After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.
After years of being uninsured in the U.S. (and a few more years of having third-world equivalent healthcare in China), I finally received fully covered health benefits through my new job. In fear of medical bills and non-preventative coverage, I went years without a standard check-up. When I got my shiny new insurance card, I booked the first appointment I could to get tested for–well, everything. After all, I was fully covered.
“It looks like your application is incomplete, Ms. Mary O’Connor,” the secretary smiled sweetly. “You’ll need to answer a couple of quick questions before you can see the doctor.”
“No problem,” I smiled. “Is it allergies? Past medical history?”
“No,” she whipped out a laminated file, “we need an ethnicity from you. Could you please choose one ethnicity listed on this chart?”
The sheet had five options:
Oh, the lovely ethnicity box.
It seems like I just can’t escape from it. Ever since elementary school I have always pondered at my list of options, wondering if I was more white, or more Asian, or something else entirely. In the end, I could never choose between my races and I always went with ‘other,’ the oh-so-kind option they prepared for people that didn’t seem to fit into any one background. Life was made easier when more recent forms started adding a sixth option, the “two or more races” box, but it seems like some establishments (aka, this hospital) hadn’t heard of it yet.
“I can only choose one?” I asked. “I’m actually a mix.”
She looked at my black hair and brown eyes, “Are you Hispanic? Just put hispanic.”
“But I’m not Hispanic.”
She shrugged. I checked the ‘other’ box.
“We have one more,” she took out a three page file, “please choose a more specific ethnicity from these lists.”
Another one? I hope this wasn’t triggered by my ‘other’ choice–but I guess this hospital was serious about their demographics.
A list of over 200 races were placed in my hand. Italian, Native American, Norweigan–even Catalan was on there. It was the most extensive list of ethnicity I had ever seen.
“I can only pick one?”
“Yes,” she repeated, annoyed. “You can only choose one.”
At this point, I thought: Whatever, I’ll just be white–that’s what most people think I am anyway. There has to be a white option. I flipped through the list of names and scrolled down to the W’s, only to see Welsh starring at me in the face.
“There’s no white option,” I said out loud.
“Just put Hispanic” the admin mumbled again as she continued typing away at her computer.
But wait–was this for medical purposes? Some races are more susceptible to certain diseases, such as Asians with diabetes. Was this more than just a census? Was this actually linked to my health? Suddenly choosing white didn’t seem like such a good idea. I wasn’t so sure about Irish, either. Although they are prone to skin cancer. But Asians get diabetes. Hmmmm. It was a tough decision.
The secretary began to tap her fingers in impatience. I felt rushed. My appointment time was quickly approaching. I looked at my watch. The list of races. The diseases I could possibly have.
Who knew that picking a race could be so difficult?
Finally, I marked Vietnamese.
The secretary looked at my answer, my face, and then my super Irish name. I’m sure she had an armada of questions, but instead she shrugged her shoulders and printed out my application:
Mary O’ Connor
“You marked Vietnamese for your race?” my boyfriend replied in shock later that evening. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I can only choose one! And I’m more worried about diabetes than skin cancer! I put sun screen on everyday!”
“What are you talking about?
“You work at that stupid hospital,” I pouted. “Don’t they ask the race question for disease purposes?”
“To be honest, I have no idea why we ask that–but it’s definitely not for medical reasons.”
“I guess that means you feel more Asian than White, huh?”
“No–I don’t really know. But they only let me choose one. And Vietnamese was easier to find. Plus I’m more worried about diabetes. Runs in the family.”
“I’m sure the doctor was shocked to see you, Ms. Mary O’ Connor from Vietnam,” he laughed.
Like I said before, being biracial aint easy. A simple act as going to the doctor can make you remember just how confusing it is to determine your race, identity, and belonging when you don’t fit into a set category.
The good news?
No diabetes! 😀
Have you ever had a rough time at the hospital? Any other moments of frustration from the ethnicity box, or any other demographic?