Rebecca Okun, M.D., an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman, was recognized as kin when she first came to New Mexico and began a 4-year commitment at the Indian Health Service (IHS). She was, perhaps surprisingly, immediately accepted by her Navajo patients, as if she were a distant relative: “My patients would say, ‘You look just like my granddaughter,'” Okun recounts. “‘We’re distantly related. You’re part of my family.'”
That experience of acceptance in a new community instead of being treated as an outsider persisted as Okun (who goes by “Checky”) moved to Albuquerque, where she has been a physician at Women’s Specialists for 30 years. In March of this year she was included as a “Top Doc” OB-GYN in Albuquerque Magazine.
“Albuquerque is an unusual place,” she notes. “Because of the mix of cultures here, I see a good mix of patients. Even when I ask people of color what their experience is, I don’t get a sense that there is much overt racism or even an undercurrent.”
Okun’s New Mexico experience differed from that of her youth. She grew up as the daughter of Chinese parents in Washington D.C. Her mother was a teacher in public schools and both parents were respected professionals, but even so, she recalls, “As a kid in D.C., people made fun of me” for her ethnicity, as not fitting in with the dominant culture. Further, since her parents did not raise her to embrace Asian culture or speak Mandarin or other Asian languages, she did not fully fit in with Chinese culture either.
Okun’s daughters, now 35 and 37, have educated her about ethnic identity. Despite the fact that she herself feels comfortable in a “Caucasian environment” and somewhat uncomfortable with traditional Chinese environments, Checky knows—because of her daughters—that she may be seen as “other,” a person who does not quite fit anywhere, whether or not she is aware of it. One of her daughters, a clinical psychiatrist and director of mental health services, was assaulted on the streets of New York and told to “go back where she came from,” Okun reports, mentioning that the incident has caused the family to reflect more on ethnicity as well as safety.
Overall, the place where Okun has felt most “at home” as a Chinese-American or “ABC” is Hawaii: “Intermarried family and partnered relationships there are so commonplace that nobody talks about them at all.”
The issue of intermarriage is significant in all communities. Okun knows well that some communities of color advocate marrying only within the ethnic community, rising in social ranks with families clearly identified with that community. The Chinese community in D.C., she says, seemed to prefer that its U.S.- born children marry other Chinese people, work hard to succeed, and then raise more purely Chinese children pressured to succeed even further. When Okun married a non-Asian man, her parents did not approve but ultimately did not present an obstacle to the marriage. Other communities in New Mexico, in Hawaii, and perhaps increasingly across the country, accept intermarriage, recognizing, as Okun has, that love is love.