Honoring Asian American Pacific Islander Women

10 May 2021

By Susan Tsai, MD, MHS

For many, the month of May is a time of celebration.  Many look forward to the end of Ramadan with Eid al-Fitr (May 12) or the beginning of summer with Memorial Day (May 31).  For me, the month of May is also important as Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. It seems more important than ever to take advantage of this time to highlight the many amazing AAPI stories of immigration, perseverance, and community.  This last year has seen an unprecedented rise in hate crimes and discrimination against AAPI. Less than 2 months ago, a mass shooting claimed the lives of eight individuals, including six Asian women.  There is no better time to amplify AAPI experiences and support AAPI communities through allyship and action. 

I’m excited that the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS)  has decided to highlight AAPI members this month in its podcast and blog posts during the month of May and beyond.  I hope that in sharing stories, we will learn more about AAPI heritage and culture and begin to see reflections of ourselves in the stories of others. The foundation of a shared humanity is the basis for allyship and future action. This month in the AWS blog  you will hear from AAPI residents and medical students who received last year’s inaugural AWS Diversity Equity and Inclusion award. Notable additions will come from Dr. Jennifer Tseng, Chair of the Department of Surgery at the Boston Medical Center and Dr. Heather Yeo, Associate Professor of Surgery, Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University. Dr. Taryne Imai, who is the recipient of the 2021 Society of Asian Academic Surgeons (SAAS)-AWS Visiting Professorship will also join us in celebrating AAPI heritage month by participating in the AWS podcast.

Later this year, Dr. Imai will travel to Memphis to be the Helen F. Tsai Visiting Professor at the University of Tennessee.  I know the namesake of this Visiting Professorship well, as she is my mom.  In the spirit of AAPI heritage month and Mother’s Day (May 9th), I’d like to share a little about my mother.  My mother was born in the year of the Tiger, but she is far from a “tiger mom.”  She immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in her early 30’s with my brother and sister to join my father who was studying to receive his degree in mechanical engineering. Ultimately to help make ends meet, she opened a grocery store, selling Asian foods in a small college town in the Midwest, where things like short-grain rice and non-La Choy soy sauce were a rarity.  To supply her small business, she would drive our family’s green Ford van every week across Michigan to Chicago to pick up produce to sell.  As the business began to grow, it became a small nexus of the Asian community.  People would come for the groceries, but they would find themselves staying to chat about daily life‒ sharing celebrations and hardships. I was also always amazed that whenever we were out, she would inevitably run into someone she knew.  I once joked “Mom!  You know everyone- you’re like the mayor!” but she just impishly smiled and said, “I won’t ever be able to do anything bad…I’ll always get caught.”  Over three decades, she came to know generations of families, watching babies grow up and go to college and witnessing many old-friends transition on as well.  When my time came to go to college too, I knew I was leaving behind a woman who was working from 8 am to 10 pm to put me through school.  I learned so many important values from watching my mom run her business: work hard, treat people fairly, do the right thing. 

My mom retired 10 years ago at the age of 72 and sold the store.  Nevertheless, when her customers see her around town, they will stop to update her on products that are missing from the store.  I can sense their frustration, I’m sure it’s not quite the same – like a husk of a store now without its soul.   This year, with the pandemic, she told me, “I’m afraid to go outside.  People are targeting old Asian people.”  This made me sad because my mom, who has been a pillar of good will in her community for decades, should not have to feel unsafe and unwelcome in a city where she has lived over 50 years of her life. I also thought about how quickly things change- that this woman, who I once thought was invincible, could feel so vulnerable.  And so, on this Mother’s Day, I hope we are able to spend time with our mothers, shower them with love,  and cherish them for all that they have done for us.

Dr. Susan Tsai headshot

Susan Tsai, MD, MHS, FACS is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She holds a joint appointment at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Clement J. Zablocki VA hospital and serves as the Director of the LaBahn Pancreatic Cancer Program and the leader of the GI Oncology Disease Team. You can find her on twitter @isteaus.

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.

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