In February, a man approached me and spat, “Chinese virus.” It was not the first time I had been called those venomous words. I’m a medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and a few months ago, in front of the hospital after my shift, a mother with a child also spat on me and called me racial slurs. So, this time, I calmly told the man that I was a medical student and had to head to my shift. But he followed me.
My heart pounded in my chest as I hastened toward Mount Sinai. Suddenly, I fell at a kick against my knee. I was dragged across the ground; my nails bled against the rough pavement as I tried to crawl away. I cried out for help, but passersby stood in silence as the assailant escaped with my phone. Eventually, I asked a bystander to call 911, and felt safe around the only Asian police officer at the scene; but they ultimately couldn’t catch the man, who was wearing a mask and hoodie.
Growing up as a queer woman in Thailand, a homogeneous country marred by military dictatorships, censorships and bloody coups, I was used to violence. So when I immigrated to the United States in 2014 for college and medical school, I saw this country as a safe haven. Unfortunately, that sense of security was shattered when I was assaulted and robbed in broad daylight.
I now realize that my experience was part of a broader pattern of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, which have increased by 150 percent since the start of the pandemic. These xenophobic acts are in part due to the perception that Asians are to blame for the pandemic. They have rippled throughout the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, including among health professionals who have described being attacked on the streets by strangers or even harassed by patients they cared for during the pandemic.
And last week, that violence came to a head with the shootings at Atlanta spas that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women. I was treating a transgender woman’s wounds after she was violently beaten with a bat when I learned of the Atlanta shooting from other health professionals. After the patient was stabilized, I excused myself and cried in the on-call room. So many emotions ran through my body, but the worst was the absence of one: I wasn’t surprised by the violence against and sexualization of women, especially Asian women.
I’d long experienced it myself. Back home in Thailand, I was only 10 when a White man in his 50s approached me with candies. He asked if I wanted them in exchange for oral sex. When I refused and ran away, he approached another young girl nearby. I had buried the memories of that foreign man until the suspected Atlanta shooter blamed his sexual addiction for the killing of those Asian women.
After my attack in February, my advisers recommended that I take time off from clinical duties to recuperate. I hesitated. Like many AAPI patients, I was used to minimizing my symptoms. I recalled studies that showed AAPI patients typically experience more physical pain clinically than their White counterparts. (It is well documented that Black patients, too, suffer a greater burden of pain and pain-related suffering in comparison to White patients.) This disconnect between our perceived and expressed physical pain also parallels the historical silencing of our racial pain. While I came away from my attack with only minor cuts and bruises, a deep, unspoken malady awoke in me — one that many in the AAPI community have learned to either directly or indirectly hide in this country. After minimizing our pain for so many generations, we are finally coming forward with our truths.
Soon after my assault, AAPI students petitioned our medical school to publicly condemn anti-Asian hate crimes. In response, the medical school’s student council sent out a statement about the rise in anti-Asian hate, with resources and guidance. But one line stuck out to me: “Importantly, our effort to provide safety for members of the AAPI community must not compromise the safety of BIPOC folk.” I felt my stomach drop. Are Asians not people of color?
Back in my homogeneous home country, I was able to hide my sexual orientation to avoid discrimination. However, in this diverse country I want to call home, I am unable to hide the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. Reading the email, I felt alienated from the Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) community — it seemed like my perceived proximity to White privilege as the highly educated “model minority” was constantly at war with my lived experience.
Fortunately, after receiving emails criticizing that statement, the student council apologized for unintentionally playing into a long history of dividing marginalized minorities, and recognized that the term BIPOC can promote solidarity by underscoring the shared burden of racism. But my initial feeling of betrayal and alienation from the BIPOC community is not unique. Following World War II, the “model minority” myth was used as a racial wedge between AAPI members and other minorities: It cast Japanese Americans as only overcoming the discrimination they faced during their interment because of their resilience, family structure and work ethic.
This framework has continued to perpetuate the fallacious belief that other minorities should similarly be able to overcome discrimination and achieve success, while ignoring the complex and multifaceted history of oppression that minority groups face. Furthermore, it dismisses that AAPI members have the largest income gap within their own demographic and that the standard of living for low-income families has been stagnant over the past 50 years. During the covid-19 pandemic, AAPI members with lower education levels were substantially more likely to lose employment than equally educated Whites.
As the Atlanta shootings have revealed, these conversations are necessary, urgent, life-or-death. And as those in our community work toward increased diversity and inclusion, we must be cognizant of including all groups in this discussion. We should not be pitting members of BIPOC communities against each other, but rather uplifting one another to combat all forms of discrimination. Calling attention to the racism that the AAPI community is facing is not a call for ignoring others in the BIPOC community who already face systemic racism and disproportionate injustices from our criminal justice system. Instead, I ask everyone to stop viewing the AAPI community as a model minority, but rather as a heterogeneous group. This way, we can finally begin to heal.
A few weeks after my assault, I summoned enough courage to call my elderly father in Thailand. He dreamed of coming to America to be reunited with me after my medical training. He is a former monk, and his calm and gentle presence is something I’ve always valued. For the first time in my life, he cried. His voice trembled as he asked, “Are you hurt?” I hope to one day be able to tell him, “Yes, I was hurt. But I am also healing.”
Oranicha Jumreornvong is a third-year medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Fellow students Eileen Wang, Don Ngyuen and Clifford Liu contributed to this essay.