The Same but Different

10 Jun 2022

By Priya Dedhia, MD, PhD

Emily was one of my first friends when I started as an attending surgeon. It was like we were destined to be friends—during the shutdown in March 2020, Emily texted me when she saw someone who looked like me walking near her house. We found out that I lived 1 block – a 4-minute walk – away, so we started going on pandemic walks together regularly. We commiserated about being junior attendings and not being able to operate… but also secretly enjoyed being able to finish overdue manuscripts and sneak in workouts in the middle of the day.

We learned that we both had “tiger parents” that led to deep-seated feelings of always needing to do more. We talked about our moms, who both thought we were about as far from the ideal Asian daughter as was possible. We confessed that, sometimes, we were hesitant to voice our opinions publicly for fear of being labeled as “loud” or “aggressive.” We spent hours talking about how being Asian was and wasn’t an underrepresented minority.

We got frustrated about how Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions and have the lowest political representation of any racial or ethnic group, but most Asians are not considered minorities by the NIH or other national organizations.

Emily and I also talked about how lucky we have been that we are not the only underrepresented minorities at our institution… that we are able to discuss all of these things because we not only have each other, but also other friends and mentors from diverse backgrounds.

Then on March 26, 2021, six Asian women were killed in Atlanta. My academic community came together to provide support to each other and create an Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) employee resource group. Participating in these virtual get-togethers, I was taken aback by how some of my colleagues had been treated during the pandemic. I couldn’t believe that patients canceled appointments or asked my friends and coworkers if they got the “China flu.” Worse still, I realized I never talked to Emily about any of this. I was lulled into thinking we had similar experiences since we were both Asian.

I spent the next several days thinking about how I could ask Emily about her experience. I thought about the words, I thought about the location, even the time of day. I finally realized that nothing would feel right because broaching this topic in our friendship felt intimidating to me. So, then I just asked her. What happened? Did anyone say anything to her? Did she feel unsafe?

We spent the next few hours talking about Emily’s experiences, which were so different from my own despite both of us being Asian. Emily told me about the offensive comments her patients made. She told me about how, until then, she was achieving the American dream – a job where she literally saved lives, a nice house with gorgeous plants on the porch, and a fiancé who loved her. But for the first time, she felt unsafe in our hometown. Because despite having been born and raised in this country and accomplishing more than most people could in their lifetime, she couldn’t change the way she looked – Chinese.

This conversation was the first of many where we talked about being Indian or Chinese and how our experiences were sometimes very different even though we were both Asian.

Until that point, our friendship was based mostly on our common interests and shared experiences. But it wasn’t until I took the time to really understand what made us different that we became closer. For me, my friendship with Emily brought new meaning to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: it’s not only about honoring our similarities, but also about celebrating how our differences weave together to create a diverse and compassionate community, right here in our own neighborhood. 

Dr. Priya Dedhia, MD, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology at The Ohio State University. As an endocrine surgeon, her clinical and research efforts focus on improving treatment options available to patients with thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal disease. Her background in cancer biology and generation of patient-derived organoids uniquely positions her to develop models for difficult to study endocrine cancers. 
Dr. Dedhia received her MD and PhD at University of Pennsylvania. She completed her General Surgery residency at the University of Michigan and Endocrine Surgery fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. 
In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Dedhia runs a lab that uses 3-dimensional organoid models to study endocrine cancers. She is thankful to organizations like the Association of Women Surgeons and the Society of Asian Academic Surgeons for creating space for conversations about diversity in surgery. 

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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