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Why Sanjay Almost Changed His Name to Steve – Chasing Life


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Dr. Sanjay Gupta


It’s a sunny May afternoon in Manhattan. People are all gathered at Columbus Park in Chinatown for the 2022 Asian American and Pacific Islander Care Fair. There are lunchboxes with Filipino desserts, cute dogs on skateboards and a henna tattoo station. Meanwhile, over at the basketball courts…

Self Defense class


Good. Awesome. Good job!

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


A group of about 50 people, mostly Asian American women, are taking part in a self-defense class led by Muay Thai fighter Jess Ng.

I never planned to teach these classes, but really, ever since the pandemic, it’s been just heartbreaking just to see the videos, over and over, daily.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


She’s talking about videos of attacks against Asian Americans, on the subway, in the streets, even at their own homes. These attacks have really taken a toll on this community, something Jess has seen firsthand at her self-defense classes.

It was heartbreaking seeing grandmothers show up on a Sunday at the event, signing themselves up, coming, can barely do a jumping jack. Like on a Sunday morning, they should be grocery shopping or at the park with their friends or seeing their grandchildren not signing up to take a damn self defense class because they know they can get mugged if they set out to just buy groceries or buy milk.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, advocates say there have been more than 10,000 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate. And it’s affected the mental and physical health of Asian Americans across the country. That’s the reason why Jess and hundreds of others are here at the CARE Fair today.

Care Fair participant


All right. So this is a personal alarm. Pull it down.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


The event was put together by local nonprofit Soar Over Hate. The group was started to help the community protect themselves from the ongoing violence and to heal from their trauma.

Mentally, they have nightmares. You know, it’s hard to sleep. You know, you just break down a lot out of nowhere. You know, and even if you’re not the victim and you’re a family member of the victim, like, you’re hurting for the other person because you know that you weren’t there.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


In the last two years, advocates say one in five Asian Americans who’ve experienced racism have shown symptoms of racial trauma. That’s a word psychologists use to describe the psychological and emotional harm caused by racism. And racial trauma doesn’t just affect Asian Americans. It impacts many people of color, including Black and Brown communities. In this episode, we’ll take a closer look at racial trauma, and we’ll explore how we can all do our part to support each other and heal from the harms inflicted by racism. I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent. And it’s time to start chasing life.

Certainly in the United States, and thinking about our history, race or racial trauma is, it’s at the foundation of our country for people of color. That’s how you’re seen, that’s how you’re judged, that’s how you’re paid. That’s how your life matters or doesn’t matter.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Sherry Wang, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California. She studies health disparities in minority and refugee communities. And recently, Sherry started looking into racial trauma in the Asian American community. For her, the work is personal.

I’m an immigrant, actually, so I was born in Taiwan, and I came to the U.S. at the age of six. I grew up in in a suburb in Los Angeles, and it was a primarily, you know, Asian American, Chinese American community. So I’ve grown up with really strong roots, actually, and seeing people that look like me in TV shows and newspapers, going to restaurants and I feel like that really buffered me well. That’s really so crucial to the racial pride that I have today.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I think about this. I’ll just tell you, Sherry, my experience is a little bit different only in that I was born in the United States. My parents are immigrants to the United States, but we lived in a really, really small town in rural Michigan. So there was nobody that looked like me, that had a name that was like mine, that ate the foods that we ate. My clothes when I would go to school, had a distinctive smell to them because my mom always cooked with the very specific spices and stuff of her, her cooking. So there was, it was everything. It was the smells, the sights, the sounds that were different. For you, you’re an immigrant to the country, six years old. So you’re you’re a child. You’re still, you know, sort of barely figuring things out. What was it like?

