Understanding My History
I didn’t realize the intensity and depth of the emotions I had been suppressing for the past several decades as an Asian American. I may be perceived as a typical “successful” Asian American surgeon and academician, a daughter who fulfilled the Asian American “dream.” But others, including my own Caucasian husband, don’t know what I’ve endured over my entire adult life in this country. I have rarely talked about it; I’ve perhaps even normalized my experience in order to better focus on what I need to accomplish. Few colleagues have asked how I was doing, or about my parents and families, despite ongoing coverage of anti-Asian violence.
Explore This IssueMay 2021
Who are Asian Americans? Who are our beloved parents and relatives who are victims of violence and hate crimes, mass shootings, racist remarks, spitting, and other behaviors of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian xenophobia? The answer isn’t easy, because we’re a lot of different people with some stories in common. I can tell you my story because it may be similar to those of my fellow Asian American colleagues in our specialty and others.
In June 1980, I boarded my first flight on China Airlines from Taipei to Los Angeles at age 10, sitting next to a woman whom I now call “mom” just eight months after my mother died from her three-year battle with breast cancer. I knew we were going to America and was quite uncertain about it, as I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with that new world, leaving the only country and environment I had ever known. I was leaving my four aunties who had helped to raise me during my mother’s near-continuous hospitalization in the late 1970s. I was leaving all of my cousins, and my father, who was to join us three months later.
Key memories of America during those times include moving out of my uncle’s house and into our first apartment, with nothing more than a six-pack of 7-Up and a loaf of white bread. There were frequent shopping trips at the Salvation Army, living humbly while helping my father with his first coffee shop venture in Burbank, making rubber thong slippers in our apartment living room to sell for 25 cents each, and helping to care for and raise my half-sister while I was still a child myself. My parents still look for bargains and save everything. I once told a dishwasher salesman to stop trying to upsell a more expensive model to my parents—they were really looking for something that would serve as the ultimate drying dish rack, and they would continue to wash dishes by hand.