Running My Own Whistle Stop Cafe:

In Impacting Patients, Print Issues by Cathy Hung

On Women Empowerment, Diversity and Inclusion in the Times of COVID

This morning I picked several green tomatoes from my backyard.  They were firm and drenched in morning dew. I would later slice them, soak them in buttermilk, season them with salt, pepper and paprika, coat them in a cornmeal-flour mix, and deep fry them. I would imagine sinking my teeth slowly into these tomato slices at dinner and sighing in satisfaction much like Ninny did in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

The year the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” was aired was the year I came to the US as a foreign student attending freshman year in college. Still learning English, I was intrigued by this dish unknown to me. I was also fascinated by the southern accents, the juxtaposed plots of past and present stories describing domestic abuse, motherhood, racism and love shared between the same-sex lifelong friends, and women empowerment.

Nagging itch

I didn’t quite comprehend everything in the movie with my then limited English, but as I gradually learned how to cook over a span of the next thirty years, there was an on-again, off-again nagging itch to learn how to make fried green tomatoes. My wishes were fulfilled when my first-generation Italian husband decided to grow tomatoes in the backyard. For the first time, I attempted making fried green tomatoes in my own kitchen. My husband questioned me why I picked them green, gave me a bizarre look and said, “We don’t eat tomatoes this way.”  After all, neither of us was from the south.

Just a few weeks ago, the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” came on TV.  I solemnly watched and wept quietly as I soaked myself in like the green tomato slices in buttermilk. I was completely overtaken by the power of womanhood portrayed in this movie.  It was at that moment that I understood why I was hung up on the fried green tomatoes.

Throughout my life, I’ve been uprooted and replanted several times across continents either by choice or chance. As life progressed, I went from being a student to a resident to an associate and eventually a practice owner. I also became a mother of two boys. In the long process of becoming assimilated as becoming “American,” I’ve experienced racism and sexism choosing a career path that is “less traveled by”: oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Stereotyping hurts progress

Stereotyping and marginalization happened more than I would ever wish for as an immigrant: I’ve been yelled at by an immigration official to go back to my country; I’ve been called “Chink” by patients from the ‘hood of South Bronx, New York during my surgical residency; I’ve been assumed as a passive Geisha type that has no voice of my own while I was still language deficient; I’ve been ridiculed and excluded from the “guys” during my surgical training; I’ve been told many times by my patients that I look too young; I probably have lost many patients to my male oral surgeon colleagues because I don’t look the part. There were many moments where I felt like Evelyn in that parking lot scene of the movie where she was provoked for no reason, her grocery bags broke and everything fell out on the ground.

My current oral surgery practice is in a diverse area of New Jersey. The state of New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in America, with a large number of first-generation immigrants from all over the world. In my daily practice, I see patients with family members accompanying them to aid in the translation of different languages. The most common second language spoken in the state of New Jersey other than English and Spanish is Gujarati, an Indian language.

Diversity matters

In my area, I find Southeast Asians, Middleasterners, Asians, Italians, Egyptians, Russians and Polish. When someone whose English is not proficient comes through my door, I somehow see my younger self. I see how they can be brushed off and possibly ridiculed because of their accent or the way they dress or act. I see how one could talk over them, leaving them defenseless. The lack of sophisticated English language skills can easily put these patients at a disadvantage while they navigate through a less-familiar American healthcare system. I see how these patients could be turned away because of the inconvenience posed to providers with longer time in communication and the need for translation.

Then, I envision myself being the owner of Whistle Stop Cafe, offering them a piece of my best pie. In my town, there are also many very old elderlies who would need medical clearances before their oral surgery procedures.  Many elderly patients are appreciative, knowing that my office will take care of everything for them so that they don’t have to hop offices. I’d like to think that we could possibly offer the best BBQ in town in our own Whistle Stop Cafe.

COVID stirred up racism

During the first month of the COVID shutdown, I went into a local supermarket to get some groceries. I accidentally walked into an aisle against the one-way arrow. An older woman stopped me and immediately cussed me out with the “F” word, shouting, “I don’t know if you are infected!” Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak, many Asian Americans have experienced verbal or physical attacks due to the unfortunate birth of the term “China Virus.”  Many Asian Americans were told to “Go back to China,” whether they are from China or not.

Recently, a British tech CEO, Michal Lofthouse, was caught on camera berating an Asian family celebrating a birthday in a restaurant. Although he apologized after the fact and resigned, he later openly expressed on social media that he was forced to apologize and that his opinions stayed the same towards Asians. Biases and racial discrimination clearly still exist. For us who serve in the healthcare profession, what can we do in these sensitive times to bridge the gaps and play the roles of facilitators to promote more inclusion?

Can our practices be like Whistle Stop Cafe:

A safe harbor for people of different races and origin, different income level (or the lack of), different sexual orientation or even ones with a difficult personality to coexist in peace? How can I ease their pain that I once experienced?

Dental and medical professions are becoming female trending. Our nation is becoming more racially diverse by the day, with more interracial marriages and an aging population; it has never been a more important time for healthcare professionals to educate ourselves about diversity and inclusion. Our children and grandchildren will grow up in an ever more colorful world where knowledge about others different from your own would no longer be an option but a necessity. There are a few ways to embrace other cultures on a personal and professional level: read up about other cultures, experience cultural fairs and extend friendships to some outside of your comfort zone. I hope that when travel becomes more permissible in the near future, we can once again experience the world firsthand by learning about other cultural customs.

Inclusion over exclusion

In the Facebook group that I moderate, “The Talented Dentists,” we have members from all over the world. Regardless of culture or religion, food blogs remain to be most popular.  Food always seems to bond people together and generate conversations. Compared to thirty years ago, America has become more tolerant and educated about cultures other than the mainstream. For example, sushi has come a long way. When the concept of sushi first landed in America in the 1960s, many people scorned the idea of eating raw fish as being unsanitary, barbaric or just gross.

After years of permeating American culture and the success of certain adaptations of Americanized versions of sushi such as California roll or spicy tuna roll, America has welcomed sushi into its food emporium next to its Italian cousin, pizza. Now, eating sushi has become a chic and hip choice. As cultural holidays are being celebrated, ethnic food is brought to the table. Many times, I encourage office staff members to bring different types of food as we celebrate our different holidays. It is as fun as it is educational. Other times, I would also try to break the ice with my patients by generating conversations about their culture based on what I know. If I don’t, I ask questions instead of making comments that could potentially be offensive.

Of course, creating inclusion is not as simple as talking about food.

Inclusion takes effort to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable. By creating an organically friendly working environment, work efficiency thrives.  By training your team members about how to be culturally sensitive to other team members and patients, you will then enjoy a more positive, non-threatening working environment. As the nation’s racial tension is alarmingly high right now, constant, open communication is key to avoid unnecessary conflicts that may stem from communication fallouts.

Fried green tomatoes no doubt represent women empowerment, whether it is defeating racism, sexism, dealing with relationship issues or finding you “umph.” To each our own, we are all unknowingly running our Whistle Stop Cafes because, after all, we are Dental entrepreneur Women.