Learning Racism: An “Alien” Experience

October 1, 2020

Dr Cheng shares his experience with racism in the hopes that we can join together to create a better country for everyone.

Born and raised in China, I only came to the United States in adulthood to pursue my dream and freedom. Having not grown up in the United States, I lacked certain cultural experiences, and these became a significant barrier that preventedme from understanding the scope of US racial issues. Even in China, I did not have much exposure to racial issues. That is not to say China does not have any, I just wasn’t exposed to them often enough to realize it. I am Han, the main race in China (according to 2017 data, Han makes up 91% of the Chinese population). I lived in Shanghai, the biggest city in China, with population of 27 million per 2020 census, before coming here. This led to some degree of culture shock once I came to the United States with no knowledge of racism or experience of discrimination. I soon found out every great thing also has its dark side. 

I learned racism in the United States. I first arrived in Pittsburgh in the winter of 2000. I did not have a car at that time and needed to take 2 buses to go to work. If I missed the connecting bus, I needed to wait outside in freezing weather (about -5 °F) for 45 minutes for the next one. That is especially unbearable for someone coming from a city where they would issue a warning whenever temperature drops below 32 °F. One day I went to catch the first bus, and saw it leaving the stop even as I ran towards it. Thinking that the bus driver did not see me, I started running and beat the bus to the next stop, but the bus driver drove by me. Then I ran towards the 3rd stop. A passenger saw me and told the driver while pointing at me, but the bus drove past me again without stopping. I looked at the bus driver while she drove by. For the first time, I understood racism. 

Another time, I walked the street in early evening near University of Pittsburgh campus. A tall African American male stopped me and asked me if I had any change. I was on high alert right away as friends warned me about gun and robbery. I pretended that I did not know English and tried hard to calm myself down. But he only smiled at me and shook my hand,saying, “welcome and have a good day.” Then he walked away. I felt shock, relief, and a bit ashamed.

In the following years, I started to encounter many different races. This is certainly a different experience compared to China. While making friends with them, I also am learning the experience of being a minority in the United States. Officially, foreigners like me are still designated as “aliens.” Perhaps this disadvantaged position helped me to have a better perspective and allowed me to understand those being discriminated against. It also prompted me to choose psychiatry. Psychiatric patients face discrimination and stigma too. I took a fellowship in Community and Public Psychiatry so I can work with many brilliant and passionate colleagues from all races in order to help populations most in need, among which many are minorities.

The United States is a great country, that is why it attracts so many people from around the world to come and plant their roots. I do hope all races and cultures can stand together to fight racism and all other kinds of discriminations, and build a better, safer, fairer society for everyone. That is the American spirit I always long for.

Dr Cheng is the Inpatient Director at Meridian Health Services and is a Volunteer Clinical Assisstant Professor in Psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine.