Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
“I hope you’re not from China,” one patient tells me. “You look like you could be.”
As an Asian-American physician at the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, I have received multiple comments like this one. Over this year, I have attempted to reconcile these experiences with the hardships other Asian-Americans have faced. I share in their outrage over the anti-Asian rhetoric that has caused us insufferable harm, but with the silver lining that Asian-Americans may finally have a voice.
I was born in China to two physicians. My parents grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and were victims of its devastating economic and social consequences. Given their educational achievement, they were blessed to emigrate in pursuit of a better future for me. Leaving their family behind, my parents strapped the last of the little money they had to their name to my four-year-old self when we boarded our flight to Canada so that if I were lost in a foreign country, I would be cared for.
Limited by language barriers, my mother worked cleaning jobs while my father pursued a Ph.D. and post-doctoral training. We lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment above a small Chinese business in Toronto. When my brother was born, we moved to New Jersey. My mother took a job as a lab technician and my father started medical residency. He then moved to pursue two medical fellowships before taking his first job as a physician in Canada just shy of his 50th birthday. When my father moved, my mother stayed behind to work a full-time job while raising my brother and me.
Through my parents’ sacrifices, I went on to earn multiple degrees en route to becoming a physician and engineer. My brother is in medical school studying to become a surgeon. We have gone on to epitomize the model minority stereotype as successful Asian-Americans in STEM fueled by family values and strong work ethics. We are a privileged Asian-American family with a common story so compelling it became known as the American Dream.
But this narrative oversimplifies our experiences and undermines all we withstood. My parents left their families behind in China and could not be around when my grandparents passed. My parents have spent most of their adult lives apart — my mother a single parent and my father hundreds of miles away from his family. My father retrained in medicine for two decades before taking his first job. My mother surrendered her career and ambition to raise her children.
I grew up facing discrimination and xenophobia. I lied that I was born in Canada instead of China to fit in. I took an American name when my teachers made no effort to pronounce my real name. I was embarrassed bringing Chinese food to school and having friends over. I spoke only Chinese to my parents because I didn’t want others to hear their accent in English. I acted blasé and “cool,” titillated when I was told that I was “not like other Asians,” fearing that I might be labeled studious. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I treated patients who saw me as disingenuous and accused me of carrying coronavirus. And despite everything we endured as a family, I am told I am not diverse, my experiences too “one-dimensional,” to the extent that I need superior academic achievement, exceptional hobbies, and more “personality” to make up for them.
It is a tragedy how marginalized stories like mine have become under the pretense of the model minority myth. This tale of rags to riches diminishes the deep history of Asian-Americans, everything we have overcome, and the diversity in our experiences. It pits Asian-Americans against other minorities, suggesting that discrimination must not exist if Asian-Americans can be successful. It is ignorant to the flawed system through which some succeeded in spite of, not because of.
Three years ago, I was invited to speak at the HuaXia Chinese School’s Chinese New Year Gala. I delivered a message about finding solidarity in the Chinese-American community by embracing and sharing our unique experiences. With everything Asian-Americans have been through in the past year, there has never been a better time to share our stories with the rest of our country. As our nation heals, we have to remind others that Asian-Americans at all levels contribute to the fabric of America. We have a rich history filled with unique stories, and we deserve to tell them. Through these stories, we demonstrate that we share in the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. And if we can discover these commonalities, we can find a way forward together.
About the Author: Leo Wang (@TheLeoWang) is a physician and engineer at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in South Jersey and lives in Philadelphia with his wife.
Image via Getty