Affirming Identity, Relationship, and Compassion During COVID

Health, community, and society in the time of COVID-19.

Posted Oct 10, 2020

 Used with permission of those pictured, from SAPAS.
Clockwise from top left: Holly Wong, Alice Chen, and Wilma Chan.
Source: Used with permission of those pictured, from SAPAS.

The following is adapted from my remarks at the Stanford Asian Pacific Alumni Summit held on Sept. 26, 2020. I was so pleased to moderate a conversation with some amazing Asian American women who are leaders in health care policy and politics: Wilma Chan, M.A. ’94, Alameda County Supervisor; Alice Chen, M.D. ’96, Deputy secretary for policy and planning and director of clinical affairs, California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS); and Holly Wong, ’80, Vice President, Global Health Advocacy Incubator. I am Stanford M.D. '96. See below for a link to the whole 50-minute panel. (For links to the whole summit, including a keynote by Rep. Ted Lieu, see here.)

I’m sitting in my office at the intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian lives have intersected for 75 years, since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. I’ve barely seen a patient in person in 6 months, businesses have closed, Japantown and Chinatown are threatened among other Asian American businesses, and the lives of immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and the stateless are uncertain—as are all our lives. 

This is Sept. 26, 2020. We are 10 months into the global pandemic, and it’s 4 months and 1 day after the murder of George Floyd and the more prominent surfacing of racial trauma. And we’re 38 days from Nov. 3.

In a time of uncertainty, it’s important to affirm who we are to ourselves and to each other. The long-term planning areas of our brains, our frontal cortices, are stymied. We are susceptible to much anxiety and worry from our survival brains. We face death anxiety from COVID and other health challenges, we worry about or have lost loved ones, we have all had to go above and beyond the call of duty to care for others, community, and ourselves, and we face threats to our identities as Asian Americans; we face moral distress—the gap between what we know is right and what is happening in the world.

In this uncertainty, we must ground ourselves in the present moment, our values, and our relatedness to each other. We are all on journeys of identity, belonging, and wellness, and our identities are bound up in each other’s journeys. We are what happens to us and what we make of the happening. Suffering is a crisis in connection. Belonging is the opposite of suffering. Compassion is how we create belonging, and compassion is how we do human. We are social beings with an open limbic loop. We affect each other. We depend on each other.

I’m a 1.8 generation Asian American immigrant. 70% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants. I came to this country at 18 months of age, with my mother, who is a physician, and she trained at Historically Black hospitals. We started out in Tuskegee, Alabama, then Nashville and St. Louis, and then paralleling the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, to Flint and then the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan.

As we moved North, I felt displaced, because of family issues but also because of uncertainty about my racial identity. I felt different in a way that I hadn’t when I was younger and with a predominantly Black friend group. I found myself as an Asian American at Brown University, and then at Stanford, I really bloomed with the support of the Asian American Activities Center (known as the A-cubed-C!) and many friends across the campus.

Now my work in San Francisco is with a diverse patient population, first in community mental health and now in my private practice and also volunteering with the Cambodian American community. I’m also a writer, and my most pertinent writing right now is with East Wind Ezine, where I am writing at the intersection of Black and Asian lives. I’m also a compassion educator—I had to double down on my values of compassion after the 2016 election.

Compassion and common humanity have become the "bad objects" of a culture of abusive power. This saps our emotional energy, and we have to regain our centers with mindfulness, compassion, relationship, creativity, and insight, as well as political and cultural activism. Compassion is central to health care, and nurturing has been critical to our human and mammalian story stretching back millions of years.

In the last four years, I’ve been teaching about narcissism—in what I call our "Global Teach In on Narcissism!"—and Asian American psychology. I wanted to emphasize some generalizations about Asian Americans, though we have wide-ranging experiences.

We tend to have interdependent, or family and community-centered egos. This is a source of resilience and stress. We report higher distress but this distress doesn’t land in the DSM. I think this is because our distress is more relational than situational—bound up in family and cultural trauma, belonging, and silencing. We often have to be reminded to “love yourself—you’ll be spending a lot of time with you!” because we tend to overvalue what we think others think of us rather than what we think of ourselves. We tend to be more pessimistic than the average white American and yet are also just as optimistic—the combination thought to enhance our ability to grow, adapt, and be resilient. When we are bullied as youth, we’re bullied more often because of race. And we’ve been under verbal, emotional, and physical assault during COVID. Asian American youth suicidality has risen dramatically since 1997, and this is hardly researched.

I have great hope that this time is another time of awakening for our communities. We need to hear our own voices, and hear each other. Watch the following videos to hear from three Asian American women who have been bringing compassion, knowledge, and skill to their work and the world, and they will tell you about their journeys. 

SAPAS Panel on Health, Society and Our Community in the Time of COVID-19

Keynote by Rep. Ted Lieu