Anti-Asian hate: ‘Eating bitterness’ and the role of empathy

Anti-Asian hate: ‘Eating bitterness’ and the role of empathy

Written by Yenting Chen, MD on March 23, 2021

Empathy is a collaborative effort. Asian Americans can no longer afford to be silent.


Share on PinterestPeople participate in a peace vigil to honor victims of attacks on Asians, on March 19, 2021, in Union Square Park in New York City. On March 16, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed at three Atlanta-area spas in an attack that sent terror through the Asian community. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

This op-ed was written for Medical News Today by Dr. Yenting Chen, who is a board certified emergency medicine physician.

I was a young child when I first saw snow. My parents, who were quite poor at the time, saved up for more than a year to bring their young family to a simple motel in the Southern California mountains.

After a day of playing in the fine powder, my little sisters and I were freezing.

My parents brought us to a roaring fireplace at a nearby public lodge to warm up. Within a few minutes, we were surrounded by a group of adults dressed in fashionable skiwear.

They told us quite plainly that we were not welcome, that this place was not meant for “people like you.”

I caught a final glimpse of that warm hearth as we retreated into the cold night, and I heard my mother bitterly stating the obvious: This happened because we are Asian.

Our ugly experience of racism is, unfortunately, universally common among people of color in the United States. What may be more unique is that we never spoke of it afterward.

Even to this day, I have never discussed this incident or the many others that followed. Not even with my closest friends.

To eat bitterness

The reluctance of Asian Americans to speak about anti-Asian racism must be considered within a broader cultural context. Stoicism is a highly prized characteristic in many Asian cultures.

Among Sinocentric cultures, there exists the concept of 吃苦 (chīkǔ). This principle — which, according to Iris Chen, the author of the blog “Untigering,” translates as “to eat bitterness” — values the ability to accept suffering as a virtue.

Studies have suggested that Asians are more reluctant to complain and rarely seek third-party remediation. Asian Americans are also less likely to utilize mental health resources than non-Asians.

More strikingly, in a 2014 study of cancer patients, Asians were found to be particularly hesitant to complain about physical pain, resulting in inadequate medication treatment.

Within my own field of emergency medicine, there is a well-known adage that if an elderly Asian patient is sick enough to be in the emergency department, they must have something that might be truly fatal.

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