Palo Alto Medical Foundation
Mountain View CA
This essay is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
In mid-April, a viral video showed a woman in the passenger side of a truck in Denver, waving a sign that read “Land of the Free,” protesting the shelter-in-place measures. An Asian American healthcare worker, clad in face mask and light green scrubs, stood in her way. The truck came to a halt, and she screamed at him, “Go to China!” He remained firmly in place, his arms crossed on his chest, his back upright. He was silent as she spewed further invective at him. As an Asian American physician, I re-watched the video over and over. I admired his sense of responsibility in caring for others, even in the face of racist vitriol, even when his right to exist in his own home was questioned.
This was not an isolated occurrence. In mid-March, our president called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” When questioned, he doubled-down on this epithet, and attacks against Asians skyrocketed. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council documented nearly 1500 racist incidents in the first month of its reporting website’s existence — and those were just the recorded ones. In Midland, Texas, a man stabbed three members of a Chinese-American family, including two children, because they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.” A Chinese woman in San Francisco was spat on while walking to the gym. And an Asian woman in Brooklyn had acid poured on her, resulting in second-degree burns.
I naively thought that being a physician, a supposedly respected member of society, would shield me from even the faintest wisps of racism. However, the novel coronavirus is exposing the fact that Asian Americans’ place in society, regardless of profession, is exceedingly tenuous. Dr. Chen Fu, a hospitalist in New York City, had racist slurs hurled at him in the subway while dressed in scrubs. Dr. Lucy Li, an anesthesiologist in Boston, was accosted and asked, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone?” A Korean American doctor was refused service at a gas station in Martinsville, Indiana, and was told to “never come back.”
Although I haven’t personally experienced any overt discrimination yet, likely because I live in the Bay Area — an Asian Wakanda, to borrow the comedian Ali Wong’s phrase — hearing about these incidents still forced me to steel myself for verbal altercations before I left the house. With a sustained, societal-wide prejudice that doesn’t show signs of abating any time soon, for the first time in my life I’ve felt an enduring sense that, despite being born here, I somehow don’t belong.
At work, I try to hide behind the MD after my name. The white coat and the stethoscope around my neck make people give me the benefit of the doubt. The mask obscuring my face protects me from both COVID-19 and bigotry. I realize that the majority of people I meet are not racist, but I’m still on edge. The heightened self-awareness, almost a paranoia, that I’m Asian colors my interactions with others.
When I stress cough — a personal quirk I’ve had since adolescence — will the nurses avoid me? Did that patient cancel because of COVID-19, or because I’m Asian? When I initially see patients — primarily on video these days — I make sure to speak a few extra sentences, to let them know my English is as good as theirs. This uncertainty, of whether other people are treating me differently because of my race, oozes into daily life, when I’m given an extra-wide berth on the sidewalk, or when the cashier gingerly hands me back my credit card.
For Asian Americans, this sense of othering is not new. The Chinese helped build the transcontinental railroad, then faced systematic discrimination when their labor was no longer needed. In 1871 in Los Angeles, a mob of 500 men shot and lynched 20 Chinese in one night. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred all Chinese from entering the US. For much of history, Asians were considered disease-ridden foreigners, a yellow peril that could never fully assimilate. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement, leading to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that Asians, as well as other non-white immigrants, entered the US in large numbers, unwittingly shaping the future of American medicine. Although Asian Americans currently make up 5.9% of the US population, they account for 17.1% of active physicians, over 150,000 strong.
I consider it a privilege to be a physician. As an allergist and immunologist, I help patients resolve their long-standing food and drug allergies. During the pandemic I’ve taken care of severe asthmatics and those with immunodeficiencies, some of society’s most vulnerable people. Despite the shortage of PPE and lack of adequate testing, I still continue to work, not only out of a sense of duty, but also because I feel a connection to the people I’ve taken care of over the years. For Asian American doctors to have their identity questioned at a time they’re actively contributing adds an extra layer of stress, on top of the concern they’ll get infected or expose vulnerable relatives.
The insidious story of the model minority states that Asians have succeeded in America because of supposedly Confucian values and a relentless work ethic. Embedded in this narrative are the implicit assumptions of what we are and what we are not: We are meek, not brash; technocrats, not creatives; followers, not leaders. True to stereotype, my parents taught me to keep my head down, and seek out the approval of elders and professional superiors. In doing so, I would be assured a life of pleasant anonymity. However, the coronavirus pandemic is revealing that Asian Americans are only held up as exemplars, toiling away in the background, until there is a reason, any reason, not to do so.
Being both Asian and a physician seems, in a sense, conflicting. I’m told that physicians’ expertise, more than any other time in recent memory, is of utmost importance. At the same time, all the instances of racist attacks blazing across social media suggest that I, as a stand-in for the virus itself, am the enemy. Perhaps I’m considered essential, suddenly a hero, in the clinic, but I’m still just a slanty-eyed Chinaman outside it. Or maybe I’m both at the same time, my identity contingent upon ever-shifting political and social circumstances, malleable depending on whose needs I’m fulfilling.
In light of the current atmosphere, I’m reminded of the subtle racism that has still seeped into my professional career. During medical school in 2008, a surgeon lectured on health disparities “unique to Orientals.” In residency, a patient told me I was articulate for an Asian guy, and my evaluations all described me merely as “hard-working.” I didn’t think these people meant ill-will, so it was easy to let these instances go. And even if they were being consciously prejudiced, there was a degree of plausible deniability that let them off the hook. In contrast, now closet racists have become outright racists. I fear that the hostility will persist even after the pandemic resolves.
When Asian Americans are attacked, it is my duty — a right fundamentally American — to speak up. And even if that rude woman in the truck were to come into my office, I would still welcome her, hard as that is to do, because I have an equally important duty, enshrined in the Hippocratic oath, to help others when they’re sick. Despite everything, I won’t “go to China,” for I still believe in American exceptionalism, that I live in the best country on earth.
Charles Feng is an allergist/immunologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lives with his wife and two young children.