I left California after high school and have just come back, you know, a few years ago after college, after grad school, after spending the first few years in the Deep South, right? Doing racial justice work. And so I hadn’t realized what a bubble of privilege I lived in. And I realized, actually, the social capital and the cultural capital of what it is like to live in a community where you see, not just people who look like you or speak like you, but diversity in a lot of ways.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That term cultural capital, social capital that you have, I mean, it says a lot, that term. And I think it means a lot. When I when I was young, Sherry, probably around the age that you were when you came to the United States, six, seven years old, and all of a sudden, I thought to myself that if I changed my name to Steve, because it was Steve Austin, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” which was the television show.

Six Million Dollar Man clip


Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


If I changed my name to Steve, it was going to solve all my problems. That was it. I would be Steve. I would be, you know, just totally, you know, assimilated, I guess, adapted however you want to — of course I was silly, but I was a kid. So, I went to my mom, who I thought was going to be very angry with me, and she basically said, “okay, sure, if you think that that’s going to solve all the problems then you know let’s do it.” And kind of gave me a night to think about it. And when I slept on it, which is what I think her plan was all along, I realized that it was a really silly idea. I shouldn’t do it and I never changed my name.

I don’t think it’s silly at all that you thought about changing your name. And I experienced that a lot, actually, with folks who, they Americanize their name when they introduce themselves or they have a different name. And but that is a product of our our society, actually. We are wrong. This is on us as a community, that we let people feel like they have to change their names to be more acceptable.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I have to tell you, looking back, I don’t think I really realized how, even as a kid, that I intuitively understood how much race actually affected my place in the world. I didn’t think about it that much. I just realized that I wanted to change my name, for example. It was admittedly sort of this very simplistic and superficial fix to the problem of racism, but I was six or seven years old. I didn’t realize the longer lasting and deeper effects. And racism, obviously, it affects not just our names, it affects how much money we make, how happy we are, how long we live. We know it’s associated with poorer physical health, things like high blood pressure and obesity, and also our mental health, our optimism, our outlook on the world. This whole idea, this concept of racial trauma in psychology, something that you know a lot about. I mean, what is it? How do you describe racial trauma?

You know, racial trauma is a term that is not like a diagnostic label. You can’t diagnose somebody as having it or not having it. It’s a process, right? It is an ongoing process, an ongoing result of, you know, racism, racist bias, exposure to racism, even in, you know, media, or to those that you love or care about. And it’s the kind of trauma that affects you where perhaps you can still function and do the things you need to do. But it can also, for some folks, get to that level where it impedes your ability to be able to be in relationships, to get to work, to function, to concentrate, to feel safe, or to even get out of bed.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


What triggers racial trauma?

For Asian Americans, at least, right, in the U.S. context, the last two years have been an onslaught of racial trauma. You know, I don’t think you even have to have directly been the victim of a hate crime or a hate incident or even anything racist, but you’re seeing what is happening to other people who look like you. You’re seeing messages about how people see people who look like you. You’re scared for the safety of yourself, purely because of your race, right? It’s not what you’re doing or not doing. It’s because they don’t like the way you look and the assumptions people that have because of the way you look. And it’s not just for you. It’s a fear for your loved ones. That is a constant hypervigilance and a fear and anxiety of walking on eggshells because you never know at what point and when and who, you could be attacked by on the basis of racism.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Just witnessing it, you know, maybe not even necessarily directly experiencing it, but just witnessing it. I imagine when you when you think of it in that context, everybody, you know, may or may be at risk of this. I mean, have you, do you consider yourself as someone who has experienced racial trauma? And if so, what what happened? What did you experience and how did it manifest?

I get asked all the time. You know, “you talk a lot about racial trauma. What is your experience of racism, you know, especially in the context of COVID?” And I usually take that opportunity to say, actually, I’ve not been a victim of, you know, overt anti-Asian hate. But do I think I’m experiencing racial trauma? Absolutely. Just any time I pick up my phone for the last two and a half years and scroll through social media or turn on the news or look into the news, or just think about stepping outside of my house to go grocery shopping. My mom was visiting from Taiwan for a period and we talked about taking walks around the neighborhood. I was very scared for her to even walk outside of our house and walk down the block.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


I think about my mom. When you’re describing your mom like that. What did you think might happen?

