weighs in on the trauma of the pandemic, its ripple effects and the importance of self-care.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, prejudice, xenophobia and racism toward Asian American and Pacific Islander communities has surged.

Photo collage of Dr. Zhang, Sara and Dr. Nobleza

From left: Dr. Xiao Chi Zhang, Sara Campbell, Dr. Deanna Nobleza (©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

In this conversation, meet Dr. Xiao Chi Zhang, an emergency medicine physician and Chinese American, who shares the hateful words that people have yelled out to him on the street, and what happened when one day words escalated to physical assault. He talks about the confusion of being targeted because of what he looks like and shares how his scrubs sometimes felt like a shield that could protect him from this violence.

[Editor’s Note: To read Dr. Zhang’s essay “Wearing Scrubs Like a Shield,” click here. Don’t miss the audio player at the top of the essay if you’d like to hear Dr. Zhang read it in his own voice.]

Sara Campbell also joins the conversation. She is the Associate Vice President of the Presidential & Leadership Advisory Councils at Jefferson’s Office of Institutional Advancement and shares her unique experience as a Korean American woman who was adopted by a white family with her two brothers when she was eight years old. Campbell explains in what ways she gave up her Korean identity to better fit into a predominately white community and how she’s still finding and reconnecting with her ethnic roots today.

To better understand the trauma of racism, especially during the stress of the pandemic, Dr. Deanna Nobleza, a psychiatrist at Jefferson, joins the episode. She validates the unique experiences of the AAPI community—she herself is Filipino American—and stresses the importance of finding safe sources of support and practicing self-care, now more than ever.


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Complete Episode Transcription

Dr. Xiao Chi Zhang: I’m honored to be on this platform, talking about the essay and to be perfectly honest, I’m still in shock that I even wrote this essay in the first place. I have truthfully never considered myself as the voice of Asian physicians or Asian Americans in general. I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but I like to consider myself just a small part of the bigger puzzle.

And while I have seen a decrease in the amount of publicized racism on social media and the news network, I unfortunately still see it around me on a regular day to day basis.

Sara Campbell: I’ve lived a really wonderful life. And my family has, I think over the years, sheltered me in different ways, from a lot of racism that others have felt. For the first time ever during the pandemic, I felt vulnerable. I have loved being a part of Philadelphia and have worked in Philadelphia for a long time. And it’s the first time in my career that I feel scared to go into the city because I feel very vulnerable. So I find myself on high alert every time I have to go into the city. And I think it was for the first time in my life where I really started to reflect very deeply about my identity as an Asian American and an Asian American woman.

So it’s a very strange feeling to feel seen for the first time, but in a way that doesn’t feel great.

Carly Williams: This is The Health Nexus Podcast powered by Jefferson health. I’m Carly Williams…

Jessica Lopez: …and I’m Jessica Lopez. Today, we talk to Dr. Xiao Chi Zhang, an emergency medicine physician and Sara Campbell, the associate vice president for presidential and leadership advisory councils at Jefferson, for an important conversation on Asian identity and racism.

This episode was sadly inspired by an email our team received from Dr. Zhang, but to better understand that, we should start at the beginning.

Williams: About five months ago, Dr. Zhang wrote an essay for The Health Nexus and how he was verbally abused for being Asian and how wearing his scrubs helped him feel protected against the Asian hate that raged across the country during the COVID 19 pandemic.

That essay is titled “Wearing Scrubs Like a Shield,” and we will link it in the show notes in case you want to pause this podcast and give that a read first. You can even listen to it in his own voice. The essay brought a lot of awareness and attention to Dr. Zhang and his personal experience with feeling unsafe because he was Asian.

He reconnected with us when he was accosted again, but this time more was thrown at him than hateful words.

Dr. Zhang: I was exiting my apartment for a run and I was accosted by a group of teenage strangers, who I’ve never met before, who just by opening the door within less than three seconds, decided to say very racist and hurtful things to me while I was exiting my apartment and trying not to engage.

