May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The month celebrates Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands.
According to the NSGC’s 2021 Professional Status Survey, almost 9% of survey participants identified as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI). These individuals have made priceless contributions to our profession from its inception. This blog series is dedicated to our AAPI colleagues who empower me every day and instill hope in me that the promise of the genome will reach all Americans. I want to especially acknowledge genetic counselors Nadine Channaoui, Caiqian Copper, Sylvia Mann, Vivian Ota Wang and Vivian Pan who have shared the tumultuous journey to equity and justice with me over the years.
This blog series is a tribute to my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Jane Lin-Fu, an ethnic Chinese woman, who pioneered health equity in genetic care.
This is part 3 of a 3 part series, please click here to view part 2 and part 1.
Part- 3: Finding Her Voice: From “ke-qi ke-qi” to Congressional Testimony
Wanting you to hear Jane in her own words, I conducted two interviews with her, and am sharing her words and wisdom. Her daughter Stephenie and her husband Mark posed some of the questions, and both were instrumental in conducting the interviews.
Q [Ilana Mittman]: Growing up and then coming to the U.S., what were some influences that carried forward into your life as an adult?
A [Dr. Jane Lin-Fu]: My father had an immense influence on me, knowing it or not. He was a Quaker and he always spoke his mind and did his thing regardless. I remember we were having dinner and he was so upset over Gandhi doing his starvation diet (Mahatma Gandhi undertook 18 fasts during India’s Freedom Movement between 1913 and 1948). My mother was saying ‘you are 1,000 miles away; Gandhi is in India.’ Oh no, he was so upset, he would go on and on. And I think that had an impact on me, the way my father believed what he believed, and lived up to what he said.
Q: What was it like to immigrate to the U.S. by yourself?
A: I knew many of my cousins had come to the United States, so I came to the U.S., following their footsteps. Everything was new, of course, even though I spoke English, it was a new experience. But when you're young, you don’t mind.
Q: Tell me about your work with the government?
A: I had children, I wanted to be able to take them to their piano lessons, drive them to do their things, so I wanted a part-time job. I wanted to be free to do only part-time so that I could spend the rest of the time doing what I wanted with my children.
Q: What was it like to be a woman of color in a Government bureaucracy back then?
A: People usually didn’t pay attention to an Asian woman. I didn’t speak out. I just sat there minding my own business. They gave me a tiny little office with no windows, and I took it until a new young woman came. She was younger than me and she was part-time. They gave her a bigger office than me – and it had windows. That’s when I stood up and said that’s a no, no.
Q: Did you get a bigger office?
A: Yes, I did. I said, ‘I can work from home where I have a lot of windows.’ I would speak up when I needed to speak up. I guess finally the Chinese saying “ke-qi ke-qi” – you don’t complain, and you don’t speak up – didn’t work for me. I found out I am in America and I have to speak up or nobody will take notice. They were surprised. Before I let them do whatever they wanted with me. I suddenly stood up so this took them by surprise. They ended up giving me a big office with windows.
[Stephenie]: Mom, tell them about your testimony to Congress.
A: I testified in front of Congress many times; it wasn’t a problem for me. I spoke my mind and said whatever needed to be said, with clearance. (In the beginning Jane’s boss didn’t trust her to speak in front of Congress.) My boss sent a colleague, a white man, to talk to me to make sure everything was ok. The guy kept talking to me like, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘tell me if anything needs to be changed and I’ll take care of it.’ He kept telling me to be careful. Then he asked me ‘do you speak Chinese?’ I said, ‘yes, I do, so what difference does it make?’ He said, ‘maybe if you speak Chinese, you have difficulties communicating In English.’ So, I said ‘pardon me, if I speak Chinese, I can’t speak English?’ I was perfectly fluent in English, but yet couldn’t be trusted to speak in front of Congress because I was Chinese. I said, ‘if you can’t trust me to speak English, go find someone else to testify.’ He got scared and didn’t know what to do with me! So [after a while] I went to my boss and my boss said to me, ‘don’t worry about it, you do what you need to do.’ So I went on to testify before Congress.
Q: Did you get recognized for what you did?
A: Not until I spoke up. They were firing employees, and I was afraid that I would be fired. I said to my boss, ‘with all the work that I was doing you never recognized me’. He said, ‘I didn’t know you cared about recognition’. I said ‘of course, if it’s important to other people, it is also important to me’. So, he gave me a very high award.
Q: The National Society of Genetic Counselors added diversity and inclusion to its strategic priorities. What advice would you give them?
A: [Hesitates]. Oh, that’s a big question. As long as you have a sense of social justice, you know, and start doing things not for personal reasons and all that, but for the right reason, you should fight for what you believe.
Q: About eight percent of NSGC membership is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), do you have any advice for AAPI women in the genetic counseling profession to find their voices?
I think we Asians, our culture teaches us to be quiet, not to speak up. We have to break that barrier deliberately to be able to speak up whenever it is really necessary.
Not to always speak up but if there's an opportunity for you to speak up for the right reason, you should not be afraid to do so. That's something we have to learn ourselves. It’s like every step of the way if you want justice, you’ve got to get up and fight. I didn't know any better at first. My Chinese way was to be quiet, be courteous and don't complain, and it didn't work for me. So, I finally learned to get up and fight.