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Safe Haven


Mr. R possessed characteristics that I would have never begun to expect in a teacher, let alone hope for.

To start, he was invasive. This much I knew entering high school — my older sister had given me fair warning since he had also mentored her during high school — but I still failed to brace myself. On the first day I walked into his office, I should have known better the moment a wide grin spread across his face as he saw me, his eyes shining with mischief. “Hello, ugly!” I stopped in my tracks. What did he call me? He then turned to a small boy I had not noticed in the corner of the room. “This here is your boyfriend, Michael.” He burst out laughing as my jaw dropped.

The boy turned around nonchalantly and waved. “Hi, I’m Michael.” Mr. R only laughed harder.

Growing up as the youngest of three daughters, it became a habit of mine to keep quiet and observe, to avoid repeating mistakes and to mimic the successes I saw. I kept my thoughts to myself and was rewarded for being docile and quiet, and so by positive reinforcement, I never knew how to speak up nor express myself. I stood frozen with the embarrassment of being called ugly and then having my love life meddled with. What does one say in this type of uncharted situation?

“He’s not my boyfriend!” I blurted before running off, with Mr. R’s roaring laughter following close behind.

His honesty did not bother sparing your feelings.

His antics took getting used to, but I slowly worked to adapt. I accepted “ugly” as a nickname, and I soon discovered he called all his familiar students “ugly.” He took joy in the ways we reacted, but I stopped being convinced that he genuinely thought we were physically unattractive. Besides, he would tell you point-blank if you were. In my most awkward years of development, riddled with insecurities, self-consciousness, jealousies and social anxieties, Mr. R made it a personal mission of his to tell me whenever I gained weight. “You should join the track team,” he said while laughing.

I never glared at a teacher before (filial piety should be coursing through my veins), but it became a habit when I was with Mr. R. He threw his jabs, and I began throwing mine. Someone had once told me that close friendships did not mean just the ability to talk about deep and personal matters, but also it meant the ability to talk about nothing. I spent so many hours listening to his stories after school, some of which he would retell multiple times with the same enthusiasm, of his students and all the stunts he pulled with them. We often argued about misconstrued details about my love life, and I defended my honor against the baseless rumors he generated on the spot.

It was amidst the contentless banters and repeated words that his office became a safe haven for me over the years. While I originally frequented it to help him with his I-Help Liberia program that he founded, it soon became a space I retreated to cry because of a break-up (not with Michael) and a space I could express frustrations about my family. It was where I went when I had too many complications with friendships and needed a respite. He would always greet me with the familiar, “Hello, ugly,” and once I started crying, he would follow with, “Ah, you were dumped again, weren’t you?”

But his roaring laughter would give way to a soft chuckle as I glared through my tears and retorted, “That’s not what happened, Mr. R!”

When I graduated high school and left for college, Mr. R made me promise to call him every week. I forgot to call my parents for months on end, but I almost never missed a week with him. We continued to stay in touch, even six years after high school.

 —

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the states and social distancing became the norm, there was an uneasiness that settled over me. At first, I could not quite place it. Was it the sickening feeling of watching the numbers of cases and deaths rise? Was it the numbing fear of my elderly parents potentially getting sick? Was it the confusion of adjusting to an altered curriculum and adapting to new study habits?

No, I eventually realized. It was shame and fear, a bond laced tighter with every racist action or comment I read and heard about. A two-year-old and six-year-old were stabbed because they were thought to be Chinese and were spreading the disease. Chinese Americans are harassed and attacked for “causing the coronavirus.” Our president calls the virus “Kung flu,” further associating the disease with Chinese roots.

“Why are you Chinese people killing everyone? What is wrong with you? Why the f— are you killing us?” a man shouts at a Chinese-American doctor, someone tasked with saving lives. This pandemic has created a painful divide, demarcating who is “us” and who is “them.” We are seen as diseased, dirty, murderous, unwanted and contaminated. The “Kung flu” is treated as oriental, meaning not of here but of Asia, and we are treated as such too.

I avoided leaving the house as much as I could and always made sure to wear my jacket with my school of medicine logo embroidered on it when I did. My hope was that the appreciation for the health care system would offset the anger towards the Chinese. It was my feeble shield as I kept my head down, swallowed my coughs and suppressed my sneezes. I dressed in athletic clothing to look healthier and more active. I am Chinese-American, my identity founded in the hyphen, and yet I try to temporarily, fearfully and shamefully hide the former. I once again began to keep to myself, observing and staying silent. My reward for being docile and quiet this time was my safety and pride.

