A Physician’s Perspective During Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month
When I think of my identity, I see myself first as an American — who is of Chinese descent. Growing up in the 1960s, our family was eager to assimilate, and my parents did not speak Chinese at home, as their parents spoke different dialects. We grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and I had a typical American upbringing, although I was subjected to a lot of racism since I was one of few Asians in that community. Then, I was considered Chinese American.
I looked different, and my last name, Goo, was the brunt of endless jokes. As a young child, I always wanted to blend in. As an adolescent, I was happy to be different and embraced my inherent characteristics and family history. We were the “lucky” Asians who had made it to America. My grandparents ended up in America because of Communism and poverty. (In the 1940s, they moved from Macao to Hawaii.)
I believe that our family was emblematic of a Horatio Alger-type story in America: Hard work equals success given the right opportunities. I do believe I had an Asian “work ethic” instilled in me, and I tried to excel at my studies — the stereotypical Asian who was good at science and math and diligent in their studies. This is a broad stereotype that generalizes rather than helps. Many families instill a work ethic in their children. No, I did not have a Tiger Mom, far from it. She was interested in feminism and getting her own education in the 1970s.
Overall, I believe strongly espousing American values shaped me as a physician, rather than my Asian American heritage. I see color but strive to treat all patients equally. I see immigrants, refugees, indigent and privileged people with the same vision: people seeking help. Being American, to me, means being a nation made of immigrants who have come together to represent freedom, individuality and tolerance in their most idealistic forms. One of my proudest moments as an American was when our team of pediatric emergency physicians worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Republic of Georgia. Our team consisted of members who were Honduran, Asian, Pakistani, Jewish and African American. We were introduced as the “American” team. The Georgians did not seem surprised at all — this was a microcosm of America. This is how Americans are seen around the world. The same experience was replicated in Kosovo and Honduras.
As a pediatric emergency physician, I have seen that child with asthma, that parent with a child that had a basilar skull fracture, that son whose stepfather had Parkinson’s and dementia and that grandparent who had a sick/injured child in the emergency department. We are parents, children and grandparents — irrespective of our racial and ethnic identities.
I encounter micro-aggressions daily in and out of the workplace. Questions like, “What are you?” Being physically identified as different has helped me see how difficult it is to be seen as a human being. This may be the most important part that helped shape me as a clinician. See humans as humans, embrace their differences and hope to heal them.
I believe that being American is an ideal we should be reaching for to honor our differences, which benefits all humans and makes our world so much brighter and more interesting. Let's celebrate and embrace the elements that make us all unique but also those that unify us. Let's get to know each other as humans.