Oh, my goodness. I mean, there’s just there’s been so many incidents of elders who have been shoved to death, pushed, punched, brutally beaten. For what? You know, as they’re walking down the street, for for no reason. That can easily be any of our parents, actually. And so I think that is a fear that every single Asian American person has right now in terms of feeling protective, not only of our children, because this is what we’ve seen a bullying with children, too, right? COVID 19 related anti-Asian racism towards kids. But also our elders.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


What are the symptoms? Someone who, who’s experiencing racial trauma, which is a lot of people, again, as you point out, what are the symptoms that they might have?

Well, you know what? Survival mode is one of the symptoms, I would say, right? Just because somebody is not speaking up or speaking out or going to the doctor, does not mean that they’re not suffering from racial trauma. What we actually know about communities of color, specifically Asian Americans, when it comes to mental health care utilization, is that they’re often referred from the emergency room or from their general physician because of somatic symptoms like headaches and gastrointestinal upsets, right? You know, we have a saying in psychotherapy that whatever you don’t work through, works through you. Like your body is, cannot hold the burden and the weight of what you have been trying to suppress for so long.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


A lot of people who are listening right now, Sherry, who may say, “yeah, that these experiences that Sherry and Sanjay are talking about sound a lot like mine. Maybe, I’ve also experienced racial trauma. I’m not sure I recognize it.” Do most people recognize it?

You know, I think it’d be very hard to because, you know, I think folks who are suffering the most have to be in survival mode. You’re busy trying to just make it day by day, that maybe you’re dissociating. Maybe you have to numb yourself. Maybe you’re thinking, I just can’t look at the news anymore because I’m so overwhelmed. People are low on bandwidth and I have heard folks say, “it’s not that I don’t care. I just can’t. I’m I’m numb. I can’t feel anymore. And I’m still behind in terms of how I feel two years ago, I have not recovered from what happened two years ago. I’m still also trying to survive COVID. I’m still scared of getting COVID or having my kids get COVID.” I mean, I think we are just everyone is burned out, actually. And that burnout, I really want to emphasize, is different for people of color. Everybody is going through COVID. But for people of color and thinking about how we are seeing so many of these violent atrocities unfold, it is a different level.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Is this getting worse? I mean, you study this professionally. Is this getting worse? And do you carry optimism about the future with regard to this?

Gosh, where do I start? This is not new. You know, President Joe Biden, while I appreciate that he has said things like.

President Joe Biden


It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop.

I appreciate him saying it has to stop, but actually it is not un-American. It is actually very American to be anti-Asian, It dates all the way back through our laws and our policies and our practices and major key events to from, you know, the 1875 Page Act, which really treated the immigration of women, right. as being brought here for the purposes of prostitution. So then the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and then we keep fast forwarding, then right to Japanese internment camp, how we treated Americans of Japanese descent, right? Looking at like September 11 and Islamophobia and then how we treat the Sikh community and how we treat brown folks. It’s just, this is not new. Anti-Asian racism is not new. And this will happen again and again and again. I think it’s more of a cyclical thing. This time it’s COVID. We had SARS before, we had Swine flu. We had Ebola. Those have all been racialized diseases. And so, you know, people of color have always been feared in that way. And for Asian Americans, we bear the burden of being perpetually seen as yellow peril.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Last year, Sherry conducted a study of Asian Americans who’ve been the victims of racial abuse or violence in the first six months of the pandemic. She found that anti-Asian racism is pervasive and it’s normalized in our society. It’s not just the violent and the overt incidents reported in the media. It also happens daily, at work, at school, at home, could even come from friends, family authority figures. And to make things worse, Asians who experienced racism are often dismissed.

