When supermarket aisles were first taped and marked with unidirectional arrows to avoid crowd-crossing during the COVID-19 pandemic, I turned into an aisle without taking notice. An elderly woman burst into my face: “You went the wrong way; I don’t know if you are sick!” Caught unexpectedly, I was shocked and angry and then realized that my Asian appearance appeared to trigger her verbal attack. The scab of “go back to your country” was picked open and bled again.
The opposite stereotypes of “yellow peril” and “model minority” attached to Asian Americans have been pendulating for decades.1 COVID-19 reactivated the fear and aggression toward Asian Americans, especially East Asian Americans, as evident by a rise in hate crimes across the nation in the past few years. According to the Asian American Foundation’s Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S. Index 2023: Attitudes towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 29% of Asians feel unsafe on public transportation and half of Asians feel unsafe because of their race. The memory of World War II and the Vietnam War contributed to the anti-Asian sentiments in the past; meanwhile, a whopping 73% of Americans surveyed in this report felt that attacks or incidents toward Asian Americans between March 2021 and 2022 were fueled by blames of Asian Americans for the pandemic.2
The dilemma of the underrepresented of the overrepresented
The American Dental Association Health Policy Institute surveyed the distribution of the U.S. population and dentist workforce by race in the years 2005-2020. As of 2020, 5.6% of the general population is Asian and 18% of the dental workforce is Asian. In other words, Asian dentists are “overrepresented” — there are higher percentages of Asian dentists than Asians in the general population.3
Are we optimistic, and what is the problem? The model minority myth of superachievers and hardworking bees once again prevails, as does the confirmation bias of “Asians are good at math” or “Asians work hard and don’t cause trouble.” However, overrepresented Asian dentists are underrepresented in leadership seats. The STAATUS Index found Americans are “less comfortable with Asian Americans in positions of power and leadership.” This is partly influenced by news and media and the roles often portrayed by Asian men and women as kung fu fighters and sex workers, and also due in part to the diversity and fragmentation of subgroups of Asian cultures that are generally similar in values and beliefs with distinct differences, including a large number of languages and dialects spoken in a group lumped together as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
To date, there is no formal body in organized dentistry for AAPI on the national level, similar to the Hispanic Dental Association or National Dental Association. It is disheartening to think an overrepresented group in the dental workforce bears no representation on the national organizational level. Could this be attributed to the underrepresentation of AAPI in leadership seats or to cultural beliefs? In Chinese, there is such an expression as “sweeping your own snow in front of your door,” meaning, “just mind your own business and stay out of other people’s business.” In a way, this is in alignment with the conflict-averse Confucious central philosophy, as politics are often viewed as acts of stirring the pot. There is another Chinese expression that literally translates, “end the business, quiet the crowd,” which means, “let sleeping dogs lie.” Is the lack of a formal AAPI body of organized dentistry reflective of cultural stigma? Are AAPI children raised by their parents to believe the ultimate goal of life is to become a doctor working in a well-respected (and perhaps lucrative) profession and care about nothing else?
Chinese designer Guo Pei, best known as the designer dressing Rihanna, designed a limited edition Lunar Year Barbie doll with traditional attire. Social media’s responses were mixed, from celebrating Asian heritage to complaints about other Asian heritages. What about Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese Barbie? Can we get rid of the slanted eyes? What about South Asians not being included as Asians? Is Mattel’s attempt to increase inclusive efforts successful or rather creating more division among the already segregated group known as Asians?
As a native Taiwanese, I am a Pacific Islander, but I am not part of the aboriginal tribes of indigenous peoples of Oceania who reside in part of Taiwan island. I am ethnically Chinese and studied Chinese history and geography in traditional fonts without ever setting foot in mainland China due to politics. My heritage was post-colonial Japanese with Fukien dialect-speaking immigrants as ancestors, and I am the 17th generation of my family in Taiwan. I am not the only Asian with a unique lineage and heritage. Everyone has a story. For AAPI to amplify our voices, we need to forgo the notion of staying in the background as a virtue of humility. Step up and speak out about our concerns, find our common ground, and unify our voices. In my book “Pulling Wisdom,”4 I talked about my feelings of “perpetual outsideness” as an immigrant. Although I have resided in the U.S. for more than 30 years, continued comments such as “Where are you from” and “Your English is so good” lessen my sense of belonging as an American. AAPIs who are born and raised here are not free of verbal slights due to stereotypes and marginalization, which erode their long-term sense of wellness and self-identification as Americans. During this month, I am urging our colleagues to take action toward building a stronger community for conversation and support, as it is my hope to see a formal body of organized dentistry for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the very near future.
1. Li, Y., & Nicholson, H.L., Jr. (2021, November 2020). When “model minorities” become “yellow peril” — Othering and the racialization of Asian Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic. Sociology Compass, 15. 10.1111/soc4.12849.
2. The Asian American Foundation. (2023). STATUS Index 2023. https://www.staatus-index.org.
3. Wright, J. T., Vujicic, M., & Frazier-Bowers, S. (2021, April). Editorial: Elevating dentistry through diversity. JADA, 152(4), 253-255.
4. Hung, C. (2020). Pulling Wisdom: Filling the Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers. Advantage Media Group.