My mom and I sat in the waiting room at Peninsula Endodontics to meet Dr. Shih, whom my dentist referred me to see regarding a post- root canal infection I had developed. Ever since my family immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, my mom always looked for teachers, doctors, and dentists who spoke Mandarin, and this was the first time we ever visited a healthcare professional and staff with whom we needed to communicate in English.
Wendy, the receptionist, was incredibly warm and patient – she made multiple calls to navigate our out-of-network insurance, and every detail of our interactions, many of which I can’t fully remember, contributed to an overall aura of hospitality.
After our visit, I asked my mom whether she was nervous about needing to communicate with Wendy and with Dr. Shih in English. She shared that ever since she met Dr. Scott, my grandma’s cardiologist at El Camino Hospital, she gained more confidence about her ability to communicate health issues with doctors in English.
When I asked her what made Dr. Scott a great cardiologist, she replied, “When we first met him, he greeted us warmly and sincerely with ‘Ni hao!’ and we instantly felt at ease knowing that he bore goodwill to Chinese people. I’m often afraid that doctors, who know that I don’t know English well, will look down on me and not take my health concerns as seriously. I’m scared that since doctors are so busy and know I can’t ask many detailed questions, they might try to get away with not fully addressing a concern I struggle to express.”
Ever I since starting school at Pomona, many people have shared the ways in which they’ve felt like “perpetual outsiders” when strangers ask “where are you from” or address them with a greeting in a language other than English. While I never personally felt that offended when someone asked about my ethnicity, I never spoke up because I didn’t want my experience to undermine the hurt that others experience when they are greeted the same way.
I shared this observation with my mom, who found the different interpretations of “Ni hao” to be very interesting. She said that although she understands why some people feel “otherized” when greeted with “Ni hao,” that she wasn’t offended, in part Dr. Scott actually knows a bit of Mandarin beyond “Ni hao” and speaks it appropriately. For example, he asks my grandma to “Sheng hu xi,” or “Breathe in deeply,” and when my grandma starts speaking to my mom during her doctor visits, he turns to my mom and says, “Qing wen ta zai shuo shen me?,” or “May you tell me what she is feeling?”