And as I was leaving, I felt a thud behind my head, turn around and I saw a piece of small fruit, a strawberry just thrown at my head, rolling around the ground and watching as these teenagers left laughing amongst each other. I didn’t know how to respond, like most—I can’t say like most people—I don’t even know how to respond. I tried to just go about my business saying that was really awful. Interesting enough, there was another Asian bystander who also looked at it would just the most perplexed look in his face saying, I don’t know what just happened. You don’t seem to know them. They don’t seem to know you.

How and why did this occur? And I thought about this for the entire run.

Lopez: Taking a run before starting his shift at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is the part of Dr. Zhang’s morning routine that helps him clear his head. Before that he might run some quick errands or drop his two and a half year old daughter off at daycare.

Instead of being able to clear his mind, it was instead flooded with questions.

Dr. Zhang: The more I thought about it, the more I started thinking was, was this an assault? Did I do something to deserve this? Did I look different? Did I wear something funny? Did…was I wearing my scrubs? Did they remember that I’m a doctor and they didn’t like their last doctors of counter? What was it?

And I realized that I was being as unassuming as physically possible that leaving a building with nothing, just my face exposed, taking off my mask, because I was going out for a run outdoors, that they saw a guy wearing shorts and a jacket for a run, and they said, you know what? Just based on how you look, we feel justified in making fun of you and also throwing things at you, just based on that alone.

So it became more apparent to me that this was just an isolated attack and I felt very conflicted and very scared because I live just a few blocks from the hospital. This is where I work. This is where I live. This is where I take my daughter for walks.

And I was terrified that people felt empowered to enact violence to someone they have never met before.

Williams: Dr. Zhang is thinking through all of this in the hours before he starts his shift in the emergency department. And because he dedicates his life to the wellbeing of others, he was also worried about being present for his patients that day.

Dr. Zhang: Going to work that day was very challenging, not from the medical perspective, but from this perspective of, if these people felt empowered to mistreat me based on how I look, what about the patients that I’m caring for? Am I going to have a PTSD situation or if I saw someone who looked like the teenagers who threw this at me, am I going to have an adverse reaction and provide worse care?

And I felt very conflicted because I knew. I would never do that objectively. That is just like an awful thing. Like why would I think about that? But I didn’t know how I would react given that this was such a new experience. Fortunately, I was able to talk to a lot of colleagues, physician, friends, and they essentially assured me that I am a good person. I am someone who puts patients first. I am not racist and I was not taught that way. And therefore, I should not have to worry about providing bad care for patients despite what had transpired.

And that felt very encouraging and it was very empowering to know that you’re right, even though this was a very challenging experience, I’m not going to do the wrong thing. I’m going to do the right thing, because that’s my personality. That’s who I am as a person. That’s my job. But I will say like that shift was very emotionally challenging.

Lopez: To better understand the experiences of fear and stress Dr. Zhang and Sara share, we connected with Dr. Deanna Nobleza, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

And as a Filipino American, it’s something she can relate to all too well.

Dr. Deanna Nobleza: The pandemic had that other layer to it, where it was, there was a sort of experience of a lack of safety, just leaving the house in general, but then I think when all of the Asian hate was rising, that was another sense of I’m not safe leaving the house. There’s a different level of not feeling safe, leaving the house. Early on during the pandemic, when really it was the stay at home orders, just being able to get out of the house and go for a walk was something that was really very important for my wellbeing, but I often would think about bringing someone along with me so that I felt there was just another person with me so that it increased some experience of safety.

Those are not things that I needed to think about before. It’s really horrific these things that are happening and the violence against Asians I’ve had situations since the pandemic has happened, whether that’s people yelling at me, Asian slurs. It was a period of time where someone had spit on me before the pandemic.

And I think what happens is because there’s so much just shock that happens. And what ends up running in one’s mind is trying to make sense of it because it’s such out of our control that we start thinking about, well, did I do something? What did I do? But there’s no sense in it. There’s absolutely no sense in it, but I think that’s our natural way, I think, of our mind trying to try to control a situation that is uncontrollable or put some of that control back on our side or on our end—it’s senseless violence.

Williams: Dr. Zhang did try to make sense of what happened to him and he couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t been wearing his running gear, if he was wearing his scrubs, would those teenagers have approached him?

