"Oh, He's Korean."

My son and I both went to see the doctor this afternoon (swollen knee and sinus infection, respectively.) We live in a community that prides itself on being "progressive," so I was taken aback by the conversation that took place in my son's exam room.

"He should see an orthopedist," the doctor told me.

"Could you give us a referral?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. Try Dr. Rockport. He shares a practice with Dr. Smith. And Dr. Oh. He's Korean."

We drove home wondering what in the world could have motivated that extra unnecessary bit of information. Here are the choices:
  1. He was anticipating our confusion over the doctor's "foreign" name.
  2. He figured that since I was Asian, I might prefer an Asian doctor.
  3. He thought I might buy into the smart Asian doctor stereotype.
  4. It was racist. He would never have said, "And Dr. Oh. He's black."
  5. All of the above.
Please weigh in, as I'm confused. And yes, the doctor was a white, middle-aged guy.

Coming after a strange incident on vacation last week when a stranger instructed me in strident tones to "go back to your f---ing country," I'm feeling a bit discouraged about life between cultures in these United States.


Susan said…
Oh, Mitali, I'm so sorry that happened to you on vacation. That's awful. As for the doctor, I'd go with #1, though he could have said, "Like Sandra." (I loved "Sideways.")
Becky Levine said…

I want to say so many things when I hear a story (two stories)like this. I want to say, we're not all like this. I want to say, the jerk on your vacation should find somewhere for himself to go away to, because we don't want him here. I want to say a lot of words I try very hard not to say in front of my son or put in print.

And I want to just say I'm sorry that that kind of poison is in the air and that any of it got poured on you.
MotherReader said…
I'm going with #1 as well. It was definitely an awkward way to say it, but my gut reaction is that he was explaining why he was vocalizing a single letter of the alphabet for the doctor's last name.

Sorry about the other thing on your vacation. No excuse for that.
Anonymous said…

I read you story on christianity today and ended up feeling very sad.
Not because as a Hindu I feel something is wrong with christianity, but because you felt being a hindu was wrong and christianity was the only path.

God bless you anyways

Kelly said…
Hi Mitali:

I'm going with #1 too, even though it means the dr. is kind of lame. My husband and kids have a "foreign" last name, and the trouble it causes. People will go out of their way just to avoid the issue altogether.

And AARGH, re: the stranger. The number of times that happens to my husband, as well.
annie said…
I would go with #1, too. I think I would have looked confused and asked "what do you mean?" Not to be confrontational, but to find out. After over 20 years abroad, I'm pretty good at looking confused.

Nothing may have been intended, but if he did mean something by it, your asking for clarification would give him the idea he needs to monitor himself. That that is not acceptable grammar at the very least. I say that because I've benefitted a lot by others asking me to clarify myself!
I wouldn't go back now to ask him as that would be confusing and confrontational.

I used to be a subject of well meaning curiosity here in Japan that made my other foreign friends (and you must say we're foreign as we will never be citizens here) angry. I've been fortunate to never have experienced what happened to you on your vacation. I am sorry that happened to you.
Anonymous said…
Hii....Mitali. I don't think the doctor was being racist. As OH!is an unusual name,he just might have added the extra bit.
As for the stranger, there is no excuse.Now,v r in the 21st century and people are still discriminated against their colour.What a shame! And we claim to be very "intelligent creatures." But, I want to tell you that not all Americans or British people are like that.Because I am an Indian and I came to England 8 months ago.And I have only felt ONE GIRL-JUST ONE GIRL being racist to me.BUT,she have not been openly racist-she wouldn't smile at me-when I SAY HI.She doesn't talk to me much.I study in college.I am 17 years old.I have a few british friends.I miss India a lot.
Mitali Perkins said…
So if he had said "Dr. Smith, he's Korean," then it would have had more of a racist tinge?

Sorry guys, but if you're right, the fact that he felt the urge to qualify the name AT ALL still bugs me. Ready for a rant? Okay, here goes. When does a name STOP needing an ethnic qualifier? Like the Bose of Bose speakers who brought my family of origin surname into the mainstream, hasn't Sandra Oh done the job for hers? Do you add that information when it's ANY name that's difficult for Americans to pronounce, including Scottish, Norwegian, or French names? I don't say, "my editor at Delacorte, Francoise Bui, she's French." Do my husband's parishioners always say, "our minister's wife, Mitali. She's Indian" when they're talking about me and I'm not around?

In a land of immigrants with surnames revealing ethnic backgrounds galore, and in a town as diverse as ours, why did he assume that a Korean name was going to need his help?

Or am I still overreacting from the hit I took on vacation?
Susan said…
Mitali, my last name is Thomsen and I have to spell it over and over again. Many people cannot pronounce it just by looking at it. I have had to explain "it's Danish" a million times.

Yesterday at the health club one of the employees just could not pronounce the name Guillermo, which probably most of the grade schoolers who study Spanish could tell you how to say. The health club guy just shook his head and said, "You got me on that one," as if the visitor had tried to pull something on him. It was an unsophisticated response, and I think the health club guy was embarrassed and covering it up in a less than adept way.
Jennifer said…
Okay--I know I left a comment here yesterday. ARGH. I basically said what everyone else said, that he had probably had to clarify many times that O. was actually Oh.

However, I do agree with your thoughts as well. People have to be willing to change to be more sensitive and aware.
annie said…
Perhaps the doctor was offering that info. about Dr. Oh to indicate that there was a language issue. He said he was Korean which could have meant that he was from Korea and spoke Korean (and perhaps even limited English). Being from Korea wouldn't automatically make English a problem, but perhaps he was referring to cultural differences. As he was referring patients to him perhaps he felt that would matter. Communication is very important. Your doctor knew him to recommend him and shouldn't have left anything to assumption. He should have given clarification for saying it. In any case, there wasn't enough communicated.
PEZmama said…
Hi Mitali,
I am over here from Jennifer's post at Snapshot.

Without getting into the ethnic makeup of my family, I will just say that I have done a lot of thinking about race and how discrimination plays out in every day life.

To answer your question, I think any or all of the things you listed may have motivated the doctor's comment. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell, especially after the fact.

My experience in the US has been that it is difficult to convince white people that they do enjoy "white privilege" and that it, often inappropriately, colors the way they respond to others.

It is equally difficult to convince many people that words which they *intend* to be gracious can actually be hurtful and dismissive of others.

What, then, should we do when people say things that are inappropriate? I think we need to speak up. With grace, of course. As a previous commentor suggested, maybe that means asking a person to clarify. We also need to have the gumption to respond if, after clarifying, it is obvious that they were being insensitive.

Not everyone will listen. But some might.

God bless you.