global health

How many Chinese mothers?!

“I rode in a makeshift ambulance with a nurse and mother to another hospital with a sick baby.  Tribal doctor used rectal herbs and caused a bowel perforation.  Lots of interested stares from 1000 Africans.  Had a moment of “what the hell was I thinking?” zipping thru the streets of mbarara with the cranes flying overhead.  E. R. Doc remembered me.  Guess I’m easy to pick out from a crowd.  He wasn’t too nice to start out with but came around.  Hospital ran out of oxygen so baby probably didn’t make it.  We have lost 3 babies in 3 days.

We keep losing power.”

This was an email that I got from my mom a couple months ago. Not some aid worker with Doctors Without Borders, or some wide-eyed person in the Peace Corps. My mother. A neonatologist from Children’s Hospital Oakland.

A few days before she left for her trip to Uganda, we were arguing for some reason. I think I was telling her to stop complaining about all the packing she had to do, or about how difficult it was going to be to take a cold shower for the next two weeks. She responded, “How many Chinese mothers do you know who are going to work in Africa?!” I rolled my eyes at that comment and said, “but I have so many fierce Asian friends in global health!” She responded, “well, not my generation.”

I admire my mom for several reasons, but this might have been the first time I thought about this one. Most of my relatives stayed close to home for their entire lives, yet my mother has taken some huge risks and dedicated so much time and effort to helping people she looks nothing like. It’s hard enough to be in any situation as the only person of a certain identifying factor, such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status. But to then try to create social change with the people around you, build bridges, and gain their trust? That’s bravery. We move past our differences when the end goal is to alleviate suffering.

Today, it’s hard for me to think of world leaders or activists that are well-known Asian women. I know there are a ton out there, but they aren’t necessarily seen or heard by most people. One that comes to mind, who I totally idolize, is Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma. Please savor this unrelated quote from a recent op-ed she wrote:

As a member of a movement that has been engaged in a long struggle to effect change through nonviolent means, I have learned to value above all other attributes in colleagues and supporters disinterested, active commitment. Such commitment is seldom given to pyrotechnic display, but it is always there, and it provides constant assurance that the essential flame that keeps our cause vibrant will not die out. It is passion, not of the sterile breed, but passion that moves hearts and minds and makes history. It is passion that translates into power. When such passion is brought to bear on public issues, it is a potent instrument for political and social change.

I’m not saying that we should ignore our differences and act like they don’t exist. Instead, this reminds me of how important it is to build a community for global health that is truly global. Our movement will not survive without diversity. Let’s bring as many voices to the table as possible.

Happy International Women’s Day.

PS I also admire my mom because she’s an accidental Chinese hipster.

Stopover in Amsterdam: