#TalkAsianHate

YouTube: Eugene Lee Yang of the Try Guys

When someone is unfriendly to you, how often do you attribute it to your race? How often does the possibility cross your mind?

Since I was a kid this has always been in the background, and it was worst in elementary school.  Second and third grade stand out:  Kids would pull the sides of their eyes up and down, chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees,” or make fun of my name: “Ching-Chong-Cheng.”  In high school one boy in particular referred to me as “Cheng,” and always said it with a sneer.  It could have been innocent—I found him generally sarcastic and antagonistic in the most annoying way.  When I told him how it made me feel uncomfortable his demeanor changed immediately; he apologized and never did it again.  Looking back, he and his friends referred to one another by their last names, and often in that competitive, confrontational, adolescent male way.  So maybe that was actually his way of including me?  I think he harbored no specific malice, but his impact strayed far from any benign (ignorant?) intention, I think based on my own past experience.  I remember the encounter vividly, and to this day appreciate both my own courage to bring it up, and his willingness to accept the feedback and change.

I think my family and I experienced minimal direct racism as I grew up. But I have always felt self-conscious whenever bad news comes from China, like when babies were dying from melamine-tainted formula, and when thousands of dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai. I hesitate to even mention these stories here, for fear of negative stereotypes they may incite or confirm in readers’ minds about Chinese people. We humans generalize about and denigrate groups we perceive as different from ourselves, often based on minimal information (and these days, more and more disinformation). When these events occurred I asked my friends, and they reassured me that the news was inconsequential.

Not so with coronavirus.  A close family member was verbally assaulted in the mall a year ago, by a white adolescent girl.  She just walked right up to him, two generations her senior, and started yelling, “This is all your fault!”  How entitled, how arrogant, and how brazen—to think you can just attack an elder stranger like that with no fear of consequence.  That is the privilege of membership in the dominant culture.  Hard for me not to feel defensive and alert to threat, not to mention rageful, after that. 

For the past several years, and especially the past year and the last two weeks, acute awareness of what makes me visibly different, and thus a potential target of prejudice and racism, occupies increasing space in the front of my mind.  Our family just road-tripped to Colorado and back.  Driving through the rural Midwest, I found myself thankful that Husband wore his university hospital, orthopaedic surgery logo jacket into the gas station stores.  I spent as little time inside as possible, made sure to be friendly, and felt noticeable relief every time someone smiled and treated me with kindness, or even just common courtesy. 

This hesitation–the vague and disconcerting paranoia I feel–is justified. It’s not debilitating, but I’m frustrated, annoyed, and angry about it.

* * * * *

How important is it to you that all people, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, indigenous and other marginalized groups, feel accepted and welcome, and treated with respect and dignity, everywhere they go?  How can you help?  Below are my suggestions.  I’m tired, friends.  Whatever you can do in your spheres of influence is much appreciated.

Educate yourself.  See links below to multiple articles and a very well-done video (I recommend the video most) to familiarize yourself with current and historical aspects of the Asian-American experience(s).  Talk to your Asian-American friends, if you have that kind of relationship.  But understand that they may not want to rehash their experiences just for your benefit.  Look for published stories to foster your empathy.  Then, if you can muster it, find ways to tell your friends and any other marginalized folks, “I see you.”

Seek diverse perspectives.  Asian-Americans are not a monolith.  Despite some overlapping aspects of culture, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and all other groups have divergent histories in and out of the United States, and each individual in any group manifests their own unique experiences.  If you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us.  Resist the urge to oversimplify and overgeneralize.

Look at your own biases with self-compassion and accountability.  Biases are human.  We all have them.  It does the oppressed no more good for you to self-flagellate over yours, than if you ignored them altogether.  What matter are your awareness and self-management of your biases, and then your ability to help others do the same. 

Commit to doing the work.  This does not mean expecting perfect words and actions from yourself all the time.  We will all open mouth and insert foot; we will all fall into old habits of thought and assumption.  But we must persist; abandoning the work helps no one.  Every failure teaches us, if we let it, and this helps everybody.

Find a supportive community to hold you up and accountable in the work–friends, tribe members who love you through your struggles to reckon with yourself.  These will most often be people who have committed to doing the same work themselves.  Hold them up in return.  This is a group project; we all depend on one another to succeed.

New Body Signs of Stress

How does stress manifest physically for you? 

I’ve asked patients for years now.  Some people know exactly what I’m talking about and answer without hesitation—“Oh, migraines—MONSTER migraines.  As soon as I feel one coming on I know I’ gotta unplug and go for a run!”  Some need a little prompting—I give them other examples like chest tightness, loss of appetite, or insomnia.  For others, it helps to ask what their significant others or children tell them.  “What would your wife say if I asked her,” usually gets a pretty immediate and animated reply.  Very occasionally, even after all of that, some still don’t really understand the question, or deflect, and we move on.

