It’s commonly believed that the word “patient,” as used in the medical world, originated from the Greek word “patient,” which means “someone who suffers.”
Except as a woman of color practicing medicine, I’m starting to doubt that the language Gods got this one right, considering how regularly I have to suffer through stupid comments about my appearance and race.
At this point, I only mildly bristle when someone asks me where I’m really from, or compliments my English, saying that it’s “Great for a foreigner!” I’ve only been told twice to “go back to my own country!” by patients who didn’t want to wear their hearing aids, but I try not to hold it against them since I’m pretty sure both had early-stage dementia. I’ve been told my voice is too high-pitched, that I don’t smile enough, and that I should wear makeup because “I bet you’re actually pretty under those glasses!” I barely even flinch now.
I’m particularly proud of the time a patient condescendingly asked why I don’t wear ethnic clothes, and I replied, “Well, most of my clothes are made in China, so there you go.”
I suppose it comes with the territory. If you’re in the medical field – or a person of color in the field of life – this means frequently dealing with people who know absolutely nothing about you, but think they have you all figured out.
Every now and then, though, I’ll come across someone who really takes it to the next level. Recently, I had a patient who took a ton of racial stereotypes, marinated it in ignorance, and smothered it with a thick layer of cultural appropriation to make the world’s most racist burrito of condescension (sorry, I’m a little hungry today).
This patient had deep chunks of wax in her ears and an even deeper concern in her mind.
“What’s your nationality?” she asked within 90 seconds of the appointment starting.
“American.” My 1,000 percent honest answer.
“Oh, no, I mean, where are you from?”
“I’m from Texas,” I said, concentrating fixedly on disinfecting my wax removal tools.
“I mean, where are you from?”
“I’m from Houston.”
“But where are you really from?”
At this point I dropped my curette and let out a slow, long sigh. “Are you trying to ask what my ancestry is?” I said reluctantly.
“Yes, yes!” She opened her palm and pointed it in my direction. “You’ve obviously moved here from somewhere else.”
Before I could ask her if she was Native American, she continued:
“My guess, based on your last name, is that you are Middle Eastern. Or, wait, perhaps Mexican?”
“My ancestry is Indian,” I said flatly.
She clapped her hands so excitedly that her bosom rocked like a public pool on a holiday weekend.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve just been to India!” she blathered. “Have you been to <random Indian village>? I went to an Ayurvedic yoga retreat there last year, it was so life-changing to see all that authenticity and color and oh my gosh the food! ”
“I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of it.”
She scoffed incredulously. “How have you never even heard of <random Indian village>? And you call yourself Indian?”
Had she been a random Twitter troll I would have retorted, “Have you been to Butthole, Texas? What do you mean you’ve never been? How can you call yourself American when you’ve never been to Butthole? I went to a cheese-making workshop there and I’m as white as parmesan now!”
But given that she was a paying patient, I couldn’t. So I didn’t.
“How often do you go back home?” she pressed on.
“Well, I was just in Austin for a wedding so –”
“I mean back home. To India.”
“Oh, the last time to India was in 2003 for my sister’s wedding.”
She literally grabbed my hand by the wrist, which was inside her ear trying to remove wax, and pulled it away. “I think I misheard you. Did you actually really say that you haven’t been to India in over ten years?”
“In over a decade?”
“Is a decade different than ten years?”
She sighed woefully. “You know, my shaman warned me there are people like you out there. Too stuck in material pursuits to go back to your own home.”
She took her iPhone 6 out of her Marc Jacobs handbag, swiped a few times, and pulled up a picture of a man with curly blond hair wearing a white kurtha pajama and a rosary around his neck. A long streak of vermilion was marked onto his forehead. You know, a bindi – the kind typically worn by brides, holy man, and celebrities at Coachella.
“Guru Swami Gerald says spiritual enlightenment comes when we leave behind our worry about the appearances of things. All this work does nothing for anyone,” she closed her eyes and raised her head towards the ceiling. “Work means nothing. Say it with me, Dr. Fatima. Ohhhmmmmmmm.”
“Okay, but first can I at least finish the work of taking the wax out of your ears? There’s really a lot in there. Like a pound, maybe.”
She opened her eyes and slumped her shoulders. “I suppose. But take Guru Gerald’s phone number from me and get in touch with him next time you go home. He’s very reasonably priced.”
“Sure, I’ll definitely do that when I go ‘home’,” I said with a tight, cheesy smile, knowing full well my next international trip would be to Germany.
The rest of the appointment, I continued to mentally slap my forehead while she continued with stories of <random Indian village> and how she ‘found her inner self’ during a $3,000/week yoga retreat. She ended by insisting I give her my email address.
“I’m gonna send you Guru Gerald’s information and my recipe for carrie chicken. I promise you’ll love it, probably even more than your mom’s!”
“Carrie? Do you mean karahi chicken?”
“That’s what I said, Dr. Fatima.”
To add butthurt to insult, the rest of the clinic staff didn’t understand why I was annoyed at this interaction.
“I don’t get why you are so offended,” one of them said. “You are Indian.”
Sweet Lord in Heaven, where to even begin?
It was offensive because of how this patient had been trying to strip me of my national identity based on how I looked. It was offensive because she felt it appropriate to chide me on my relationship with the land of my ancestors, even though she knew nothing about me or my diaspora. It was offensive because of how deeply committed she was to blatant cultural appropriation, and how she thought she could teach me about my own ancestral culture based on her single trip to India.
Most of all, it was offensive because Guru Gerald looked like Iggy Azalea straight from her tragic “Bollywood-themed” music video.
I felt overwhelmed, misunderstood, and alone. Just as I was about to fall into a pool of self-pity and exhaustion, one of the other staffers spoke up.
“Wow. You really don’t get it, do you?” she said, looking around the room and shaking her head. “Let me explain why this was so offensive.”
I looked at her with surprise and relief. Someone else gets it! She GETS it! I felt like my heart was about to explode with gratitude.
“It was offensive because Dr. Fatima is actually from Pakistan, okay?” she said with confidence and authority. “Isn’t that right, Dr. Fatima? Brown people who are Muslim are all Pakistani, right?”