Here is a common exchange with people I just met:

“Where are you from?”
“San Diego.”
“No, I mean, where are you really from, like where did you grow up?
“Los Angeles.”
“No, you know what I mean. Like, where were you born?”
“No, I mean where are your parents from? What kind of Asian are you?”
“Washington, DC, but they moved here from Indonesia. Is that what you mean?”
“Ah, but your English is so good, and you don’t have an accent at all!”

This is a familiar conversation for many Asian Americans; rooted in an assumption that our Asian face means we are a foreigner and will inherently have communication or cultural issues.

I’m a first-generation Indonesian American, and yes, my last name, Tedjasaputra, looks impossible to pronounce (it’s phonetic, try it). My father emigrated here from Indonesia to pursue a higher education, which to our family, was the American Dream. From day one it was a struggle as he did not know a single person here and struggled with the language. To make things even harder, my mom died from cancer when I was 14, leaving him a single dad to raise four kids on his own.

Ultimately, my father’s pursuit of higher education and a better life here in America inspired me to become a scientist, and my success is his success story. I am the first and only member of my extended family to earn a Ph.D., establishing a research career studying how the heart and lungs work together during exercise in patients with chronic lung disease, and later as a professional scientific communicator.

At first glance, my career path seems standard compared to other biomedical research scientists. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Biology at UC San Diego, followed by a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology at San Diego State. Then, a six-year Ph.D. program in Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. My academic training was capped off with a postdoctoral fellowship in Pulmonary Physiology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. This is 15 years of hard training familiar to most in the biomedical sciences. But I then pivoted after my postdoc to complete a two-year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C. at the National Science Foundation in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. Now, I am the Director of Scientific Communications for the American Lung Association.

You might misattribute my success to the myth of the Model Minority, the narrative in which all Asian American children are STEM geniuses or musical prodigies as a direct result of strict “Tiger Mom” parenting, heralded as a success story of immigrant groups. This myth is harmful because it erases differences among individuals and cultures and all Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners (see my opening dialogue). It also downplays racism against Asian Americans as they are seen to have “made it” (see the persistent rise in violence against Asians), and is harmful for racial justice, driving a competitive racial wedge between people of color.

Vince Tedjasaputra, Ph.D.,
Director of Scientific Communications,
American Lung Association Vince Tedjasaputra, Ph.D.

I am much more than my degrees or the number of papers I published. I was a hammer thrower on my college track and field team, which sparked my interest in exercise physiology. After my mom died, I started singing to carry on the family tradition as a performer, which lead to me singing the Canadian National Anthem for my university in grad school for six years. Studying lung physiology was a perfect tie into my singing passion - my stage presence led to my love of public speaking. Distilling my existence into just another ‘Asian good at science,’ negating all that is unique about how my career path is intertwined with my personal pursuits.

Interestingly, Asians are overrepresented in scientific workforce, as less than 6% of the U.S. population identify as Asian yet represent 31% of STEM trainees. At first this appears to be a good thing but reinforces the “quiet worker bee” stereotype - the lack of Asians in coveted tenure-track professorships (12%) underscores the perception that they are not fit for leadership. It’s even worse for Asian American women who continually have to prove their competence more than their white male colleagues, facing the ever-present threat of “if you’re not perfect, forget it.”

Southeast Asians are grouped in with Asians as a category yet are markedly underrepresented in STEM. Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world with 273 million people, yet there are only around 129,000 Indonesians in the U.S. Indonesia’s five leading causes of death are all tobacco-related, which comes as no surprise as it has the highest rate of tobacco smoking on the planet with 70% of Indonesian males lighting up. This is one big reason I gravitated towards lung disease research as both my mother and her brother died of cancer, which could be linked to years of exposure to secondhand smoke.

However, most diversity grants I applied to did not have a subgroup option for Indonesian on their demographic questionnaires. This is a problem because these smaller subgroups tend to drop out of academia without additional support, despite being lumped in under greater umbrella of “Asian success.” I dropped out of academia too and despite my professional success, there are some in the field who still consider me a failed scientist because I did not become a tenure-track professor. This hyper-competitive environment creates greater barriers for people of color, and the entire American STEM enterprise suffers when talented people leak out of the training pipeline.

So, during this month celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage, let us recognize the contributions and influence of such a deeply diverse ethnic group to the history, culture and scientific achievements of the U.S. More importantly, let’s collectively agree to take a hard look at the daily battles we face to make a difference in this country, and especially stand up for those facing both verbal and physical violence across the country. After all, we are more than just another Asian face.

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