I noticed neck pain as my stress signal sometime in my 20s.  I suspect my body learned this nerve pattern during residency, when my heavily laden white coat pockets dragged my posture toward the floor for well over 80 hours a week.  I remember taking the coat off (aaaaahh, relieeeeef), then picking it back up later to put it on (aaaaaarrgh).  I’d say it probably weighed a good 5 to 7 pounds.  If you’ve never experienced this, and you’re also looking for a great laugh, check out this video of the Try Guys wearing boob weights for a day. You’re welcome!

For years a simple backrub or even just a good night of sleep would take care of it.  But in spring of 2010 I started having a hard time sitting still at work.  Increasingly I was distracted by tightness, and eventually searing pain, all around my neck and shoulders.  It was diffuse and constant, and I could never find a comfortable position, day or night.  Ibuprofen would not help, and hour long massages only very briefly.  It had been six months since starting a new position, and I was ‘way more stressed than I realized.  The day before vacation I thought, I bet this goes away in Colorado.  And voila, by the time we landed in Denver I was already feeling like myself.  After a week in my happy place, I returned to work expecting the neck pain to recur.  Happily, it didn’t!  Hooray, all fixed!

Not so fast.

A month later I developed astonishing pain and sensitivity in my right forearm—cubital tunnel syndrome—to the point where I had to roll up my sleeve because I could not stand the touch of the fabric.  I barely got through CPR training one morning; I told my mind-body physician friend, thinking he’d recommend a supplement or something.  He listened compassionately and reflected how often he’d heard the same story from patients.  “Sometimes the body just puts it in another place,” he said simply. 

Thankfully at the end of that week, I went away to my first ever mindfulness retreat with other medical educators.  I could not remember the last time I had so much quiet time to myself, not having to rush somewhere, make a decision, or take care of someone.  After dinner we had free time and I climbed into a bay window and started writing.  On a random legal pad I dumped everything that had swirled in my mind for however long—deep, complex thoughts that poured forth from the pen in a torrent, pages and pages full.  By that night going to bed, my forearm felt normal, and that pain has not come back.  I’ve been journaling regularly ever since.

Over the years, the neck pain has come and gone, and improved significantly since I left that job.  But even in the last two years as I have taken on more at work, and in the past six months of utter chaos, it has only recurred mildly. 

***

Out of nowhere last week, I developed a sore throat.  Strange.  It came on and worsened suddenly over a few hours, then abated after an hour Zoom call with my Braver Angels pals and a big mug of honey tea.  I had no other symptoms—no fever, body aches, fatigue, nasal congestion, or headache—just a really irritated throat, and only on the right side.  On further reflection, I had also been doom scrolling, eating, and online shopping more. Huh. 

This is exactly what happened back in March, when I wrote four blog posts in eleven days about the pandemic.  Looking back, I see the same pattern of behavior—staying up late, reading voraciously, ruminating, anticipating, problem solving, and looking for things to do to help.  For days in a row I had mild, barely perceptible throat irritation and nothing else.  It came and went, without discernable patterns or correlations. 

New body sign!  How fascinating.

This time I had to call in sick to work.  The team sprang into action and rearranged schedules.  My patients all agreed to speak by phone; my colleagues did their physical exams in my stead.  Everybody was so understanding and gracious, their day turned upside down, all because I had a sore throat for a few hours. 

Rightly so.  What if it were an infection?  What if the person I was with 5 days earlier, who was now home sick, had COVID (they didn’t, and we were both masked and distanced, together for only 15 minutes)?  What if I ignored the sign of potential infection and came to work, and then transmitted to the team and my patients?  Yes, it was a huge hassle for everybody to make last minute workflow changes.  But that was nothing compared to the potential, exponentially larger hassles of a whole workforce having to stay home sick, all because of me.

Right now we should take no chances.  Now more than ever we must build, sustain, and advocate for work systems that support the health and well-being of the workforce.  We need to make it safe—and expected—for employees to take care of themselves, thereby caring for coworkers and clients.  Short term inconvenience is the investment for the returns of long term loyalty, cohesion, and success.

If we slow down and pitch in—if we all take care of each other on the team—maybe we will have the mental and temporal space to notice new patterns.  Not just new personal body signs of stress, but new community signs of need, new collective signs of connection, and new team signs of creativity, innovation, and core values expression.  Wow, wouldn’t that be something?