The Truth Behind Stereotypes
While preparing for my next patient I read in her previous note that she “..is a Vietnamese immigrant who works at a nail salon.” I stifled a laugh as I recalled Dat Phan’s comedy bit on the Vietnamese taking over the U.S. one foot at a time. I mentally scolded myself as I tried to dismiss my racist stereotype. Yet, you cannot deny that this is one stereotype that frequently plays true.
She smiled as I entered the room, remaining patient as I fumbled with the pronunciation of her name. After exchanging pleasantries we discussed her reasons for coming in: a lingering cold and a skin lesion. I noted that she had missed multiple appointments prior to this, failing to get follow up labs from over a year ago. She blamed this on her busy schedule, caring for two children and working full-time. For providers the chronically busy patient can seem as frustrating as the chronically sick patient.
Next we proceeded into her exam. The stigmata for bacterial infection were conspicuously absent. I described my findings to her, watching her mood deflate slightly when I explained that antibiotics would not help. I continued to work my way down her body in a systematic exam, explaining as I went. As I came to her hands I winced. The skin was thickened, dried, and cracked. My hands began to hurt in sympathy.
“Tell me about your hands,” I said.
She responded in deeply accented English that her hands became like this after working with the nail chemicals all day.
“And do you like this job?” I asked.
“I hate it,” she responded. I continued to inquire why, if she hated her job and it hurt her skin in such a terrible way, she did not seek other employment.
“In my country I was a nurse. But here I would have to start schooling over. It would take twice as long because I would first have to take English classes.” She continued to explain that when coming over, many Vietnamese people worked in nail salons because that is where other Vietnamese people worked. In other words, it was one of the few places they could get a foot in the door as untrained workers who barely spoke discernible English. Suddenly the Dat Phan comedy bit seemed a lot less funny.
“Why come to the U.S.?” I asked. “If you were a nurse in Vietnam, why immigrate to a place with few job opportunities.”
Her answer? She makes more here as a nail technician than a nurse in Vietnam, meaning she can send money to her family at home. And being here gives her two teenage children a better opportunity for employment as they grow up. In short, this woman gave up a job she enjoyed, to work in conditions she hates, in order for her family to have opportunities she never could.
Long after I wrote her note and sent her on her way, my Vietnamese patient lingered in my mind. Interestingly, the more I thought the more I realized she did fit into a stereotype, although I had placed her in the wrong one. Perhaps it is partially true to think that many Vietnamese immigrants are nail technicians. But I think the better way to look at immigrants, in all flavors, is with the lens of selfless hope they often bring with them, rather than the employment circumstances they often find themselves in. She, like the most tremendous among us, gave up her life goals in order to propel her family into a new socioeconomic class. That to me doesn’t fit the image the media promotes for immigrants, but rather the image I think of when I see working class mothers struggling for their family’s sake. And I think that stereotype, an example of the best that people have to offer, is a stereotype I can live with.