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What AAPI Heritage Month Means To Dr. Leana Wen

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To celebrate, we've been checking in with some of our recent guests about what this month means to them. This week, we spoke to someone who almost needs no introduction. She's become a trusted voice for people around the country, as she has calmly and patiently and repeatedly answered our many questions about the coronavirus. We're talking about Dr. Leana Wen. She is a physician and former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. And she told us that identifying as a member of the AAPI community is new for her.

LEANA WEN: So growing up, I didn't live in predominantly Asian American areas. I'm not sure that I ever identified as AAPI. I mean, I checked the box when I was asked what ethnicity that I was. But I don't know that I consciously thought of myself as being Chinese American or Asian American. I definitely thought of myself as an immigrant, as a person of color, as a woman. But I actually have no recollection of celebrating some kind of heritage month associated with an identity that I didn't really consciously think about.

MARTIN: But Dr. Wen says things changed when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

WEN: Actually, it wasn't really until this year that I became much more attentive to this identity and to what it means. I realized that even if I didn't identify myself first and foremost as an Asian American physician, that's how others saw me and specifically identified me as being a Chinese physician, even though I received my entire medical training here in the U.S. And I think that - you know, the very unfortunate events around anti-Asian racism that the coronavirus pandemic has brought out actually made me seek shared experience with others in the AAPI community and recognize that so much of what I had internalized as being normal really was not.

MARTIN: Dr. Wen says realizing this amid the recent anti-Asian violence has given her a sense of community.

WEN: Actually, something positive came out of the aftermath of this, which is that on the radio, on the screen, I saw so many AAPI women who talked about their experience. And I just never heard that in my lifetime. I never heard and saw this camaraderie of AAPI people. And so I am reckoning with my identity, I think for the first time, as an AAPI person. And for - this heritage month is really the first time that I am really conscious of it. And I'm so proud to be identifying as being AAPI and so proud to be celebrating the incredible leaders who have come before and the incredible people in this community now.

MARTIN: Still, she says, this month should also be about more than just focusing on anti-Asian violence.

WEN: I also hope that we'll see beyond this too. We'll recognize, yes, that there's a lot in our experience that's universal and that we'll not only look at Asian Americans as people who were discriminated against, but also for all the contributions that AAPIs make every day in medicine and science, in art and culture, in civil rights and social justice, in the political sphere and in journalism, in so many other aspects of our lives. And I hope we see it as a time to celebrate our intertwined destinies.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Leana Wen, a physician and contributing columnist for The Washington Post who writes about public health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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