One of the findings, really was Asian American experiences of feeling like, “well, who am I to complain about racism compared to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner?” And it wasn’t just Asian Americans feeling like, I don’t have a right to complain about racism, “what is my pain compared to Black American racial trauma?” It was also messages that were getting from the larger society with folks saying, “wait a minute, Asian Americans? You guys are people of color? What do you all know about racism?” And so that is the experience that is happening nationally, actually, where Asian Americans are like, “wait a minute, if you don’t think we’re people of color, then you really can’t see how this racism hurts us.” And then we, as a community to, I think, internalize that, to say, “well, then who are we to complain about racism?” When I did my study, looking at anti-Asian racism, I was very intentional about doing the study that was victim centered. So it wasn’t really about like what was done to you by a perpetrator, but also like who was around you when you experienced racism? Like, what were the bystanders doing? Because I think that puts the onus of responsibility on also, all of us, rather than a perpetrator and a victim. And so much of what happened is after the fact, right? The silence that follows when nobody checks in on you afterwards, right? People who see but ignore, or people who are completely in denial about what happened to you. It’s a silence that follows the feelings that don’t get validated. The story that never gets told.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Talking about this, you know, I do think again, I guess maybe everyone who’s listening sort of maybe reflecting on their own experiences. And, you know, I remember even going back to my childhood when if there was some very direct, overt bullying happening, I always knew who the antagonist was. But I think in retrospect, the thing that kind of stuck with me as much, if not more, was the people who were standing around not doing anything and maybe even mocking or, you know, taunting or whatever, you know, certainly not helping. And that that that was so isolating.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


It’s a betrayal. And sometimes it would be people who you thought were your friends. You know, and yet in that situation, when it counted the most, they did not rise up. They were not your friends. They they betrayed you, as you say. It’s incredible when you sort of look at this now. I’m in my early fifties and now I feel like I’ve had this, you know, decades long time to sort of reflect. And frankly, Sherry, I didn’t reflect very much for a long time. I mean, this is a newer thing for me to look back and say, “okay, you know, I was just sort of getting by, moving through, you know, not raising my head up too high for fear of getting it whacked down, you know, whatever it might be.” But I think about racial trauma now. And now that I’m a dad, I have three teenage girls. I think about it a lot, maybe more than I ever have in my life. But before you said this is something that’s cyclical. It’s going to come and go. Does it cycle towards better or is it just like, what are my kids going to experience when they’re my age? What are my kids’ kids going to experience when they’re my age?

I have hope. I do have hope, actually, and that is what keeps me going. And where I find hope is in community care, actually, that that’s where I find the greatest amount of hope because, you know, with all of the hate and the violence and the trauma, there’s a lot of talk about policing and a lot of talk about criminal justice. And and I think those are all after the fact, right?. As really health care providers, both you and I, we, I think, are aware of the fact that those things are treatment and intervention, not prevention. Our society does not invest in prevention care. We do not throw money or resources in prevention. And that is really what we need to do.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


What would you, what would you say to someone who is who is struggling with this right now?

I would say for anyone and everyone that is struggling with racial trauma, first of all, know that we all are and that it’s actually very human of you to to be hurting in the way that you are, because we’re, our society is not doing well. So I just I really want to validate that first and then to add to it, that, what fuels me and motivates me is thinking about, well, what privilege and power do I have to be able to make a difference, in ways that I wish others could do for me. This is where I think power sharing is so crucial. Where do we have privilege and power in ways where when we say something, when we stick up for someone in ways that they cannot and that they cannot be taken seriously, and they can do that for us, oh, my gosh, what kind of society would we be building then? Because I don’t ever have to speak on behalf of my own victimization. That’s not something we should be asking victims to do anyways, right? The people around you should be speaking up and rallying for you. The people around you should have stopped it from happening to begin with. The people around you should be holding you and cherishing you and helping you and making sure this doesn’t happen again. Let’s be those people for others and then hopefully other people will want to do that for us too. And that is a society that I think we want to build for our children.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


When we come back, advice from Professor Sherry Wang about how we can heal from racial trauma. Plus, the self-defense instructor, Jess Ng, shows us how we can all be fighters and if necessary, take matters into our own hands.