Dr. Zhang: I immediately thought about it. I bet if I were wearing my scrubs going out, this probably wouldn’t have happened. Then I got confused because it shouldn’t have happened. I shouldn’t need to wear scrubs…even though I wrote the essay like writing the essay of wearing scrubs as a shield was something that should have worked hypothetically. It’s something that I created as a construct to myself. Like I wore this just in case, because I felt it gave me protection, not literally I wore this because otherwise I will be assaulted. And it just felt too real. The fact that, hey, if I wore my scrubs, this probably wouldn’t have happened, turned into a very scary reality of, oh my gosh, I really need to wear my scrubs. This is not a hypothetical situation. If I don’t wear scrubs, I will get assaulted. And that was a very, very scary realization. And who knows, maybe it would’ve happened regardless, but I felt that if I had worn something that says property of a university, they would’ve had greater deterrents from doing it in the first place.

Lopez: For any minority group, people sometimes make sacrifices or develop survival techniques to better assimilate into this country. For both Dr. Zhang and Sara, their survival strategies started as children.

Dr. Zhang: I chose my name, Tony, because on my ride home from the airport, my parents told me, by the way, nobody can pronounce your name, so here is a list of names that we can pronounce, that they can pronounce, go pick. They gave me a list of 10 names and I chose the one that sounded easy for me to say and easy to repeat. So that’s how Tony was born. I literally picked my own name.

There are enumerable lectures that my father gave me on how to behave and assimilate in the culture. I can’t tell if it’s like formal versus informal of just, these are things you have to do. It’s not like what you were experiencing in China, but you have to do this in this country.

Williams: Dr. Zhang says Tony was born when he was nine years old. And even during this interview, he tells us to quote, just call him Tony.

Dr. Zhang: I was young enough to be molded in this new way of thinking. It reminds me of the very young experience when I was in fourth grade or third grade here in the US, some kid was being very mean to me, and I forgot what was the reason, and I forgot if they called me slurs or something along those lines, but my father was irate. He was furious and he kept on calling it discrimination, hate crime. This is back in the early nineties. And I felt very ashamed and also very embarrassed. Like how could you say that though? She’s just young and I’m trying to think of it from the eyes of a child. What are you talking about? You’re taking this way too seriously.

And now I think about this story as a parent and gosh, if somebody said that to my daughter, I don’t even know what I would do. That’s the one thing I do remember that he was probably very sensitive to this content, but likely felt very helpless in that situation, at that time.

Lopez: Sara shares her experiences of assimilation too. Hers start as a child on the tarmac of an airport, where she stood with her two younger brothers waiting to meet their adoptive parents and new family.

Campbell: I was one of those kids who was almost eight going on 50. I grew up very quickly. I was very aware of what was happening. I knew the circumstances of my birth family. I knew that we were leaving Korea, going to a new country to live with a new family. And in fact, there’s funny story where as we were coming off the plane, my parents watched us and they saw me stop with both my brothers on either side of me, and I looked over at each one and made sure that their socks were pulled up and their outfits were clean and that we looked presentable and took a deep breath and started walking towards our new family.

And so I think I was very aware of what was happening. The whole international adoption landscape has changed drastically. So when my parents adopted us, this was in the mid-seventies and families did not travel overseas. So we were put on a plane. We did not have any adults or chaperones traveling with us, but I believe the flight attendants were told, you know, these three kids who are going to be traveling by themselves and just keep an eye out for them.

And then my parents who were living in Philadelphia, drove to JFK and this station wagon with my paternal grandparents, it was Father’s Day, and they drove to New York to pick us up and bring us home back to Philadelphia. They had received a few photos of us. I think if I had seen the photos in their shoes, I would’ve said we changed our mind. My brother had their heads shaved. I had my very long haircut, really short because of lice in the orphanage. And I don’t think we were malnourished, but they certainly weren’t the best photos of us and kudos to my parents for following through with it.

