Anti-Asian hate: 'Eating bitterness' and the role of empathy

March 24, 2021 Health
Empathy is a good collaborative effort. Asian People in America can no longer afford to get silent.

This op-ed was written for Medical News Today by Dr. Yenting Chen, who's a board certified emergency medicine physician.

I was a young child when I first found snow. My parents, who had been quite poor at the time, preserved up for more than a year to bring their small family to a simple motel in the Southern California mountains.

After a day of participating in in the fine powder, my little sisters and I were freezing.

My father and mother brought us to a good roaring fireplace at a good local public lodge to warm up. Within minutes, we were encircled by several adults dressed up in fashionable skiwear.

They told us quite plainly that we were not welcome, that this place was not designed for “people as if you.”

I caught your final glimpse of this warm hearth as we retreated into the cold evening, and I heard my mom bitterly stating the most obvious: This happened because we are Asian.

Our ugly connection with racism is, unfortunately, universally common among people of color in America. What could be more one of a kind is that we hardly ever spoke of it afterward.

Even to this day, I have never discussed this incident or the countless others that followed. Not even with my closest good friends.

To eat bitterness
The reluctance of Asian Americans to discuss anti-Asian racism should be considered within a broader cultural context. Stoicism is usually an extremely prized characteristic in lots of Asian cultures.

Among Sinocentric cultures, there is the idea of 吃苦 (chīkǔ). This principle - which, according to Iris Chen, the author of the blog page “Untigering,” translates as “to consume bitterness” - values the opportunity to accept battling as a virtue.

Studies experience suggested that Asians are even more reluctant to complain and rarely get third-party remediation. Asian Americans are also less inclined to employ mental health resources than non-Asians.

More strikingly, found in a 2014 review of cancer clients, Asians were found to get particularly hesitant to complain about physical pain, leading to inadequate medication treatment.

Within my own field of crisis medicine, there is a well-known adage that if an elderly Asian patient is sick enough to maintain the emergency department, they need to have something that could be truly fatal.

The ‘model minority’ myth
Furthermore cultural predilection for silent enduring, Asians have been reluctant to speak out against anti-Asian racism because of the insidious model minority myth.

They fear that giving voice with their experiences will be met with derisive ideas to “stop being so sensitive” or comparisons to the very real traumatic ramifications of systemic racism on other communities of color.

The problem with eating bitterness is that it runs counter to the very long and storied American tradition of using activism as a vehicle for change. This has undermined the dogged work of multiple generations of Asian American activists to humanize the Asian American encounter.

In fact, even today, cultural depictions of Asian Americans continue to serve to dehumanize our community all together, to turn our troubled and even deaths into a punchline.

Sadly, the dehumanization of Asian Americans is a lot more than just about jokes. It has also resulted in the violent scapegoating of Asians throughout our country’s history.

A primary lineage of hate can be drawn from the anti-Chinese purges and lynchings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the murder of Vincent Chin, to the 2012 mass capturing at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and today to the recent mass murder of predominantly Asian women of all ages at Atlanta-area Asian-owned spas.

As our Black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, and LGBTQIA+ communities know all too well, the slow shed of intolerance could be easily taken to a violent boil when fueled by hateful rhetoric.

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