“How have you been?” I asked Mr. R one week over the phone. Staying home as much as I could still did take a toll on me, and I was grateful for a familiar voice.

“I’m okay,” he paused for a moment. “This whole thing is crazy. I am so angry that they are calling this the Chinese virus.”

A small smile found its way to my face. “Me too,” I responded simply, when what I really wanted to say was, Thank you. Thank you for your solidarity, your support and your protection. In his frustration, I felt my own frustration begin to lose its harsh lines.

“Other than that, though, I’m alright. I’m a little anxious because my surgery has been indefinitely delayed.” In one swift phrase, my smile was gone, and my own anxiety was displaced by a new one.

“Surgery? What surgery?”

“I didn’t tell you?” I could already feel the knot forming in my throat. “I have cancer. I must have forgotten to tell you.”

I was surprised at how quickly the tears formed and how adept they were at falling. Quarantine had always been tainted by a hint of dread, but I still had forgotten what it was like upon materialization. I did not bother trying to steady my voice to hide the fact that I was crying. He was, after all, someone who had seen me cry countless times in the past decade of our friendship. “What cancer? Do you know what stage?”

“Kelley, I am okay. I will be okay. It’s prostate cancer, but the doctor didn’t tell me what stage it was. I was just going in for a routine check-up. Once this craziness is all over, I’ll be able to schedule my surgery as soon as I can. Don’t worry about me.” Did I imagine it — the way his voice wavered? My mind was racing. If it was discovered at a routine check-up, then there is a higher chance it was caught at an earlier stage. Even though Mr. R is on the older side, if the treatment option is surgery that means the cancer is probably more benign with little or no metastases. He is fine. He will be fine.

But what did I know? Medical school classes may have taught me where and how to reach, but in the moment, I was grabbing at air. Mr. R knew exactly the words to say whenever I was in distress, whether I explicitly told him or not, but I faltered in response to his vulnerability. Mr. R, the one who showed me confidence and comfort in my words, had left me at a loss for them.

Three months have passed since then, and we are still waiting. It feels as though our nation has been holding its breath for a while, feeling the heaviness of being powerless and the desperation of maintaining hope. When we speak again, what form will our words take? Will they be whispered, having been suppressed for so long? Or will they be screamed?

I think about the fear I feel: hoping others do not see me as diseased, when I am not and waiting for the moment, when I can breathe easily again. That is the breath I hold. I wonder how much more fear Mr. R must feel, hoping the disease inside him will stay put until this is all over and surgery can be scheduled. Or the fear from the disproportionate deaths of African Americans from COVID-19 or from the never-ending cases of police brutality. I wonder if he is holding his breath, thinking all the while, a line heard once too many times: I can’t breathe.

I also think about my silence and how it is driven not only by my fear but also by so much privilege and feelings of guilt. Mr. R has always been proud of how many of his “uglies” have gone to or through medical school and has pushed me to pursue medicine more than my parents ever have. Yet now that I am here, I wonder about the equal accessibility of health care and wonder if the health care system that Mr. R so fervently believes in may not always provide equal care to the black community that he belongs to. He may be waiting now for a surgical procedure that could not be scheduled due to the pandemic, rather than unequal access, but how many others in his community can say the same about their illnesses? I am now part of a system that statistically is less likely to provide a safe haven for Mr. R in his own illness and vulnerability. I feel in so many ways that I have let him down.

“Remember when you told me you were angry for me? I want you to know that I’m furious for you.” I would hope these words could bring some degree of healing and comfort to him, but I hesitate to say them. After all, I was raised to observe quietly and praised for silence. I fear being ostracized for picking a polarizing stance, for saying the wrong things or for speaking when I need to be listening. I am overwhelmed by how complex the pandemic and protests are politically, historically, socially and emotionally. Where do Mr. R and I, with our friendship, laughter, tears and support, fall in all of this?

Image credit: Custom drawing by Amanda Jung for this Mosaic in Medicine piece.

Kelley Zhao Kelley Zhao (1 Posts)

Medical Student Contributor

Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine

Kelley Zhao is a second year medical student at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. She enjoys writing creative non-fiction pieces and is grateful to be able to share her experiences and perspectives through her short stories.