Spotlight on Merlin Chowkwanyun

In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, meet some of CUIMC's AAPI staff and faculty

Columbia historian Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD
Merlin Chowkwanyun. Photo courtesy of Merlin Chowkwanyun.

As a historian in the Mailman School of Public Health, Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, acknowledges that academically he is an odd duck: “I am surrounded by statisticians and epidemiologists and the dominant language is the language of risk ratios and quantitative modeling.”

Historians are rare within public health schools, but Mailman is unusual in having not just one, but multiple scholars on the faculty. 

“There’s a two-way feedback between people working on present day public health problems and people who like me who explore the historical roots of those problems,” says Chowkwanyun, the Donald Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences. “Sometimes people act like the problems we’re confronting just popped out of nowhere. But I think COVID has changed a lot of people's perspectives, because you can see a chain of long-term and short-term decisions that led to many countries' poor response.”

From math to history, via Lenny Bruce

Chowkwanyun’s first love was math, but the story of Lenny Bruce, a comedian who was jailed for obscenities that seem mild by today’s standards, sparked an interest in history. “I remember thinking, what on earth is going on in the 1960s that would send a stand-up comedian to prison and torpedo his career?” he says. Two courses during college at Columbia eventually turned him into a history major, including one about public health and the Black community that sparked his interest in the history of public health. (The course was taught by Samuel Roberts, a faculty member in sociomedical sciences and the history department.)

Unlike many historians who focus on public health failures, Chowkwanyun also goes back in time to understand how public health’s achievements—like environmental regulations that are now taken for granted—are established.

Activism

Local communities are often the key factor in public health’s successes and failures more than most people realize, Chowkwanyun argues in his new book, “All Health Politics Is Local.” “Health policy discourse in this country tends to take a top down, national view, very focused on health insurance and debates in DC,” he says. “But the quality of a program, whether it's implemented well, or implemented poorly, has a lot to do with the local political context.” 

Activism and social movements are also catalysts to those victories, a lesson he imparts to the students who take his course, "Health Advocacy." “I think in a health sciences setting like CUIMC, it's important to accentuate the role of activism,” Chowkwanyun says. “We often think science and evidence-based research is going to carry the day. But you often need a political force to change policy.”

A historian's view of anti-Asian hate

From his perspective as a public health historian, Chowkwanyun was not surprised when Asian Americans experienced an uptick in violence and harassment when the COVID pandemic began. “When the normal state is disrupted, people start to scapegoat, and immigrants historically have been a very convenient scapegoat,” he says.

Like many Asian Americans, Chowkwanyun has experienced an uptake in hostile behavior and even violence. “I’ve been subject to a couple explicit remarks and several strange looks.”

The behaviors are not new to the pandemic and don’t only occur out in the street. “I think a lot of Asian academics have experienced stereotyping about our demeanor. I noticed early in my career, I would get very aggressive questions during my conference presentations, and I thought, this is someone picking on the quiet Asian kid,” Chowkwanyun says. “So I adopted a public speaking style that's extremely loud and assertive, so that they knew they couldn't mess with me. It's not who I really am at all.

“I also hear things that are said sometimes about international students, about their fluency in English,” he says, “which is pretty disappointing, because both my parents were international students when they came here from China and Thailand. When I hear people insulting international students, it feels like an insult towards my parents.”

New demography

If there’s one good thing that could come from the past three months, he says, “it will be a more sophisticated understanding of this new racial demography that we're entering.”

“I think every Asian person feels invisible in the racial discourse in this country, because it’s mostly discussed in binary terms—black and white, or sometimes black, brown, and white—but it's increasingly untenable.” Asian Americans are now about 5% of the U.S population, but they are the fastest growing demographic and are projected to make up 10% of Americans in another 20 years.

“We've always noticed that whenever there's a conversation about race, Asians rarely get mentioned,” Chowkwanyun says. “So it was meaningful when President Biden mentioned anti-Asian violence in his first televised address and signed an executive order denouncing anti-Asian sentiment. Some people might just say it’s symbolism, but to me, it meant a lot and was a powerful recognition at the federal level of what Asians have been going through.

“And so I hope the past few months are a catalytic event for change. I'm heartened to see Asians taking part in broader social and racial justice endeavors, not just ones that affect themselves, and a lot more coalition-building than has existed in the past.”

Topics