Sunday, September 5, 2010

Being aware of race

Back on May 1, when I first announced that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I had thought that I would share stories about my observations about the intersections of my two new worlds: cancer and race. And I did share one story -- the horrible interaction I had with the lab tech and the comical interaction I had with the radiology fellow (where my poor left breast was flopping in and out of my gown due to my wild gesticulating of my hands, since whenever I get passionate and especially ANGRY I not only raise my voice, I throw up my arms--for the full comic account of this interaction, click here).

And now that I have chemo brain, the few anecdotes I had stored away seem to have melted away with a lot of my short term memory and focus. I can recall being in the 2nd floor waiting room of my oncologist and overhearing a conversation between two workmen who were repairing the lights on the floor. One was a twenty-something Latino man and the other was a forty-something white Southerner. The men spoke to one another in English, and seemed to have an easy going or at least collegial working relationship. An African American nurse, who seemed to know the Latino man, said something to him in Spanish, which I didn't quite catch, but it made the young man smile. His colleague smiled and the young man asked him if he spoke Spanish and the forty-something man said, "Why'd I want to learn something like that for? You won't catch me speaking Hispanic--you should speak English!"

Now, the forty-something man said all of this in a relatively good-natured way, despite the offensive nature of what he was saying. I mention this because tone and facial expression makes a big difference. The forty-something white Southerner seemed to think that he was joshing and joking around with the twenty-something Latino man. And clearly, this young man DID speak English--he also happened to speak Spanish, which seems like a BONUS in this day and age. So the forty-something's vehement declaration that "you won't catch me speaking Hispanic" speaks to his limited and worldview (as well as the inaccuracy of naming "Hispanic" as a language).

As this exchange played out, I stared at the forty-something white Southerner, who noticed me noticing him, and perhaps realizing that making these kinds of jokes on the 2nd floor of the oncology ward of the cancer hospital in front of patients of various ethnic and racial backgrounds was probably not the smartest or most sensitive thing to do, because he quickly turned back to his work and told the young man to finish up with this project and then he left, ostensibly to another work project elsewhere.

I suppose what would or could have made this more uncomfortable would be the presence of a Spanish-speaking family also in the waiting room. And I have seen Latino families, and female and male patients, both on the oncology floor as well as in the chemo waiting room. There is also a Latino receptionist who is one of a dozen people who checks in patients on the ground floor before dispersing us to the various floors--radiology, mammography, chemotherapy, oncology, hematology.

[Note: I should say that the Latino receptionist, who is very nice, is also the only person I've encountered thus far at the cancer center who has run through the "what are you?" scenario with me, guessing at first that I was Japanese and then Korean and then Filipino, before settling on Chinese--to which I finally nodded. She then told me I didn't look Chinese, which I found odd, but I didn't really feel like arguing with her--the days I have to be in the cancer center are days I'm getting chemo so I try to stay as polite as I can to everyone because inside I'm just pissed off and tired and trying NOT to take out my bad mood on the folks that work there]

I mention the Latino patients and staff that I've seen because, quite frankly, they are few and far between. Most of the people I see on the various floors are either white or black. If I had to give it a ratio, I'd say 70% white, 26% black, 2% Latino and 2% Asian (although maybe I'd tweak the white-black ratio--maybe it's 30% black and 66% white...)

But one of the most remarkable things I've found is that in the 9 chemo treatments I've had over 14 weeks, in the 4 months I have been in and out of various doctor's offices, mammography clinics, and cancer floors, I have yet to see another Asian American patient. I've had fellows come into my room who are shadowing/working with my oncologist who are South Asian American. And there is a lovely volunteer, a recent grad from Southern U. who is Asian American and who will be applying to med school this year (he lives close to the hospital). And I have seen Asian faces wearing hospital scrubs or gowns--folks who are clearly associated with the cancer hospital in some way.

[Note: I have to say that because my Mom is a retired RN and because I grew up in the SF Bay Area, my own experience with hospitals, esp. the nursing staff, is that Filipino nurses are prolific (and my mother also worked with Korean and Chinese American colleagues as well). But here in the South I have yet to see a single Asian nurse of any ethnicity, which just feels so odd....]

But I haven't seen any Asian Americans sitting in a chemo chair, waiting in any of the waiting rooms, or even wearing street clothes, like I do. In other words, in the 4 months since my cancer diagnosis, I appear to be the only Asian American cancer patient at Southern U. Cancer hospital.