In the beginning, I kind of just ignored her and looked away. And then I was like, “no, I’m not going to f***ing look away.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


And now back to Chasing Life.

My name is Jess Ng. I’m a Muay Thai fighter. I’m from Queens. What we’re going to do today is just talk about situational awareness. And also …

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


That’s Jess Ng, the self-defense instructor from earlier in the episode. For 14 years, Jess has been practicing Muay Thai. It’s a form of martial arts from Thailand. In 2017, she was the Pan American champion in her weight class.

Muay Thai Championship clip


Ladies and gentlemen, after five rounds of action, your winner, Jess Ng.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


But no matter how good of a fighter she is, Jess also isn’t exempt from some of the horrors nowadays of being an Asian American woman in America.

March of 2020, before the lockdown, I took the subway during the day and there was a woman that did not want me to be on the train with her because she thought I had COVID or she blamed me for COVID. She was sucking her teeth and she would you know, I felt the tension rise.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Jess felt threatened. She was worried this woman might assault her.

In the beginning, I kind of just ignored her and looked away. And then I was like, “no, I’m not going to f***ing look away.” At that point, it was like the fight day nerves came over me in 10 seconds. I’m like, okay, I’m going to handle this, right? I was like, I’m going to end up on WorldStar today or something, I don’t know. And I think that kind of defused the situation because she wasn’t expecting me to actually physically fight back. And then, that’s when she left the train.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


If there is one thing Muay Thai has taught Jess, it’s to be confident in her own power and identity.

Maybe that’s a reason why I’ve loved fighting, because I couldn’t fight for myself verbally. So I always fought for myself physically to defy those social norms, you know, and challenge those society’s narratives about who I am when I stepped into the ring. Because if you told my high school self that I was going to, like, ever fight in the ring, I’d be like, “what are you talking about?” Like, I was always the one being bullied, right? And so now it’s like even when I would be put down in the corporate workplace, like I was able to stand up for myself or handle it professionally because I knew I could put them to sleep.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Jess, being the fighter that she is, believes that the solution isn’t to depend on others, but to stand up for ourselves and for each other.

We know this is happening. We know there will be a lot of gaslighting because that’s just the history of our society and our country. But we have to come together and come to each other’s aid and support each other and know that there’s a bigger community that loves and embrace and protects. I think everybody should play a part in protecting each other and looking out for each other, period. Because we can’t make systemic changes overnight and it’s an ongoing battle and it’s going to be a lifelong battle.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Now Jess is passing on what she’s learned to her community, empowering them to stand up and, if necessary, defend themselves.

Jess Ng at Care Fair


Ready? One, two, three. (participants screaming).

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Back at the Care Fair, Jess starts off the class with an exercise: use your voice literally as a weapon.

Jess Ng at Care Fair


So you’re going to step back and then bring your hands up. And you’re going to yell, “stop.” For a count of ten. One. (Stop!) Two. (Stop!) Three. (Stop!).

A big part is to reclaim the power that they already have, that they always have had. Because, I mean, it’s uncomfortable to just stand there and yell as loud as you can. But there’s a confidence booster in that, because it makes you comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Jess Ng at Care Fair


Nine. (Stop!) Last one, real loud. Ten. (Stop!)

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


As Jess said, fighting racism is a lifelong battle. We can take self-defense classes and we can find ways to keep ourselves safe, but it needs to go beyond that. We do need to take care of ourselves and each other. So how do we do that? Professor Sherry Wang had some very useful tips to share with us. First, for those who relate to what we’ve been talking about, who are struggling with racial trauma., tip number one is to find whatever works for you.

