When ethnicity is a source of pride—and, sometimes, pain

June 16, 2022 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council of Edward-Elmhurst Health: We are DRIVEN to create a culture in which all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, physical abilities and socio-economic backgrounds can meet, share, learn and flourish in an accepting environment. By creating platforms and opportunities that allow us to come together, we can begin to know and understand each other. And through better understanding, we can effectively meet the needs of our diverse patients and deliver on our mission.

In her own words: written by Yaovarut Streng, RN, MSN, CPHQ at Edward-Elmhurst Health:

"Are you Chinese or Japanese?”

People would ask me that when I was growing up. When I’d tell them I am Thai, they’d tell me they had never heard of the modern Siam or would think I was from Taiwan. Thanks to globalism and the popularity of Thai food, things have changed.

My biological parents were both Thai, but my mother married an American who was Sicilian and Polish. When I was growing up, family holidays meant eating sticky rice, beef jerky and green papaya salad alongside pasta and bratwurst. I continue to share these family traditions with my own children who are Thai and German. I want them to grow up being proud of their vast heritage.

I was born in Thailand and came to the United States when I was 4 years old. I still remember the tastes, smells and sounds of the village where I grew up. I have fond memories of laughing with my grandmother, who raised me until I immigrated to the Midwest.

When I arrived in the United States, I started kindergarten not knowing a word of English. I was so eager to learn English that I refused to speak Thai and eventually forgot how to speak my native tongue. I now regret not keeping up the Thai language. You make different decisions as a child when trying to fit in.

Over the years, I’ve been asked about my ethnicity often. And my gut reaction to the questions has changed. When I was a child, I remember feeling offended at times because it made me feel like I didn’t belong.

For example, I was often asked if I was Chinese. When I would tell people that I was Thai, sometimes they would just say, “Oh, you look Chinese,” or have no other comment. In these situations, I felt offended. As a child, it is harder to recognize why someone would want to know other than to point out I looked different.

As an adult I don’t get offended very easily when I am asked about my ethnicity. Most of the time I am happy to answer that I am Thai. What amazes me is how some people are unaware that asking about someone’s ethnicity can be offensive, depending on the context.

I’m Asian and have dark hair and dark eyes, but I have lived in the Midwest since I was a child and do not have a foreign accent. I often wonder how one might jump to the conclusion that I was Korean without any other context. I would never ask a person I just met who has blond hair and blue eyes if they were Polish.

Most of the time I believe people have good intentions and ask me out of curiosity or are just trying to make conversation. Asking someone about their ethnicity is OK, but people need to be sensitive about how they ask and why they are asking.

As an adult, I think it’s important to celebrate and be proud of your heritage. When I visit with my mother, I ask her to teach and reteach me Thai words.

It’s also important to use my experience to be a better person. For example, when she first came to the United States, my mother did not speak a word of English. It was scary for her when she needed an urgent nephrectomy. My mother almost died when she had kidney stones and waited too long to go to the hospital.

I’ve kept my mother’s experience in mind throughout the course of my nursing career, especially when speaking to non-English speakers.

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