May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. First nationally recognized as a weeklong celebration in 1978, it became a monthlong celebration in 1992.
While the recognition is important for highlighting the stories and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s also important to recognize these stories and contributions all year long.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Asian Americans have faced increasing violence and discrimination against them and their communities. This is nothing new: Despite the model minority myth, people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage have long faced racism in the United States.
Because of this, it’s important to show support and show up for our AAPI friends, family, co-workers and communities and to celebrate the rich past, present and future of all AAPI people.
We asked Asian Americans and Pacific Americans in the UW Medicine community to share what they take pride in about their heritage and what they want others to know about being an ally.
Lisa Chew, MD, MPH, Associate Medical Director of Ambulatory Care
“Working at Harborview for over 15 years caring for vulnerable populations, I have learned so much through the stories of my patients, both their struggles and achievements. It inspires me to speak for those who may not have a voice and address health disparities and advance health care equity through policy, care delivery and program development.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders often get lumped into a single group but these communities are multifaceted and heterogenous. Recognize that the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are diverse. Each community has its own rich yet different and distinct culture, heritage, history, experiences and needs. Historical issues in this country have significantly shaped how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are perceived and their experiences in present-day America. Take the time to learn about the Asian American and Pacific Islander history through the lens of the AAPI communities. Members of our communities are being targeted and are terrified and frustrated at the threat of physical violence, leading to significant emotional distress. Provide support to your AAPI colleagues and friends. Give them space to share their story. Work to create allyships among all races to advance social justice in this country.”
Nicolas Hoang Tuan Nguyen, RN, BSN
“I learned that I wanted to pursue nursing because of the culture and language barriers of Vietnamese refugees. I grew up interpreting Vietnamese for my Ong and Ba (grandfather and grandmother) and early on realized the massive amount of trauma my family endured during the Vietnam war. My Ba went into hiding to escape imprisonment and persecution from the North Vietnamese. She spent a lot of time stating that she didn’t believe that anyone understood her and it was just a waste. Psychologically she had suffered so much and felt as though her feelings were being undermined that she stopped telling the doctors about her medical problems. I knew my calling was to be a nurse because I wanted to advocate for people like my Ong and Ba.
I take great pride in being Vietnamese but as a young kid it wasn’t always so. I grew up in Bellingham and at the time it was predominantly white. I always felt as an “other” being Vietnamese. I grew up thinking my best chance of getting by as a kid was to assimilate as much to white American culture as possible. Often, I would be embarrassed about the foods I brought to school, the clothes I would wear, my cultural practices and the fact that I lived in a multigenerational dwelling growing up. When I came home from school and I told my grandparents how I felt, they told me stories for three hours about their lives prior to them immigrating to the United States. My Ong would then ask me, “Do you think just ‘anyone’ could do this?” I replied with a smirk, “No, just you Ong.” He then grunted “hmph” and I knew from that moment on that Vietnamese people were special. I knew that I was a part of something so special. Without my family and my Vietnamese culture I would not be here today. I take great pride in the fact that I am my ancestors wildest dreams.
It is so important to see AAPI at all levels within UW Medicine because it shapes our future youth. Representation matters in the workplace and kids need to see that no matter what you look like, no matter what pronoun you prefer, no matter what you sound like and no matter what religion you practice you can accomplish the American dream of being the best you can be and truly making your ancestors proud.”
Mikayla Kiyokawa, Communications Specialist
“Growing up as one of the few Asian Americans in my small rural town, I associated my Chinese-Japanese American identity to being an outsider. I experienced weird looks when eating fish and rice for lunch or would get asked by other kids, “Can you write my name in Chinese?” These experiences made me want to hide my cultural identity, but when my family taught me about the importance of my heritage, I became aware of why I should take pride in who I am. I am proud of my mother who left everything behind in Hong Kong to start a better life in America. She found herself working at any low paying job to afford an education. I am proud of my great grandparents and grandparents who built an orchard from the ground up in 1921. Despite facing racism and Japanese internment, the orchard continues to support my family today. The hardships my family endured led to me being a proud second-generation Chinese American and fourth-generation Japanese American who can make homemade mochi and play mahjong on Chinese New Year with my family.
The stereotype is that Asians in the medical field are doctors, but UW Medicine has AAPI people in various roles: administration, research, professors, deans and more. I appreciate having a variety of AAPI colleagues who I can learn from and turn to. It is also encouraging to see an AAPI person at UW Medicine in leadership who I can look up to and get advice from. But most importantly, having AAPI staff at all levels and professions in UW Medicine allows our voices to be heard in every step of work.”
