By Heather Yeo, MD, MHS, MBA, MS
Growing up in a small rural town in Oregon, I was not surrounded by a very diverse community. I don’t think I even understood the words “race,” “ethnicity,” or “cultural heritage” until I was much older. I just knew that I was different from many of the kids growing up around me. My mom used to laugh that when people asked me what my heritage was, I would answer, “I’m half-Chinese and half-vegetarian.”
My parents taught me to appreciate my Asian cultural heritage. I grew up visiting Singapore, China, and Thailand, cooking Satay, curry, and dumplings with my grandmother, and looking for red envelopes during Chinese New Year celebrations with my family. I had a large extended family that was important to me, and my grandmother told me about her growing up in Malaysia and Sarawak. But at the same time, I was not raised to speak my father’s native dialect (Teochew), or really any Chinese for that matter.
I had an idyllic childhood and really didn’t feel discriminated against. But I always felt different – like I didn’t quite fit in. I was excited for college, where I expected to find more people like me and thought that I could explore my Asian heritage. As I checked the boxes for race, I proudly checked both white and Asian.
Arriving at college, I was excited to learn about the Asian American group, because I thought that’s what I was. As an Asian-American, and an Asian Studies minor, I was excited to find a group with shared cultural experiences and interests.
I went to that first Asian-American meeting, but what I’ve found out has been called, “A white passing HAPA”, meaning most people don’t know that I am Asian at all. They think I could be Hispanic, Hawaiian, white — basically no one knows. So no one thought I belonged there. Many people asked me the question “What are you?” Some said to me “half doesn’t count”; or “Do you at least speak Chinese?” I wouldn’t say I was devastated, just a little embarrassed that I didn’t even live up to the expectations of half of my culture and disappointed that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn more about my heritage.
The recent anti-Asian American violence has hurt me, because I imagine my grandmother, my father, who worked so hard to become citizens of this country, now being the target of hate in a country they loved. But it has also hurt me because I am a white passing HAPA. Few people think to ask me about its impact, because many don’t know that it might affect me. And I also feel like maybe they shouldn’t ask me, because how could I possibly understand what it’s like to be the target of Asian hate when I might not look Asian enough to be the target of such hate.
More recently, through a friend I have been introduced to a group of “HAPAs” – a term that is used in several contexts in the US, and while not the definitive – half-japanese group that it originated from, the more colloquial “Half Asian PAcific islander” definition is what I’m referring to here. It’s fascinating that in this group I have found people with many shared experiences, people who love their mixed identities, but have also struggled to fit in. Those who grew up with a similarly mixed background to my own and have had similar experiences both not being Asian enough and not being white enough.
I am very proud of my mixed background. That my parents saw beyond race and fell in love, that I have two cultures blended together. But this realization has taken me time, a lot of it. Writing this piece makes me feel vulnerable, but I am doing it because for me, finding others with shared experiences, mixed raced people, has made me appreciate that I am not alone in my world experience and has helped me to appreciate my differences.
It’s taken me well into adulthood to understand some of the implications of race, gender, ethnicity, community and intersectionality. And while I do research in this area, I still don’t consider myself an expert, there is so much to learn and so much complexity in how these words define us and the way the world reacts to and interacts with us.
My experience, I hope, makes me a more understanding physician and surgeon. It has made me more interested in understanding how different cultures and communities shape who we are and how we can celebrate our differences.
Societies like AWS, LSS, SBAS, and SAAS are good places to discuss issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, and to find people of varied backgrounds. These societies are inclusive of all races and identities and are full of surgeons who represent the spectrum of our profession and make it stronger.
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Heather Yeo, MD, MHS, MBA, MS is Associate Professor of Surgery and Associate Professor of Health Care Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medical College and Associate Attending Surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is board-certified in general surgery, colon and rectal surgery and complex general surgical oncology. Dr. Yeo has a Master’s in Health Services Research, and Healthcare Leadership and an MBA and is focused on surgical outcomes, workforce diversity, tech advances in medicine, and quality improvement in Gastrointestinal Cancer Surgery.
Dr. Yeo is interested in the psychosocial factors that go into surgical decision making and how they influence outcomes in patients. She is currently funded as a Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator for a randomized trial of an app that Dr. Yeo developed compared to the standard of care. Dr. Yeo believes that new technologies and apps are going to change the future of medicine.
Dr. Yeo has studied disparities in surgical training and the impact of race and gender on attrition and training. Dr. Yeo has worked extensively with trainees and medical students. She works with residents and medical students to teach them study design, implementation, and career development.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.