“Where are you from?” is a question that I often get from my patients. While I don’t think they mean any harm, it is a fine line between curiosity and microaggression; curiosity wants to get to know us, microaggression belies an unconscious bias that assumes that we don’t belong, that we are “different”, “foreign”. On a good day, I’ll answer the question they didn’t actually ask. On a bad day, I tell them I’m from Virginia and leave it at that.
The truth is, I am the proud child of immigrants. My parents came to the United States in the late 1960s from Taiwan. Like many in their generation, they came to pursue graduate studies and to give their children a better future in America.
May is officially Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in the United States. It’s a time for us to celebrate the history and the contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders to the fabric of our country. First introduced in Congress in 1977 as AAPI Heritage Week, it was expanded to include the entire month of May in the early 1990s. May was chosen to commemorate two specific dates: May 7, 1843, the day the first Japanese immigrant arrived to the US, and May 10th, 1869, Golden Spike Day, the day in which the first transcontinental railroad in the US was completed; approximately 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the track from Sacramento, California to Promontory, Utah.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian American and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States with a growth of 81% between 2000 and 2019. More than 24 million people of Asian descent live in the US, or about 7% of the nation’s population.
But as we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, what we have to realize is that there is no single narrative that defines what it means to be Asian. The AAPI community is diverse; it consists of nearly 50 ethnic groups from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands speaking more than 100 different languages, each telling a different story about their journey to and in the United States. As a group and as individuals, we continue to fight to be truly seen – to be represented not just in Hollywood, but in all arenas of leadership and influence, and to no longer be viewed as the perpetual “foreigner”.
I, like many second generation Americans, grew up in a conflicted mess of identities. When I would visit Taiwan, it was apparent that I was not from there – something about how I dress, how I talk, and even how I smile in photos would give away my identity. And in the US, I was always reminded that I would never look “American”. My parents encouraged us to pursue careers in STEM because they felt that it would give us the most opportunities for success in America. They couldn’t see, and truthfully at the time didn’t see, Asians being successful in America in other arenas. It turns out, representation really does matter.
Over the past few years, however, I have clung to my identity as an Asian American with even more fervor as we saw the increase in anti-Asian hate incidents with the COVID-19 pandemic. A study released by California State University, San Bernardino found that the incidence of hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent in 16 of America’s largest cities increased by nearly 150% in 2020. Despite the progress the AAPI community has made in the US over the past half century, the truth is, there’s still a long way to go.
When Michelle Yeoh accepted the Best Actress Award at the 2023 Oscar’s, she began her acceptance speech by saying, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities.” Perhaps in the future, we will stop asking people, “Where are you from?”, and start asking each other, “Where are we going?” The future is full of hope and possibilities, but only if we get there together.