Earlier this spring, I was asked to write a brief blurb for my hospital about what Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) meant to me as part of a social media feature. Frankly, I struggled to put my thoughts into words, much less something concise and with mass appeal. To my chagrin and embarrassment, I did not respond. But I have been stuck on this thought every day since: what does AAPIHM mean to me?
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – sometimes referred to as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, or APAHM – was designated to occur each May beginning in 1992. I was in grade school at the time, and totally unaware. I do not recall when I knew that AAPIHM even existed, but regardless it had minimal influence and impact until last year. I have always deeply valued my heritage but did so on a personal level. I didn’t advertise, and I certainly didn’t focus on it during a specific month.
That all changed last year. The acute rise in and publicity surrounding anti-Asian violence and sentiment, spurred by the covid-19 pandemic, brought on a new urgency to understand more about how we had gotten to this crucial timepoint. AAPIHM occurred just two months into the pandemic, and with it came numerous opportunities to dive into the topic. Learning the history of AAPI immigration to and experiences within the United States was revelatory: it explained the origins of the model minority myth, and laid the groundwork for understanding the vast income inequality that exists within AAPI groups today. I came to comprehend how the model minority stereotype had integrated into many aspects of my life. In fact, the idea that Asians should be quiet and hard-working but not draw attention to oneself, and should try to fully assimilate, was precisely the reason why I felt uncomfortable publicly celebrating AAPIHM.
These realizations are not limited to my own experiences. I see how biases and stereotypes have affected my family, my friends, my colleagues, my patients. I see the challenges that more senior AAPI surgeons have encountered and what they have done to overcome those obstacles. I see how the AAPI residents and medical students I work with face a different set of expectations and prejudices than residents from other backgrounds, and I’ve adopted the position of mentor and confidant to help them in this capacity. I’ve also experienced the value of having an organization dedicated to the support and promotion of Asian academic surgeons. I see how the discrimination and inequities AAPI have experienced are inextricably linked to the discrimination and inequities that Black and Lantinx individuals experience.
But acknowledgment and awareness are just the first steps of many in overcoming our internalized misconceptions. External action must be undertaken next if we want to change the landscape for future generations of surgeons of all backgrounds. We can all start by examining our own unconscious biases, initiating conversations on the subject with family and friends, and raise awareness within our departments for the safety of our colleagues and patients. I hope you can join me in this work.