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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Teaching Foreign-Born Doctors The Ways Of Rural Iowa

Have you ever had trouble communicating with a doctor from a different background? A quarter of all medical doctors in the U.S. are foreign born, and that’s led to some misunderstandings in places like rural Iowa, where farmers are trying to communicate medical problems to doctors from India or Egypt.

In Iowa they’re trying to bridge that gap with a cultural literacy program that teaches foreign-born doctors how to make small talk about farming, why Iowans keep talking about the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.

Doctors are also taught how to recognize and respond when a patient is acting “Iowa nice,” meaning they don’t open up about certain illnesses in fear of inconveniencing the doctor.

The program is at the Mercy Medical Center in Mason City, Iowa, and it’s created and taught by two University of Northern Iowa Professors: Michelle Devlin and Mark Grey.

Mark Grey, anthropology professor, told Here & Now’s Robin Young that “We spend an awful lot of time talking about understatement, how polite they [Iowans] tend to be, which of course drives foreign-born doctors nuts because they come from cultures that tend to be much more expressive.”


  • Mark Grey, anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa

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  • Algeez

    I would like an explanation of why you continually differentiate between “Caucasians” and “Latinos”.  “Caucasian” denotes a racial group while “Latinos” are a cultural ethnicity. In fact, most Latinos (excepting largely Puerto Ricans  and Cubans of African origin) ARE Caucasian. You would be more accurate in your comparisons by the use of terms like “Anglo-European” or simply “Anglo”. Finally, I would caution you to NEVER use a comparison like “Whites” v. “Latinos”. Most Latinos like myself find it appalling and offensive as being characterized as “Non-white”.

    • Former Iowan resident

      From a California perspective, the tendency to differentiate between “Caucasians” (whites/gringos/Yankees) and Latinos has to do with how countless Americans of Mexican and mestizo/mixed (Spanish-indio-other) descent have often been treated in a manner similar to African Americans or foreign immigrants in terms of education, job opportunities, access to home loans, voting, civil rights, interracial marriage, etc. since 1848 (when most of northern Mexico became the U.S. southwest). There was a landmark law case about educational discrimination against Latinos that PREDATES the more well-known Brown v. Board of Education ruling: Mendez, et al v. Westminster School District, et al. in 1946  challenged racial segregation in Orange County, California schools. A federal court ruled that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate “Mexican schools” was unconstitutional, but that didn’t mean the end of discrimination and second-class citizenship in U.S. schools for children of Mexican and/or Latino descent. Hence, the term Chicano becoming a term of pride and Brown Power in the 1960s, when many mestizo students walked out of their classrooms because they were sick of being treated like they were stupid or worthless because they weren’t considered “White” or properly “American” by their teachers and other school officials (these Blowouts included Filipinos as well). In other words, while some Latinos may be light-skinned (güero) and White- or Euro/Spanish- identified, and while the U.S. government has occasionally allowed Latinos to be legally classified as “Caucasian,” many Latinos and Mexican-Americans/Chicanos in the United States have rarely had full access to the economic, social, and political privileges of whiteness and Caucasian/”American” identity. When I was teaching at U of Iowa, one of my white EuroAmerican students admitted that while he was bilingual in Spanish and English and felt comfortable communicating with his co-workers of Mexican descent, he tended to speak only English when other White people were around, so other Iowans wouldn’t think he was one of Them (i.e., mistake him as a light-skinned Mexican immigrant worker). So these prejudices run deep and are very real even today.

      • Algeez

        These are pertinent and excellent observations on your part and I personally thank you for your interest. I can also reiterate countless stories of bigotry and discrimination (two separate entities, by the way) i.e. being refused housing, once even being denied a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. I was a National Merit Scholar and I attended Johns Hopkins University and still undercurrents were always present, no matter my level of education and achievement. There is one constant, by the way. I will NEVER accept being denigrated because of my ethnic background nor will I stop responding to stories like these , witness for instance my original comment. I can only hope there are more out there like you.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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