By Dr. Stephanie Go
They say that medicine is a microcosm for the world and as a doctor I have been witness to many of life’s tragedies and joys. Despite this, I did not expect to be confronted by both our country’s and my own personal struggles with race and identify within its walls.
I am a proud first generation Chinese-Canadian. As a child, my parents frequently talked about how lucky we were to be living in such a multicultural society. In Canada, the diversity of our land and people was our strength.
Yet, as I grew older, there was a nagging sense of otherness I could not shake. I distinctly remembered one of the first times this occurred as a child. During a trip to a town outside of Toronto, my family and I went to a local restaurant. We waited endlessly as we were ignored while the other white families were immediately shown to their seats. I was left confused and embarrassed.
It wasn’t until I became a doctor that I truly began to understand how “foreign” I was considered. I am often asked “why is your English so good?” or “where are you really from?” I am greeted with endless “ni haos”, “konichiwas” or other Asian languages I am assumed to be able to speak. I have been called Oriental. A fellow Asian colleague of mine was given a children’s book by a patient to “bring back to her country.” Shockingly, I have even heard a white colleague lament the lack of “Canadian” nurses in the hospital. The majority of our frontline nurses are people of colour. Did he mean that being Canadian was determined by the colour of one’s skin?
My role as a doctor is also constantly being questioned. Despite introducing myself as the attending physician, patients and their families often ask “but when is the real doctor coming?” These seemingly innocuous encounters are so frequent that they have almost become routine. With each additional microaggression piling on through the years, my anger and frustration have only multiplied. I feel increasingly invisible and inadequate. It’s as if I do not belong and I have to carry the extra burden of needing to prove myself as both a doctor and a Canadian.
Racism towards Asians in Canada is not new, but it has gone largely unseen. It began with the mistreatment of Chinese workers in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and continued with segregation laws, the Chinese head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act. As Chinese Canadians were not granted citizenship until after 1947, they were not permitted to enter professions like law, pharmacy or medicine. In 1975, then president of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Bette Stephenson, suggested that there were too many “foreign” students at the University of Toronto Medical School. In particular, she singled out Chinese students, disregarding that the majority of them were Canadian citizens or landed immigrants. A similar racist message was conveyed in CTV W5’s “Campus Giveaway” episode in 1979. Even as recently as 2010, Maclean’s magazine published a highly offensive article entitled “Too Asian?” suggesting an inaccurate and false theory of the overrepresentation of Asians in Canadian universities.
Despite these egregious examples, there has been a commonly held belief that Asians are not victims of racism as a result of the model minority myth. This stereotype not only ignores the history of systemic racism Asian Canadians have endured but also overlooks the rich diaspora of histories and cultures by funneling us all into one singular monolith. It erases our individual identities, struggles, and stories. It silences us and makes us believe that our experiences and sufferings are not serious or true.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly altered the landscape in that more overt racism has become permissible. Recently, I was told by a patient that “the Chinese” were to blame for the ”China Virus” because of our “dirty eating” habits. People have been physically and verbally abused because of their race. Anti-Asian hate crimes have risen exponentially. In British Columbia alone hate crimes have increased by almost 900 percent. One report even indicated that Canada has a higher number of anti-Asian incidents per capita than the United States, with women being disproportionately affected.
A large percentage of healthcare workers are Asian Canadians. Think about how challenging it must be to be forced to confront such a dichotomy. On the one hand we are lauded as healthcare heroes fighting this pandemic. On the other we are spat on and told that our ethnicity is a disease, that we are dirty and not worthy of common decency.
These statistics are sobering and terrifying. And yet media coverage around this issue has been lukewarm at best.
I believe that the root of xenophobia is fear and ignorance. Race is not a virus. Hatred is. And in order to cure this infection we must identify and diagnose it. We must start naming it and having discussions on these issues so that we can work towards solutions. Diversity is a strength and our future will be richer if everyone is included in the narrative.