"May is Asian American Pacific Islander Month"

Department Observes AAPI Heritage Month 2022

Please join us in celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which recognizes the heritage, culture, and contributions of Americans with origins from several dozen countries. “Asian Americans” are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, but Asian American people are not a monolith: They are from East Asia (including China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan), Southeast Asia (including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines), South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal), and the Pacific Islands (including Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, Micronesia).

Despite prevailing stereotypes, Asian Americans are one of the most economically divided racial or ethnic groups in the United States. The “model minority” myth obscures the issue highlighted by the theme of AAPI month for 2022––the struggle to achieve fair representation among positions of power and leadership. Asian American people are chronically viewed as “foreign,” or “other,” and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been waves of discriminatory attacks against New Yorkers of Asian origin.

To celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans, this month we are pleased to share an essay by a valued member of our department, Nomita Sonty, M Phil, PhD, Associate Professor of Medical Psychology at CUMC, and a member of the faculty in our Pain Medicine division.

Things said and things unsaid...finding my voice in this land

“Assimilate into the new culture and you will be accepted,” they said. Or did they say belong?  I can’t remember. It was so long ago; precisely 35 years. It was a time when information was sparse and not easily accessible, when all overseas phone calls were operator-assisted, and when letters took 20 days or more to cross the Atlantic and reach the East. It was also a time when I was neither sure what assimilate meant nor the path to belong. So, I continued, just the way I knew how.  “Come again?” they would say, and when I spelled out whatever word I was trying to say they would smile and say, “Oh so that’s what it is ...try it this way.” I did, but it still didn’t sound like them. So I kept my own; my own words, my own voice.  

Over the years, I don’t remember ever stopping to reflect on whether I have assimilated or not. I think it is just a feeling, one that grows within you. If I think about it, I probably put one foot in front of another and that was it. I made choices because I could and because I had to.  The journalist Wajahat Ali was right when he said, “if life is not a series of choices, then what is it?”

I remember an incident that was so hurtful and yet I chose to stay silent.  As a graduate student I had invited friends over for dinner. Close to dinner time, one of their husbands left.  He returned shortly thereafter, with a bag from McDonalds, and pointed his finger toward the table saying, “I don’t eat curry and all that other stuff.” At another time, I was asked where I learnt to speak English. Once again, I chose to be quiet. When someone asked if Indians still rode on elephants and if there was a parking lot for them, I gasped but stayed silent.  I didn’t know then, if I was allowed to be offended by these comments or if I was just being overly sensitive. Unlike then, today we have words and phrases for such behavior and now I know that I can speak up. One thing I did know then was that these experiences and silences influenced my internal dialogue. “Do I want to be like THEM?” I asked myself. Or “If I act like THEM, will the difference in my color and accent not matter anymore?”

I was learning...maybe assimilating... maybe growing... I don’t know.  My language was changing. Words like chirpy became chipper, colour dropped its U, mishegoss was added to my vocabulary, my superfast speech slowed down, and my accent stayed the same.   I learned that nodding my head conveyed a different message than what I meant to say.  A “hello, how are you” from a passerby just needed a nod or a “good,” and not an honest expose on how I was doing.   Unbeknownst to me, I was designing a mosaic with hundreds of micro decisions, which in turn were shaping which facets of myself I shared with the world.  I was guilty of leading two lives, one in the privacy of my home and my Indian community, and the other in the world around me.  Early on it seemed so important to fit in. I often wonder how this two-fold existence influenced me, the spouse and parent, and me, the psychologist. 

I remember the feeling of wanting to be loyal and hold onto what was familiar while freeing myself to learn new ways of being in this foreign country. In social settings, the ice breaker often was, “Where are you from?” and I was more than happy to introduce them to the rich colorful fabric of the Indian society.  We often shared home-cooked meals, Diwalis, Seders and Christmas.   We shared stories about our cultures and nodded knowingly about similarities among them, especially our overprotective mothers.  These conversations created opportunities to connect with complete strangers, some of whom became friends and invited me to belong.  In the process I also learned that they did not know much about India, except perhaps what they saw on UNICEF posters of malnourished and marasmic babies from a country that was referred to as underdeveloped.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I did not have these conversations.   

Unconsciously, somewhere along the way I have stopped trying to assimilate because I no longer need it. I have found my voice and I am comfortable being me. I am not the naïve young woman who came to this country more than three decades ago.  Like everyone else I have been touched by life’s experiences but the lens through which I have filtered them is my own. The historical legacy of the resilient women in my family held me steady while I meandered through till I found my footing. So, no matter the storms that came my way I was able to hold on.  I’m sure I share this journey with many an immigrant woman.  Together we have woven a quilt of stories... beautifully colored, textured, and layered of things said, and of some best left unsaid.