Dear Uneducated Professor,
I don’t care if you thought you were being funny or not. I was sitting in your Zoom class in ear, nose and throat medicine today and you were giving a lecture on the connection between the olfactory organ and the brain, how the sense of smell and our memories and emotions are intertwined with each other. Honestly I don’t care that you are the head physician of your department because you honestly didn‘t care about my feelings either.
Now let’s do a little rewind. You were showing us pictures of ‘everyday situations’ that emphasised the importance of memory/emotions and smell wiring. The smell of apple pies can evoke happy memories in us if they remind us of our grandmothers’ baking. The smell of hay on the other hand can trigger joyful emotions if we spent blissful days in rural areas during our childhood, or they can provoke bad ones if they are connected to horses’ droppings. I was chuckling a little bit when you mentioned that.
And then the final slide came up.
It was so quick, like a person passing by. So casual, you almost would have fooled me into thinking it was only a footnote. The impact was big enough for me though to immortalise that one singular moment on my blog. You were showing us a picture of a basket full of grilled ‘insect snacks’. It was quick enough that most of us students couldn’t even see if they were crickets, or spiders or for Western culture even more peculiar insects. Your words stung though.
‘The Chinese, they have other preferences.’
Which kind of preferences did you mean? You didn’t mean the stereotypes that are made up by Western culture, did you? Like that we usually have grilled bugs for dessert? The very same ones that can only come to fruition through inconsiderate comments and behaviour like yours? You know how you made it even worse? By posing the apple pie picture right next to said picture. I guess you wanted to get your point across by juxtaposing two cultures, but for me it backfired.
Did you expect us students to laugh? Perhaps you have always been interested in Far East Asian culture. Perhaps you wanted to achieve some sort of maximum learning effect for us students by contrasting two different cultures. Perhaps you have been giving this very same lecture for years and years now and you have always made this very same ‘funny’ comment. And if I had to take a guess, I would say that probably no one has ever called you out on your insensitive and hurtful comment. Were you really thinking of the Chinese culture, a culture that is one of the oldest in the world and that arguably has the longest continuous history of any country in the world, when you were pulling that ‘joke’, or any East Asian culture at all? Because if you did, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now and writing you this letter. Or was it my fault because I just happened to attend your lecture? But then, a dutiful student should always attend their lectures to gain more relevant skills and knowledge, don’t they?
It hurt, okay? And I don’t want you to get away with this, like so many people like you have before. The problem, dear (male) uneducated professor, is that by ridiculing a marginalised culture with your careless comment, you hit a nerve that so many before you have hit already but never cared to acknowledge. I know it probably wasn’t your intention to hurt anyone’s feelings.
And yet, here we are. The problem is that you are the explosion and I am the effect. What you thought was ‘exotic’ and hence humour-worthy was only amusing at the expense of a marginalised culture in the Western world. Just a quick note, fried spiders would rather be considered a delicacy in the southern part of South East Asia such as Cambodia, not where you geographically placed them. But the fact is that with microaggressions like that, you became part of a culture that dismisses empathetic intercultural understanding and spurs on sensationalising ‘exotic cultures’. Perhaps you only saw your sentence as a sarcastic comment. But granted that you knew you were giving a lecture in front of more than 100 students and uttering a comment that had nothing to do with the topic you were supposed to lecture us on, mind you, it was ultimately an act of selfish, imprudent and careless behaviour. Well? Did you see the bigger context when you were preparing your lecture?
On a medical-related level, I think your lecture was flawless. On a human-professional level however, I wished you would have struck a more empathetic note, if only for this one little segment. Better yet, you could have simply left out this slide. But you didn’t. This is why we are here now. Words have power, professors have power and a combination of both can be so forceful, negative and positive. Even though I really admire your medical expertise, it didn’t protect me from the pain I would feel when I heard your razor-sharp comment, or the fact that I can’t stop poring over the impact your words would have on your average ‘uneducated’/privileged student now.
It’s not your duty to teach us anything about intercultural relations, but it is your duty to teach us to become good doctors, professionals that love their jobs and their patients. Persons full of integrity. It’s that easy, and if you fail to see that you are a part of a so much bigger puzzle, it’s disheartening. So let it be known that yes, words matter, even if you think they don’t in a certain context. They can make things grow and yet they can be poisonous. We’re not sleeping. We’re fully awake.
a fifth-year medical student who attended your lecture today