Silver Denton, PT, DPT
“In my culture, family members are expected to take care of each other. My mom came over to care for my child when I started physical therapy school at the University of Washington, and she took care of my husband and I most of the time, too. There were two to three years at the end of her life when we took care of her but mostly she was there for us. When my mom was sick my oldest sister took a quarter off from her teaching job and came over to help all of us. She said, “You and your family are the only ones burdened by mom being sick. I want to come over to help you.” It was such a relief for us. I am proud of this kind of strong family bond.
For non-AAPI people, please don’t assume anything about us. There have been numerous situations when people assumed I was a cleaning lady, mostly patients and their family members. Several years ago I was working as an acute PT. It was a Saturday, and I was heading to the floor where I was assigned to work that day. This guy, a UW Medical Center staff member, looked at me and started telling me something about a note on a door. It must have something about the weekend. He saw the puzzlement on my face and decided to explain what “weekend” meant.
I checked, and I was wearing my badge which says I’m a physical therapist. Yet he just saw the color of my face and thought I didn’t understand basic English. I don’t believe he would have done that to a white woman. At the moment I was just too upset to say anything, but I did have a follow-up conversation with him. (My boss was very understanding and she was willing to talk to him but I chose to talk to him.) In the end he apologized.”
Heajin Emily Ng, Respiratory Therapist Lead
“I am first generation to the United States. I witnessed my parents’ sacrifice of leaving everything they knew back home in South Korea, while working day and night in a foreign country. This made me want to pursue a career that was stable but meaningful. I initially wanted to become a teacher when I was growing up. However, junior year of high school I became a volunteer in the outpatient oncology unit through an after-school program. This after-school program made me to realize how I wanted to pursue a career in a hospital and work with patients. I knew the healthcare field was my passion when I felt a deep appreciation when patients were excited to see me! I decided to participate in the Running Start program at my local college to reduce the future burden of college tuition from my parents. Once I began the Running Start program, I discovered the Respiratory Care program. I applied to the Respiratory Care program the following year and now have been a respiratory therapist for nine years! I love my job and everyone that I encounter, and have encountered, during my career.
I take great pride in my country, South Korea, and how respectful we are as a nation. Especially how South Korea has different language dialects and formalities that allows one to differentiate their speech when communicating with our elders. It is a form of respect in our culture that I highly admire. I also take pride in Korean food, makeup and music!”
Linh Ngo, UW School of Medicine Career Advisor
“At 16 I participated in a weeklong camp about racism following the murder of an Ethiopian college student in Portland by a white supremacist. We discussed how each race/ethnic group is different in their needs and aspirations. Kids of all backgrounds shared their stories. Everyone cried. A lot. I went on to become a mental health counselor and then a career advisor, always looking to help students reach their potential and see the humanity in others.
Sacrifice is deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese culture. My parents somehow managed to take three girls under the age of six from a war-torn country, by boats and on refugee islands, to a new country. They didn’t stop there. They put their three kids through college and grad school, all with minimum wage work.
Like any other group, AAPI people are capable of achieving greatly given the opportunity. Our children should see themselves in our professors and deans, not only admins and staff. But also our non-AAPI children should see us in those roles so future AAPI colleagues won’t have to stand out as occasional success stories.”
Miko Mergens, MSW, LICSW, Heart Transplant
“My parents and family always valued hard work. It was a life-changing decision to study abroad in the U.S., as an exchange student, because for the first time in my life, I became a ‘foreigner.’ I faced many barriers, including language barriers and cultural differences, but I continued to work hard, as my parents had taught, and pursued a bachelor’s degree.
When I participated in practicum programs for Master of Social Work, I realized that so many people are in undesirable, unfortunate situations, which they just don’t have control over, no matter how hard they work. That’s when I decided to pursue my career as a medical social worker, so I could use my knowledge and skill to give back to vulnerable people.
I’ve faced many racial discriminations until this point: One person told me I am stealing a job from unemployed Americans. Another told me I am not a competent social worker, because of my accent. I refuse to let these ignorant, racist comments and behaviors bother me, because I bring value to our society and community.
Just like other racial and ethnic group members, many AAPI members work so hard to establish their positions. AAPI members are a big part of American history and community. It is important to see AAPI members at all levels at UW Medicine, because it is the representation of how our community looks.”