More Than the Model Minority

     As Southeast Asian American women, we wanted to talk about the Model Minority Myth before delving deeper into our stories. The myth is that “Asians are smart, polite, successful, law-abiding, hard-working, socio-economically thriving model citizens, and are shining examples of overcoming racism and discrimination to live the American dream.” It exploits aggregate data to generalize that all Asians fit into the category of the highest academic and economic achievers. This undermines the cultural, financial, and academic demands that affect our capacity to succeed, and ignores the full range of diverse experiences and disparities. The term “Model Minority” has been used to argue that other groups (especially Black Americans) should be able to overcome their obstacles and achieve success. It denounces the existence of white privilege and perpetuates anti-Blackness, and downplays the impact of racism and discrimination by people of color. The necessary actions of storytelling, personal and community advocacy will take an unknown amount of time before it begins to debunk this myth.

     We are not speaking on behalf of all minorities, but we did want to share how we came to be. Contrary to the Model Minority Myth, it was not easy. Our parents lacked the language, finances, and cultural understanding of America when they began their journey, but they did not let that stop them from finding ways to take care of their loved ones. Our families’ sacrifices are immeasurable, but we are stronger, more passionate women today because of them. To hear more of our journey, follow us at The 3 Vertebaes.

Val, Student of Physical Therapy

Hi friends! I’m Val and I am about to start my third year of physical therapy school. As I reflect on my journey towards becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), I remember how it has taken a lot of hard work and determination to get where I am today. Not only is graduate school itself very difficult, but just the process of deciding on one particular career was very scary to me. Coming from a Vietnamese-Chinese family, I was faced with many questions when I told my family about my interest in physical therapy. However, despite the lack of knowledge of the profession, my parents supported me throughout my entire journey, from being open to learning about PT to helping me pay for tuition My dad was the one that pushed me to try my best to apply to start school without taking a gap year. He knew that I was passionate about the field and encouraged me to go all in. He is the reason why I pursued PT experiences in college and why I started PT school the fall after I graduated college in 2018. Although physical therapy was not initially a profession that my parents wanted me to join, my family’s unconditional support is the reason why I can say that I will be a DPT in April 2021.

For as long as I could remember, my parents both stressed the importance of education to both me and my brother. While we tried hard to get into good colleges and choose good careers, my brother and I did not have much guidance from our parents on exactly how to do those things. Our parents wanted what was best for our future, but they were unable to help us with the specifics due to their lack of understanding of the current requirements of getting into school. Graduate school was even more foreign to them; as a result, I had to figure it out myself. Because I decided on this profession while I was a sophomore at UCI, I did not have many friends who had the same goals as me. The entire application process, the requirements, and the planning were all things that I had taught myself and figured out through extensive research. Although I am so grateful for the support my family has shown throughout the years, I definitely hit some obstacles on my journey to becoming a PT.

Growing up in an Asian American household meant that becoming a doctor was always a goal but actually going to the doctor’s office was something that was avoided if possible. In my family and many other Asian families, we were taught to endure the pain of an injury (or use a home remedy) instead of seeking the doctor to fix the problem. This is due to my family’s perception that doctors can’t help much besides writing a prescription. As a result, I’ve endured through many (minor) injuries and random health issues by just simply ignoring it. When I found out about the physical therapy profession, I was amazed! A profession that helps their patients without medication, can decrease pain, and improve function through exercise? That definitely sounded like something I would be interested in. As I learned more and more about the profession, I wanted to educate my family on it’s benefits. I wanted them to understand that there are certain doctors that we should seek when there’s a problem and that these doctors can help reduce our pain in a natural, healthy way. When my parents were still in Vietnam, there were no physical therapists; many Asian immigrants have no idea what these healthcare professionals do or that they even exist. My passion for physical therapy stems from my drive to educate my family and other Asian families about these healthcare professionals who can improve their patients’ quality of life through movement.

Christy, Student of Osteopathic Medicine

Hello! My name is Christy and I am currently a first year medical student. I come from a Vietnamese American family where I am the eldest sibling of two. If it weren’t for my parents, I would not be where or who I am today. Even though I am a first generation college student, my parents did everything they could in their capacity to support me. Despite the challenges of being the first to go through the process of attaining a higher education, I was fortunate enough to have mentors to guide me and support from my friends as well.

I have always had a great interest in the sciences, but being there for my family throughout their healthcare journeys kickstarted my passion for medicine. While working and volunteering in different clinical settings, I’ve had the privilege of fostering relationships with our patients and learning about the different struggles that they often have when it comes to health. I remember assisting an elderly patient who as an immigrant, did not speak English as her primary language. Even though she had a history of melanoma, she was unaware of the precautions that she would have to take, such as having a regular skin check every few months to ensure that there were no recurrences or new growths. By the time she had come into our office, she had an alarming lesion that could have been taken care of sooner. Unfortunately, this has not been a rare occurrence.