Williams: Back then adoption agencies stressed the importance of speaking English. Sara shared that her adoptive parents wanted to learn Korean to help her and her brothers maintain their language, but the message from the adoption agencies was quote, your kids are in America; you need them to learn how to speak English. This was just one of the ways that being raised by a white family in a predominantly white community influenced Sara’s identity.

Campbell: Having two brothers who looked like me helped growing up because in many of the communities where we lived, we were the only people of color, my brothers and I were. And they were the only other Asian faces that I saw on a daily basis. There were moments when it was difficult being Asian because being surrounded by mostly white people, you wanted to just fit in.

And so I did as much as I could to look less Asian. I knew I could never look white, but I would try to look less Asian. Perm my hair, have curly hair, like my friends. Put on lots of makeup, try to hide my Asian features. And so that was what I did to fit in and to feel comfortable and not feel like an outsider.

And as much as my family supported me and loved me, I always knew that I looked different and felt very much like an outsider at times.

Lopez: Sara describes feeling invisible at times in her life. Not being white and not quote feeling Asian enough. Today, she is consciously reconnecting with her Korean roots.

Campbell: I think that a lot of adoptees have felt over the course of their lives that they really never understood their Korean side and their families just weren’t equipped with the knowledge and the tools to know how raise their children here in America while embracing their Korean identity.

And so I think my parents were not unique in that. I think where my parents were different was that they never made us feel like we were adopted. We were their kids and they loved and supported us. I think a lot of adoptees also feel a sense that they need to be grateful because they were saved and rescued. And I hear Korean adoptees talking about coming out of the fog and I think it’s an interesting term because I feel that I’m starting to come out of the fog where I’m beginning to really work harder at addressing what it means to me to embrace my Korean identity. What does that look like? How does it play out in my life? Both personally and professionally, and just really learning how to celebrate that part of me that I never really took the time to embrace as an important part of who I am.

But admittedly, it’s made some people a little bit uncomfortable because I’ve had, as one can imagine, especially being raised by a white family, I’ve had friends, I’ve had family members, I’ve had lots of people throughout my life say things and the one that I’ve heard often is, I don’t really think of you as Asian. You’re really more white. And in the past I may have just laughed it off, but now, when I hear things like that, I will use my voice to educate the person, to let them know that’s not an appropriate comment to make.

Williams: Speaking out against racism, whether that racism is in the form of a random assault on the street or by loved ones or colleagues, who unintentionally commit microaggressions, can be difficult, scary, and vulnerable.

Campbell: In some ways I’m guilty of having assimilated almost too well. It’s been interesting to read about how the Asian American community has been impacted during the pandemic with all of the violence against the Asian American community, and it’s been really different and unique for those of us who are adopted because in some ways we feel we question are we allowed to feel upset that the Asian American community is being attacked? When really I’ve been raised in a white world, at the same time, when you look at who the perpetrators are, when you look at the fact that we live in a racist society perpetuated by the white culture, in some ways, when I acknowledge that I am being critical of my family, who raised me and love me.

I don’t know if you call it cognitive dissonance, but it’s just been something that I have tried to understand and I grapple with it. And how do I have those conversations with my white friends, with my white family, without making them feel bad about who they are? And that’s certainly not my intent.

Dr. Nobleza: A lot of times I think about vulnerability as being the avenue for connection. And I think there’s a natural tendency to want to show the world a particular veneer or this sort of perfect—it’s like social media—this perfect version of oneself. If we’re really honest, life is so imperfect and when we are more comfortable with showing those imperfect aspects of ourselves, there can be a real relief in hearing that from someone else, but also in sharing that. And because then people see us in a more authentic way, I think that’s where real connection happens.

When I think about lots of different relationships, it’s really in that vulnerability that you feel like, oh yeah, this person gets me I get them. Right? They hear me, they see me, I see them and then it feels like the connection is stronger.

So it’s important, but there’s also an acknowledgement of a natural tendency that when I speak up, when I speak out, that it’ll feel a little weird or awkward, but that’s okay. I think if we can accept, that’s just part of the, after effects. But along with it, the long term game is connection. I think in the AAPI population, what, again, one of the things that gets in the way of becoming more vulnerable is that again, that pressure on the collectivism—is my neighbor going see me differently? Or am I going put shame to my family? But again, we’re just speaking the truth of what life really is, which is life is very imperfect. And during a pandemic, it’s even more imperfect.