Logically I know this cannot be the case. There has got to be at least ONE other Asian American patient receiving chemotherpay, right? But if there is, I haven't seen him/her. And there aren't any Asian Americans in the yoga class I go to that is dedicated for cancer patients. And I've never seen any in the Cancer resource center. I haven't even seen any Asian Americans accompanying cancer patients--in fact, there aren't many inter-racial pairings in the chemo ward. Mostly it's couples and families, which means that husbands accompany wives or vice versa, and it's pretty much been black couples and white couples and Latino couples. But I haven't seen any inter-racial couples, or even inter-racial friendships--when it has been two women, it has been two African American women or two white women.

Which makes my own presence in the chemo ward an exercise in mixed race dynamics since I have had a variety of family and friends sit with me through my infusions: my Chinese Jamaican mother, my Chinese immigrant father, my white best friend from CA, my Vietnamese American close friend from Southern U, my Chicano close friend from Seattle, and of course Southern Man. We are a striking couple, I suppose, not just because Southern Man is 6 feet tall and solidly built (he's pretty strong--he can throw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes--and I'm not petite) but because I don't think most people encounter another inter-racial pairing in the chemo ward, or even in the oncology floor.

Which also may explain why everyone seemed to remember my name immediately. I mean, the cancer center sees so many people daily--there are over 100 chemo bays and my best guess is that they see at least 100 people (or more) everyday. And yet after my first visit, all of the receptionists and nurses and even the person at the parking lot seemed to remember my name. And I always thought it was odd--I mean, I know it's the South and people are friendly, but this is a large Cancer hospital--a major medical center. And the only thing I can think of that makes me different and stand out is that I may, in fact, be the only Asian American cancer patient that they have, AND I'm probably the only one who has such a mixed race entourage of friends and family accompany me to my appointments.

All of which makes me wonder, is having a mixed group of friends or being in an inter-racial relationship really so unique in the 21st century in a Southern college town? Because shouldn't I be the norm rather than the outlier? Or is it just my fate to continue to be the minority--and really, why should my minority status be any different now that I have cancer?


Unknown said...

I'll try to address the comments made in the last paragraph.

Interracial relationships are less common than intra-racial relationships, all over the country. This is more dramatic in the small-town South, as you may be witnessing. But statistically speaking, they are quite rare across the board.

Should they be the norm? I'm not qualified to tell people who to interact with. In other words, who knows? My response is to accept that you're a statistical outlier. From there, it's up to you what to make of it. I understand how it can be difficult experience, at times.

I'm an multi-racial student in a Southern college town, and I am very special for this very fact. I stand out, and I belong to the smallest minority in the city. Chinese, Africans immigrants, African-Americans, Slavs, Mexicans, Vietnamese, etc., all outnumber my "group" by far.

Overall, I find it to be a difficult experience. That's why I don't expect to live in this town all my life. I can move to a bigger city, if only for this single reason: I won't stand out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. There's at least a faint hope of seeing others with similar facial features. I must say, the town I live in is not bigoted on its face. It is just segregated, with very few inter-racial relationships at all levels.

Now, I can't change the demographics or attitudes of an entire town. But to a certain extent, it doesn't matter. Life, I'm finding out, is difficult enough without racial considerations. One may argue that the racial makeup and level of tolerance for one's background fundamentally affects his/her entire life experience... but this last thought is another subject.

I hope this reply wasn't totally rambling. I just wanted to share that I'm having (enduring) a multi-racial experience in a southern college town, like you. And, I don't expect the statistical situation of interracial/multiracial demographics to radically change at this town.

Jay said...

Popping in to say that I’m a recent follower of your blog, and I love it! I featured your blog on mine today in a post spotlighting multicultural/racial family bloggers, as well as to give you a blog award. I’m looking forward to continuing to read your blog in the future!

Jennifer said...

Hi Derrick & Jay,

I'm going to respond to you in reverse order--first of all, Jay, my BIG APOLOGY for not seeing your comment earlier. I think when I went to moderate it, I glanced at it quickly but didn't read it--I can't quite recall what was going on at the time, but I imagine that it was something chemo related and full of me not feeling good.

So I want to say a very belated THANK YOU for the blog award--I won't be able to pass it forward until after my surgery (which is in a few hours) but sometime in November, I promise to get to it.

I wish I had the time to more thoroughly respond to your comment, but I will say that I comisserate in terms of your experiences as a multiracial person living in a Southern community. And that while I have accepted that I am a statistical outlier, my own response write this blog! In other words, part of how I cope is to use language--the written language--and I do it in academic forums, like articles, but it's also part of the impetus of starting MIXED RACE AMERICA.

OK, hope to hear back from either/both of you in other comment threads (or this one if you are so inclined).