Interviewing Cynthia Tan, Anesthesiology Resident and Mental Health Advocate

Cynthia Tan is an anesthesiology resident who has received a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, Masters in Public Health, and International Medical Graduate certificate. She was born in Malaysia, but has completed her schooling and volunteered in places worldwide, including Australia, England, South Africa, Nepal, Indonesia, and Thailand. In her free time, Tan enjoys scuba diving, cooking different recipes, and practicing yoga. Having undergone her mental health journey, she now encourages the Asian community to seek out the help they need, despite fighting against cultural stigmas. 


Kayla Wang:

I was incredibly moved by your article with Shimmer on overcoming the stigma of being an Asian immigrant doctor battling depression because it truly resonated with me and my struggles with mental health. I’ve also been afraid to talk to my parents about wanting to speak to a therapist because doing so would be admitting that I was “sick” or “ill.” You mentioned that this topic is tabooed with the older Asian generation—what advice would you give to adolescents who are afraid to disappoint or talk to their family to seek help? How should they approach the situation if they’re growing up in a strict or toxic household?

Cynthia Tan:

That’s a tough question. I think a huge part is educating your parents and your older generation. For me, I’m very thankful that my parents are very supportive. I think it was still a new concept to them that I was going to speak to a psychiatrist. They originally said to me, “Oh, that’s the Western way of doing things.” I had to explain to them—well this is what’s happening to me and I’m feeling upset—so I need to speak to someone about it. As great as it is to have family support, I had to explain to them that these people are like doctors. They’re trained to help people who are struggling with their minds, feelings, and thoughts. I think breaking it down and explaining the role of mental health providers is important. Especially with Asian parents, many of them like to go to Chinese doctors or go for Chinese medicine. If you relate to them how it’s similar to them going to a Chinese doctor for their specific reasons, you can help make the connection that there are specifically trained professionals who you would like to go see. 

In terms of a toxic family or household, I know a lot of people who have to go see a therapist and keep it to themselves. I think that’s hard for them because they still have that burden and guilt of not telling their parents. You should work out a way to have open discussions. If you try to talk to your parents or aunts and uncles, and they aren’t being supportive of it, take a step back and try again another time. If you keep trying and they’re being very difficult about it, then you end up beating yourself up over going to see someone. You’ll end up asking yourself: what’s the point of seeing someone if no one is supporting me?

Wang: 

I totally relate to that! I know my parents are also firm believers in herbal medicine and don’t believe in Western medicine. 

Tan: 

Yeah, sometimes when I’m sick my mom is like, have you drank enough warm water? And I’m like uh—I don’t think warm water works mom. 

Wang: 

How did you know that anesthesiology was your passion, considering how many Asians feel pressured to pursue a route in the medical field from a young age even without exploring other options? Was there a particular “a-ha!” moment?

Tan: 

I went into college without thinking that I was gonna be a doctor. I did biomedical sciences but I thought that I would end up doing research or lab work. Throughout my upbringing, and in college, I had volunteer experiences where I realized that I liked caring for people and working with others. When I was in the lab, I felt like I was itching for more. Sciences are great and I love what they do, but I like the human interaction aspect. I wanted to talk to people, so I applied for medical school and got accepted. In my second or third year of schooling in England, I was exposed to anesthesiology in terms of clinical rotations. Oftentimes, the anesthesiologists were very willing to teach and help me, so I liked that. 

I also spent some time in anesthesiology in Nepal. There was one incident where the hospital went into a complete power outage in the middle of surgery, yet the anesthesiologist still did everything so calmly and well. I was like wow, you can tell how the patients trust and love them. They had this special bonding connection! 

Anesthesia is probably the most science basic heavy because the content involves pharmacology and physiology. One of my hobbies is scuba diving, which connects to critical care sciences and is similar to anesthesia. I think it was a mixture of my interest in science in addition to great teachers that made me have this epiphany of what I wanted to do. 

Wang:

You expanded on the stereotype of the model minority myth and how it deeply affects how we think we should live, how we go about surface-level success and hard work. Have you faced any discrimination or microaggressions as a result of this stereotype as you went through schooling and right now with residency? 