Do what you need to do to feel better. That could be, you just want to be alone for a bit. That’s totally okay. You want to cry? That’s okay. You need maybe comedic relief so you are watching funny videos. That’s okay too. You want to talk to friends? That’s okay. There is no right way to respond to racial trauma.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip number two: find community.

So thinking about like with anti-Asian racism, having group counseling, right? Or even just a space for all Asian Americans, Asian Americans, specifically. For AAPI women even to talk about gender racism, we need to be in communities with other people who will validate and support our pain, who will listen to us.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip number three: If you do reach out for professional mental health support, make sure to state your goals with your provider.

Making it clear from the outset this is what you want to talk about. And then interviewing your clinician to ask like, “do you know how to talk about this? Can you talk about racial trauma with me?” I know when I have sought out my own therapy, it’s been very important for me from the get go to say I’m going to talk about racism and I need to make sure that you can talk about this and can hold this with me.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Tip number four: if the news and social media is overwhelming, you know that it’s okay to take a break. But don’t leave forever.

Pace yourself, but please come back. Because if you really switch things off like forever, then you really don’t know what’s happening in society. And if we don’t know what’s happening in society now, we can’t make any changes in society.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


This episode isn’t just for victims of trauma. It’s also for everyone who can be a better ally. And Sherry says, tip number five: be a supportive bystander.

We can advocate by filming an incident, by distracting a perpetrator, by organizing community events, writing grants, fundraising, building community coalitions, educating the people around us. There’s so many ways and even saying, “hey, what you just said to somebody that’s offensive.” It doesn’t even have to be a whole long, like, spiel. It can just be something like, “ooh, I don’t think you should have said that.” There’s so many behind the scenes things that we can also do to really act on behalf and not be passive bystanders.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


Number six: Listen. Like, really listen.

When people come to you and disclose to you something that is so victimizing and traumatizing, it is such an honor. And really, all you’re being asked to do is accompany them and listen to them. So don’t tell them what they need to do or what they should do. Don’t tell them how they should feel, how they should cope. It really is about just being there with them, supporting them, validating their experiences, validating the appropriateness of their responses.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta


You know, throughout this episode and the conversation with Sherry, I was reflecting a lot on the experiences I had growing up and navigating the world around me. And I’ll be honest, for many years I tried simply not to think too hard about some of those racist experiences that I lived through. I think I was just trying to survive and get by. But now I’m older and I’m a parent myself. I do realize it is important for all of us to acknowledge these instances of racism and to even talk about how they impact us. It’s the only way we can really move forward and start to heal from them. I do think about my three teenage daughters. I think about my future grandkids, and I think about the world in which they might grow up in. And I want it to be the kind of world that Sherry described, the kind of world where everyone looks out for each other. A world full of reciprocal altruism, not just rugged individualism. And the thing is, that world isn’t going to just magically appear in 30 years. It’s going to take every one of us doing something, doing our part, and building it together. Let us know what you think about this episode. Did you learn something new? I know I have. Record your thoughts as a voice memo and email them to [email protected], or give us a call at 470-396-0832 and leave a message. You can also tweet me @DrSanjayGupta. That’s Dr. spelled “DR.” We might even include your responses on an upcoming episode of the podcast. We’ll be back next Tuesday with an episode all about the science of our intense emotions when we drive. Do you get road rage or are you like me, someone who finds peace behind the wheel? Find out more next week. And thanks for listening. Chasing Life is a production of CNN Audio. Megan Marcus is our executive producer. Our podcast is produced by Emily Liu, Andrea Kane, Xavier Lopez, Isoke Samuel, Grace Walker and Allison Park. Tommy Bazarian is our engineer and a special thanks to Ben Tinker, Amanda Sealey, Carolyn Sung and Nadia Kounang of CNN Health. Rafeena Ahmad, Lindsey Abrams and Courtney Coupe from CNN Audio.

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