Lopez: Dr. Zhang understands this pressure. He felt it publishing his essay five months ago, but was surprised with the connection to a support system that happened afterwards.

Dr. Zhang: I was not expecting any response from this essay. In fact, I wasn’t expecting any publicity. I was secretly hoping that it was just something I can put out there. Maybe one or two people read it and look to themselves and say, this applies to me. The end. But I had received multiple email correspondence from faculty, staff, people of all ages, all experiences, who really reached out to me and said, look, we’ve never met before, but this piece spoke so much to me as a parent, as a learner, as just an Asian. Or a parent of an Asian just being in this country right no. I’ve created new friends, new networking process, just learning about people and their stories through my piece, and that was very heartwarming. I will say I was not expecting any of that warm feedback in contrast my parents, especially my mother who I attributed a great deal in writing this piece, when I told her that I was giving a speech initially, she was very against it. When I told her about writing this piece, she was terrified. And when I was published, she had asked me to take my name off or my picture off of it so I cannot be identified as the author of this piece, which I think speaks a lot about even what I wrote.

I think at the end of the day, illustrates how deeply rooted some of the elements of racism and assimilation can be.

Williams: The way Dr. Zhang describes his mother and his essay is so heartwarming…

Lopez: It is so sweet!

Williams: …and she has such an incredible story. Here’s how he describes her in his essay.

Dr. Zhang: 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.

Williams: Dr. Zhang talks about everything she did to achieve model minority status. Her hesitancy is understandable.

Dr. Zhang: The story behind my assimilation, it felt more gradual rather than jumping into the deep end of a pool. It was like “Inception” the movie. It was slowly incepted to me by my parents that this is the right way to do it for you to succeed in the United States as a non-white immigrant, you need to essentially be off the radar, be like everyone else, but better. Do not cause a ripple. But at the same time, maximize your talents, don’t show them what you can do, impress ’em what would, what you can do afterwards.

Williams: Dr. Nobleza validates that pressure and sense of collectivism.

Dr. Nobleza: When I hear that about his mother, there is this experience within AAPI culture about the whole, right, and the emphasis on family, the emphasis on the collective, which we call collectivism, and that their people are mindful that they don’t want to create shame for the family or put the family or the culture within some negative light.

So I think that there’s a certain pressure probably aspect to that experience of collectivism within the AAPI culture. At the same time, what we also know is that’s something that helps with wellbeing, meaning that the experience of togetherness and culture and strong ethnic identity is also an aspect that can help people’s resilience and can help people’s wellbeing.

It’s a lot. It’s a lot of things. There are some blessings and curses to aspects of certain topics and issues.

Lopez: Dr. Zhang reached out again though for support after this most recent experience of racism and violence.

Dr. Zhang: I will be honest. I didn’t know I had that support system. I don’t think many…once again, can’t speak for anyone else…I just did not think that support system existed at all. And this is not something we talk about. I have never, in my adult life, thought about calling my Asian friends and sy, Hey, what do you do when you are accosted by verbal abuse, physical abuse, based on your gender, your identity and your culture.

Don’t think any of us are trained for that, to be perfectly honest, to a point where I actually up until this podcast still have not told my parents about this, so they will likely hear from this podcast first that it happened and they’re going to me have me leave the city as soon as possible, but it’s just something we don’t talk about.

And I was very surprised and comforted by the feedback, which is, this happens, you were a victim. There might not have been an inciting factor. You may not have done anything to deserve it. And yeah, that’s just the situation, but being able to talk to friends and colleagues about that felt very supportive.

I talk about unity. I want to believe in unity, but it was this act that actually made me reach out and say, hey, even though I feel very uncomfortable talking to you about this, I think this is something that we should. And I was met with such warm feedback and they felt very special saying, I’m so surprised that you reached out to me and I don’t know what to say in this case, but I want to support you in any way, shape, and form.

And I felt that was very novel and very lovely.

