I’ve never been a stickler for political-correctness, but I’ve also had enough common sense to avoid needlessly offending others. I’m not offended by much, but it feels quite odd when I hear something and I know I should be offended but I can’t quite place my finger on why I should be. Recently, one of our otherwise charismatic and effective lecturers continuously referred to Asians as “Orientals,” clearly with no intention of offending but still lacking any clue that the term might be offensive to some people. While I was mostly amused (since my dad, an Asian and a first generation immigrant, occasionally used the term when I was growing up), there were scoffs and looks of surprise and disdain in the lecture hall. And then she showed this figure on a slide –
And I laughed out loud. It was just too much. I’m surprised that the lecturer herself was a relatively young woman, maybe in her early forties, as opposed to the expected crotchety old male doctor.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many people are offended by the use of terms to which they are conditioned to be offended to (rather than know the specific reasons why), so I decided to find out why “Oriental” can be offensive. It turns out that the term is not considered offensive in most of Europe, in the United Kingdom, and in former United Kingdom territories (such as Hong Kong, where my parents grew up, thus explaining why my dad used to use the term before he became an American). However, it is considered offensive in the United States, primarily because it is an outdated term originating in a period of history when Asia was considered exotic and difficult to comprehend. In other words, young Asian-Americans are much more aware of non-Eurocentric views of history, and may be offended just as others might be offended by “Negro,” “colored,” or perhaps referring to all Hispanics as “Mexican.” The problem is not with the term itself: it’s with the clear-as-day, public declaration that it is acceptable to be ignorant.
On another note, I find myself not surprised but disappointed in the lack of foresight of some of my classmates who are completely turned off by the idea of researching and writing a paper on Complementary and Alternative Medicine therapies. While this year (the second year of medical school) will undoubtedly be intense and time-limited, it’s almost impressive how little understanding of the world around them people can demonstrate on a whim. While I am neither a supporter nor detractor of CAM therapies in general, it is clear to me that it is very important to understand them: they are either friends or enemies to our mission of helping our patients recover from disease and injury, and can we be so arrogant as to ignore them or write them off outright? No, we can’t: anyone with half a mind for strategy should realize that you have a very low probability of success of beating an enemy without knowing your enemy (especially one for which approximately $36-47 billion was spent in 1997, and for which approximately 36% of the American adult population used in 2004, not including prayer or megavitamins, which raises the number to 62%).
In stark contrast, it warmed my heart at this past Friday’s activities fair to see the many student groups dedicated to improving medicine, and in particular, those dedicated to enhancing the social awareness and responsibility of young doctors. Yet again, I’m proud of many of my classmates.
In some ways, this is a reminder to myself of the education I’ve sought: after four years at Harvard, in the highly progressive and insulated Boston, I now return to a world more representative of America: a mixture of liberal and conservative thought, a celebration of discovery but also of the weak comforts of ignorance, a wider spectrum of talent, interest, and passion. I’m in a world without larger-than-life heroes, for here, the names Paul Farmer and Atul Gawande and Jeffrey Drazen mean nothing to most people, including my classmates. Comparing notes with my girlfriend, I sometimes wonder if I’m missing much: there’s no telling where I’ll be in the future, but I do know that I’m exactly where I should be at this time. I need to know how (different types of) people think. I need to see how they grow during these four years in perspective and conviction. I need to see what it takes to make people the best they can be, and that might give me an idea of where I will focus my efforts to make a difference in the future.