It’s an Honor Just to Be Asian

by Jaspreet Chowdhary
May 28, 2024

This month, I celebrated Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) heritage month by attending the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) 30th Annual Awards Gala and participating in the Indian American IMPACT (IA IMPACT) Summit and Gala. 

I spoke at the “Desi Care, Desi Loss: Cultural Caregiving and Caregiving Needs” session during the summit. I wanted perfection when I spoke, but my voice shook initially, and my heart raced. My mom was in the audience, and I felt so thankful for all the ways we show up for each other to make scary things less daunting, to help us be brave and to expand spaces to be more welcoming. I thought of all the ways caregiving is universal and uniquely complex for us who are trying to fit our nuanced identities into systems that are not designed for us. 

My mom was part of the first medical school class at Madras Medical College that admitted an equal number of men and women. Soon after she finished medical school, she immigrated to the United States as a newlywed with my dad. She completed her residency at Howard University, an HBCU, in Washington, D.C. Even as a trailblazer, my mom also maintained cultural traditions such as making homemade food for us and wearing a salwar kameez daily. Our house had the familiar smell of masala and a prayer room. The soundtrack to my childhood included prayer recitations and the sizzle of spices. However, there was also the sound of my mom responding to calls with patients, handling the logistics of being a medical director, and forging relationships with her colleagues who became additional aunts and uncles to me and my brother. I did not realize that I was also learning about community organizing as my mom also answered questions about ailments, was a resource on translating terminology from appointments and helped our sangat navigate instructions from healthcare providers. 

Like my mom, my education gives me the privilege to enter these spaces. I have a master’s in public health and a law degree. I also have the honor of working for social justice and work to change who is making decisions and who feels seen. However, my jaw drops when I hear that Asians are politically insignificant as a reason for not including them in poll results, surveys or putting resources towards engagement in that community. I feel discouraged when I see how far we have to go to change who is in the room where decisions are made. Asians are left out in polling, grouped as “other” in data or get the short end of the stick in funding. I continue to speak up for my community in these spaces and am heartened by the strides being made to stop the othering of our community, like being specific in data reporting on a federal level. One of the gifts of the IMPACT summit was being in space with people, including my mom, of different generations who were all excited by the progress being made and committed to doing more. 

Even with the growing pains of learning together how to be Indian American, my connection to my mom continues to evolve. Since I became a parent, I am now intimately familiar with the intense wish for the powerful ties to our cultural heritage even as I work for transformation. The night before my presentation, I decided to wear a salwar kameez. My goal is to look professional in all settings, but I also love wearing traditional Indian clothing, and my mom has shown me that the two are not mutually exclusive. Standing in my expertise, matching clothing colors with my mom and looking out in a room of other South Asians was unexpectedly moving. I did not have to assert my expertise. I did not need to explain what I was wearing. Most of all, I connected with everyone in the room over a shared desire to learn how to advocate for our community, our families and for ourselves. 

In preparing for my session, it felt powerful and affirming to work with Paurvi Bhatt and Maithreyi Shankar to create a session that centered our stories and focused on advocacy to help healthcare systems transform to us instead of the other way around. As Paurvi noted in describing our session: “This is a time for us to focus on care that goes beyond our careers, job titles, achievement oriented thinking — pushing past the tired stereotypes that often travel with us and confuse our intent for bringing visibility to care for our community.” 

During the session, Maithreyi’s words resonated deeply, “We should let go of the idea that our caregiving has to be perfect.” Letting go of perfection also applies to advance planning and end-of-life care. Start with the smallest piece of what we want and do not want. Some revolutions make headlines and are in the public arena; other revolutions happen whenever a person exercises their autonomy and agency to say what they want *at every stage of life*. As ever I felt proud to share resources from Compassion & Choices, including:

As Sandra Oh said when she made history by being the first Asian to receive a Lead Actress Emmy nomination,“It’s an honor just to be Asian.” It is also an honor to help build community, bring your family into the work and speak up, even if your voice shakes and your heart races. 

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VICTORY: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the improved End-of-Life Options Act.