Williams: Sara also shared the hesitancy she had in reaching out when she needed support after the mass shootings in Atlanta, which targeted three Asian spas and killed eight people.

Campbell: That was the first time that I was really shaken. I was really rattled by that.

Because that could have been me. And I remember feeling the need to talk to someone and I ended up reaching out to a couple of colleagues of mine, who I had talked to frequently during the pandemic, especially during the Black Lives Matter Movement. And these two women are African American and I leaned on them.

And we shared our stories and our struggles and our fears and I found great comfort in what we were experiencing together for different reasons, but it made me realize how important representation is. And I think because of that, I reached out to a couple of folks who are a younger generation than I am, who are Asian, just to check in on them.

And I didn’t really know them that well, but given my experience, I wanted to make sure that they had someone who they could talk to if they wanted to. And the one person who I reached out to, we spent hours talking and I think it was really comforting for both of us to have made that connection.

Dr. Nobleza: It’s not unusual for the AAPI population to compare their situation of prejudice and injustice and racism to Black Americans and African Americans.

And I think seeing all of the racial trauma that Black and African Americans go through, but I think that sometimes is this tendency, well, maybe this incident is not as bad, or maybe I’m just taking this too personally. And it’s a terrible invalidating thing that we do to ourselves. There is this experience of maybe my traumas are not as bad, you know, and I think that’s why it’s so important to share stories and share that with the community so that there is some validating that this also experience of racial trauma.

Lopez: There is power and empowerment in sharing these experiences with people you feel safe with. Dr. Nobleza also talks about the danger in not sharing.

Dr. Nobleza: As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen plenty of manifestations of things that have been contained for too long. And what does that look like?

That looks like physical unwellness that looks like emotional unwellness. It looks like utter chaos. I often use the pressure cooker metaphor, which is that we can only hold things in for so long before that lid pops off. So we really need some kind of avenue in our lives. Just like when a pressure cooker has that little valve on top to release the steam so that the lid doesn’t pop off, those things could be many things. It doesn’t have to be professional therapy, although it could, I’m a big believer in that, but we do have to have some way of releasing pressure so it doesn’t cause chronic ailments in our lives, physical or emotional.

Williams: If you do happen to go down the pathway of professional therapy, Dr. Nobleza also encourages finding a culturally competent therapist, but admits this can be a barrier for the AAPI community.

Dr. Nobleza: There are sometimes barriers for people in the AAPI population in seeking mental health resources. One of them being that there’s not a lot of AAPI therapists and mental health professionals. I think that, not that someone has to seek out specifically somebody who is an AAPI therapist or mental health professional, but I think that there are some people who would have that preference, but I think that there are plenty of culturally competent therapists as well. That is something that people should seek out is someone who is a culturally competent mental health professional. There are some Asian American and Pacific Islander mental health resources on the NAMI website, which is the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Some of it specifically relates to mental illness per se but a lot of it is just about mental health in general, in the AAPI population, which would be a good resource that people are looking to have more information or interested in reading more about things like we’ve talked a little bit about stigma and stuff like that, but there’s a lot of great resources on that website. If people want more.

Lopez: We’ll link those in the show notes. Dr. Nobleza also stresses we can’t forget how important self-care is right now for everyone.

Dr. Nobleza: I’ve been talking to a lot of people, including the two of you about the importance of caring for the self during the pandemic, because of the layers of trauma that we all have experienced. The pandemic has had these ripple effects in people’s lives, that it’s a funny period of time right now, because in a lot of ways, maybe it feels like there are aspects of our lives that are opening up, that the world is opening up, that we are more able to gather and do things that maybe we weren’t able to do as freely a couple of years ago. But we are seeing all of these ripple effects of the pandemic and I think some of the aspects of violence, whether that’s violence towards other people, whether that is suicides that are happening, that these are all, some aspect of ripple effects of the strained traumas and stresses of the pandemic.

We really need to be attentive. If there was ever a time, we really need to be attentive to what we’re doing for ourselves right now. We need to stay physically active. We need to stay connected to others. We need to get connected to our sense of purpose. We need to take care of our emotional wellness. So whether that’s learning some meditation, being creative, going to therapy, if we haven’t been in therapy before getting connected to therapy and other resources, definitely reaching out to people. If we need support. We could probably do a whole addition on self-care.

Dr. Zhang: I still feel uncomfortable, but the more I talk about it in both private, social, and now public setting, I feel that the activation energy to talk about it has decreased with repetition. And I think I owe it to my friends and colleagues and to a small element of my network of physician friends, and Asian doctors, let’s just say super small circles, it’s acceptable, in fact, encouraged. You might not want to talk about it, but it will pave the way and be that awkward turtle that talks about this environment that doesn’t know how to use the language or the platform effectively, but allow me to tumble through this process to show that anyone can do it. You don’t need to be a community advocate. You don’t need to be a public speaker. You just need to not be afraid and talk about it.

Williams: Dr. Zhang really is paving a pathway though, of authentic sharing in a safe environment. He’s in the process of creating an affinity group for the AAPI community at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Dr. Zhang: The group that I’m hoping to start, it’s still at its very infancy stage. I have spoken with some of the key stakeholders at Jefferson, just to talk about what it’s like to create an affinity group. The goals and mission statements are being constructed. However, I want to start small. We are not hoping to enact great community changes as of this moment, but I just want this to be an opportunity where like-minded folks who have similar hobbies, cultures, experiences that get together and talk about their experiences, whether it’s positive or negative. And from there, I want to take this opportunity and have it grow, ultimately enacting positive community changes, positive self-experiences, positive mentorship experiences and outreach programs from there on, but just start small. I don’t need to save the world today. I just want to talk about the world today. And I think that will at least make it acceptable from just within our community and say, this is okay. It’s okay to get together and talk about this. We can do it. I’ve done it.

Lopez: Sara too, found support throughout the process of adopting her son with her husband. And today she offers her support to other families, adopting Korean children.

Campbell: For families who are adopting now, and my husband and I adopted a beautiful little boy a little over four years ago, and we’ve been equipped with lots of tools, a lot of resources, a lot of support raising him to embrace his Korean identity, talking about what it means to be an adopted Asian American child.

When my husband and I adopted our son. The social worker who worked at the agency that we worked with, she used me as a resource for other prospective families who were interested in adopting from Korea. And through that process, I met a handful of really terrific people. One of whom is a Korean adoptee herself. And so we spent a lot of time talking about a lot of things.

It’s been nice to connect with people who have experienced similar things like me. There’s a Facebook group for Korean American adoptees, and that’s been really insightful and informative. It’s also a reminder how fortunate I am that I was adopted by the family who did adopt me, because I think a lot of Korean adoptees have struggled throughout their lives because of the families that raised them. And it’s sad. It’s unfortunate,

Williams: Sara, like Dr. Zhang, is also leaning into potentially awkward and uncomfortable territories to make space for important conversations and using her voice.

Campbell: My advice is use your voice lean into the difficult conversations, because it’s the only way to let people around that, especially if you’re Asian American, that you’re not willing to be invisible. You’re not going to feed into the perception that we are the model minority, that we’re not willing to assimilate to make others feel more comfortable with who we are and our differences and that we’re not perpetual foreigners. We belong here. We have a right to belong.

And I think that I’m seeing more and more Asian Americans using their voices to say, we have a right to be seen and we have a right to belong and to feel safe. So my advice is find your voice and use it. Stand up for yourself. Let people know who you are. Find ways to have people around you celebrate what you bring to this world and to not be ashamed of it and not hide.

Lopez: To read Dr. Zhang’s essay “Wearing Scrubs Like a Shield,” head to We’ve also recently published features on finding culturally competent therapists and what to expect during your first session. Both are filled with great resources and tips.

We will also be posting additional content from Dr. Zhang, Sara and Dr. Nobleza on Jefferson’s social media channels. We’ll link those accounts in the show notes. We’d also love to hear from you. Did this episode resonate? Are there specific topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes? Send us an email at

Williams: Production support for today’s episode provided by Dan Bernstein and Barbara Henderson. We’re your hosts, Carly Williams…

Lopez: …and Jess Lopez. Thank you for listening.

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