May 13, 2024

Experiences in Asian Community: A Discussion with Sydney Tam

Sydney Tam
Temerty Medicine
By Avery Murrell

This story was originally published on the Temerty Faculty of Medicine website.

The University of Toronto marks Asian Heritage Month each May in recognition of Asian community contributions and experiences in Canada. East Asian learners, staff, and faculty recently came together to share in community and discuss rises anti-East Asian hate at the latest Temerty Medicine Community Connection (TMCC) event.

Sydney Tam, a family and emergency physician and a lecturer in the department of family and community medicine, was involved in planning and education related to the TMCC. Writer Avery Murrell spoke with Tam about her experiences at the event and with the health-care system.

What led you to pursue medicine?

My parents were the first of their generation to go to university, so there was this idea that education was the only tool you had to get ahead. I didn’t come from a medical family, but I was surrounded by health-care providers because I grew up in a small town in Ontario where all the Asian or Chinese Asian professionals knew each other. That was the culture.

In school, I was good at biology and had some exposure to research, but there was this familial drive to become a physician. I was into art and music as well, and it’s a bit traumatic to reflect and think “Gee, I wasn’t really given a lot of choices!” Ultimately, the goal was to have a profession to support yourself. This was very pragmatic from an immigrant viewpoint, but I recognize the impacts of colonialism here too.

At some point in my childhood, I’d been hospitalized for an injury, which can be a vulnerable and lonely experience. I was privileged to receive good care, but I saw the difference between health-care workers who were kinder versus those who were less kind. I had decided, “I want to be one of the kinder people.”

How did you find the experience of participating in the TMCC event?

We have much work to do in being mindful of the history of East Asian peoples. I was quite shocked to learn current students face the same racialized experiences I did as a student. It was disheartening to see the nods of agreement, saying, “Yeah, that happens to us too.”

It’s obvious that anti-Asian hate rose during the pandemic and that historically misinformed and untrue stereotypes still exist. It’s unfortunate that societal stresses made it acceptable to attack Asian folks and perpetuate lies about them and other minoritized communities. Many people in the East-Asian community continue to be harmed and traumatized by this.

I don't think we can have a good equity approach to health care without including trauma-informed care — not only with patients, but with ourselves and each other as health-care practitioners. I think that piece has made it a lot easier for me to avoid burnout as a physician who's been in practice for 32 years.

It was great to see that the TMCC provided a safer space to have these discussions. The mutual respect that people had was amazing, and certainly shows that we’re heading in the right direction. There’s still work to do in recognizing the individual subgroups within the Asian community, especially queer-identified Asian folks or the multiple ethnicities within East Asia, as this tends to be essentialized. However, the aim of communities having voice is unity and change, not division and stagnation.

How have you come to define health care?

The conventional definition of health care is what we see on the frontlines: physicians, researchers, maintenance workers — everyone has a role in health care. But health care is an industry. It’s a capitalist and colonial term as well, and for those who hold any power, it’s important for them to reflect on their role in health care.

I think there’s a certain social responsibility when you have privilege, which is how I’ve always viewed my position. We live in a system where the letters behind our names give us varying degrees of power over each other. Very little awareness is given to the necessity of kindness, thoughtfulness, and life experience in this hierarchy. I would prefer that education and free choice play the biggest role in how we change the system to value these traits. The advent of a medical culture that is evidence-based and questioning of assumptions helps support this.

My teaching appointment has been my participation in the academic system, so there’s a tension between complicity and complexity. For people with racialized and minoritized experiences, there’s a responsibility to create change from within and think about the legacy of the work for equity being done at this moment. When we use the word dismantle, we don’t mean to destroy, we mean to rebuild.