As a child of immigrants, I’ve witnessed similar situations occur for my family especially my mom after her initial diagnosis with type II diabetes. After being displaced by the Vietnam War, like so many other families, my mom never had the privilege of prioritizing her health or understanding her family medical history.

My mom used to be unaware of the types of foods she should be eating or how stress could be affecting her. To add on top of these challenges, with her language barrier, it was especially difficult for her to have access to a daily trusted source of information or even find providers who would be able to communicate with her. Fortunately, I learned to prioritize attending her doctor visits with her so that I would know what kinds of questions to ask and make sure that she was taking the appropriate measures for her health as well as adhering to her treatment plan. Being there for my mom showed me the challenges of managing a chronic condition, especially for those coming from underserved and underrepresented communities. Seeing similar situations recur in my patient encounters would remind me of my own family members and are the reasons why I am so passionate about preventive medicine and health education.

During my gap years, I served as a copy editor for an online student-run publication, to help promote health education and provide our community with resources to encourage people to take a proactive stance when it comes to their health. With people like my mom or our elderly patient in mind, I hope to work towards further improvements such as offering translations for medical articles to overcome language barriers in health. As a future physician, I aspire to continue taking a proactive role in facilitating access to health education to fully equip our communities, especially those that are most vulnerable, with the knowledge and resources to prevent as well as manage their health conditions.

Teresa, Occupational Therapist

Hi everyone! My name is Teresa, and I am the eldest daughter of a Vietnamese American family and an occupational therapist. My parents escaped Vietnam in their teens after the Vietnam War, and their families came to America by fishing boat. As refugees, they left much unspoken about their financial and mental health struggles. In our culture, there are strong feelings of guilt, responsibility, and shame associated with mental illness, along with conservation against treatments because of unfamiliarity & lack of cultural relevancy. The stigma stems from the belief that we must suppress negative emotions & exert self-control in order to not appear as weak. But I have now learned that mental illness is not equivalent to weakness. Displaying personal vulnerability is courageous, as we all deserve to be seen & heard, and dismantling this taboo will take the work of a community who truly believe in holistic treatment, self-care, a support system, & the validity of one’s internal experiences. I am still on a journey with my family to explore our mental health. I owe them my everything, and their narrative has taught me to be resilient and to take ownership of how I can contribute to this world. 

Growing up, my family has taught me that pure hard work will provide a happy outcome. Upon discovering OT, however, I have learned that balancing our mind, body, and spirit will result in quality of life.

My background in service-oriented projects has taught me the importance of advocacy for underserved populations. My most exceptional learning experience stemmed from my time counseling and coordinating for Southeast Asian Campus Learning Education and Retention (SEA CLEAR) at UCLA. SEA CLEAR provides peer counseling, mentorship, and wellness services to students from underserved communities to help them find relevancy in their education and graduate college. As a critically conscious counselor, I had to take into consideration the fact that the model minority myth, the history of refugees, socioeconomic and racial disparities, access to resources, and mental health greatly undermined my students’ capacity to succeed in college. While students might be discouraged because their upbringing makes higher education seem unattainable, as a counselor I provided a space where they could see strength in their narrative and purpose in their pursuit of higher education. Upon reflection of our Southeast Asian background, we discovered how it affects our identity and relates to our goals. With these connections, we were self-empowered to take actions toward their academic, professional, and personal pursuits.

As an OT, I hope to understand my clients’ narratives as defined by their diverse personal experiences as opposed to the pathology of their condition. People with a disability growing up in underserved communities are doubly marginalized by their socioeconomic status in addition to their given label of “disabled.” Their families may lack the network and language proficiency and financial means to find and afford treatment programs. Therefore, I want to utilize my background and interpersonal skills to improve access, educate, and provide OT to these communities. Most importantly, my background has taught me the significance of cultural relevancy, interpersonal skills, and objective observation to evaluate from a holistic perspective. As an OT, I will perform not only as a practitioner, but as a coach and educator. I will practice as an advocate in my community for equal access to quality care, holistic wellness, and inclusion of those with disability.

We ask that you take the time to reflect on where your family came from, how you grew up, and how your culture has shaped who you are today. To find meaning, you need to find your identity first. To move forward, you need to find people who lift you up. “If you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together.” Join our healthcare community at The 3 Vertebaes to learn about how your passions intersect with other professions. We all have more common ground than we realize.

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