Tan: 

Definitely. I think microaggressions are very common. People would say “Oh you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re going to get A’s because you’re Asian.” I accepted it. However, as I grew older, I knew that it was because of the model minority myth. As a result, they would stereotype Asians as smart, good in science and math, and the type to always get A’s. I didn’t always get A’s. I had done badly on some exams and that affected me as well. I expected so much more of myself, whether or not because I’m Asian or because other people were expecting it of me. It’s not just what society expects from us, but it pushes us to expect something of ourselves. It becomes this very vicious cycle. Even when I was working as a doctor in England for a year, I had patients who would say “I don’t want that lady to touch me, she’s Asian,” or “Get me a non-Asian doctor or non-Asian person.” Sometimes they wouldn’t even call me a doctor because I was Asian. 

Wang: 

That’s horrible! I’m so sorry you had to go through that. You shared the blatant racism you experienced both as a junior doctor in the UK and when you moved to the US. How do you continue to not let these comments affect your journey and how would you encourage the Asian community to stop, as you said, “putting our heads down and suffering in silence”?

Tan: 

I think for me, I suffered in silence for too long which resulted in my mental health struggles. I think my biggest thing is not being afraid to speak out. Nowadays, I’m trying to be a voice for Asians and Asian medical professionals because if we keep suffering by keeping things in, we’re just going to burst one day. I know it’s hard because we’re always told to put our head down, but having great family and friend support who know what you’re going through is a start of awareness. If you’re not afraid of sharing on social media platforms, that helps. If there are opportunities for volunteers to come out and share their stories, I think that also helps. It’s hard to continue sometimes because you feel beaten up about it and let it get to you. But I think knowing that when you do share, and it’s reached someone and they tell you, “I hear you,” it makes a difference. It’s scary, but even taking a step to share with a friend is huge. 

Wang: 

It’s been a chaotic experience for everyone to go through a global pandemic alongside an essential and clear rise in racial justice movements in the past year. You have a master’s in public health and have volunteered in places all over the world like South Africa, Indonesia, and Thailand! Given this, do any fears arise for you working in such critical and demanding departments, such as exposure to diseases or health conditions to yourself and loved ones? 

Tan:

No, I mean you don’t think about it when you know that’s what you’ve dedicated your life to do. I’ve had needle stick injuries before, where in a critical situation, I accidentally jab a needle into my hand that I used on a patient. I get worried thinking: what if I get Hepatitis? or what if I give myself HIV? I think it’s something you just don’t think about because you’ve dedicated your life to doing medicine and you’ve dedicated your life to saving patients. You’re also so busy working you don’t have time to think about it. But, if you have injuries, there is a concern that you’ve exposed yourself. I think doctors are most worried about HIV or Hepatitis C because everything else you can get treatment for. This includes infectious diseases. I think most of the time you remind yourself that this is what I’m doing, this is my life, this is what I’m devoted to, so I’m going to do my job. 

Wang: 

With volunteering, was there a particular experience in these places that was very memorable?

Tan: 

I think South Africa was definitely one of my most memorable volunteering experiences. I did a month in a small community that was ridden with HIV. There were kids with really low CD4 counts. They were walking around with sores on their legs because they had AIDS and all kinds of skin conditions. It happened to be right before I applied for med school. The volunteering experience was a lightbulb moment telling me that this was really what I wanted to do. I want to care for and help people in that capacity. Even then, it just showed me how lucky and how privileged we are living in a developed country. We have a roof over our heads, food, and water. These kids were often orphans and children of rape victims because that was common in South Africa. It made me feel so grateful and appreciative for what I had. I saw how happy these kids were running around in this orphanage. I guess ignorance is bliss since they don’t know what else is out there. They were just happy at the moment. Ultimately, it taught me that it’s the simple things in life that are important.

Wang:

As an international medical graduate and being a Malaysian Chinese who has lived in Australia and England, I’m sure you’ve been immersed in diverse cultures! Since cooking is a treasured pastime of yours, what is your all-time favorite recipe, and is it inspired by cuisines in those places?

Tan: 

I love food in general, so it’s really difficult to pick! If I had to pick one that’s quick and easy, it would be a Malaysian dish called Char Kway Teow. It’s rice noodles and you fry it with bean sprouts and shrimp. It’s super delicious and they sell it in most Malaysian places in the city. I think it would be my go-to, but I love everything so I like to experiment. Char Kway Teow only takes me 15 minutes!


Inspired by Cynthia’s story and expertise in the medical industry and would like to hear more? Follow her on Instagram as she shares about her life, IMG tips, and her experience in residency!


If you liked what you read, be sure to subscribe and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @invisibleasians to stay updated on Politically Invisible Asians!