Peter Chin-Hong Explores Identity and History in 2021 Last Lecture

By Robin Marks

Knowing the whole story matters. 

That idea was at the heart of the 2021 UCSF Last Lecture, delivered by Peter Chin-Hong, MD, associate dean and professor in the School of Medicine. 

The last lecture has become a tradition at UC San Francisco in which students elect one of their professors to respond to the question, “If you have but one lecture to give, what would you say?”

Chin-Hong wove together his upbringing in Trinidad, calypso music, guest appearances and an animated hummingbird representing his mother during the virtual event held April 6.

In his talk, Chin-Hong encouraged viewers to consider their own personal histories, from their ancestral roots to changes they’ve seen in themselves over time, and to use their understanding of history to find their own voice and to see others in a more nuanced way. 

“We’re shaped by our community identity,” said Chin-Hong, “and we are who we are known to be. But our reputation is constantly being revised, constantly being edited and recast as the many truths we bring to the table get revealed. And the longer you look at someone, the more you will see these truths.”

In other words, we see a person differently as we get to know them. 

Chin-Hong said he experienced this in a dramatic way while watching his grandmother in Trinidad, where his Chinese immigrant family owned a shop that served their rural village. 

One day, when he was 7, Chin-Hong said, a small crowd raised a ruckus outside the shop when they noticed a large poisonous snake slithering in a trellis by the neighbor’s house. As the crowd clamored over what to do, they concluded the only solution was to call Miss Ivy, as Chin-Hong’s grandmother was known. 

Miss Ivy, who stood watch over the cash register, left her post and grabbed a hunting rifle. “She rushed across the road, not wasting any time, took aim confidently, and POW!” said Chin-Hong. “By the time I saw that snake, it was reduced to a pile of eviscerated and motionless flesh.”

The episode completely changed his childlike view of his grandmother; it became an example for him of the narrow ideas we may have about someone when we don’t know their whole story.

“What this taught me is that we have to fight the pressure to flatten someone into one-dimensional caricature.”  

Chin-Hong also relayed a story illustrating the importance of not flattening our responses to challenging situations, but instead approaching obstacles in an unexpected way. 

Fast forward from childhood in Trinidad to April 2020 and COVID-19.

The Association of Black Cardiologists had organized an online conference called The Heart of the Matter: Unmasking the Invisibility of COVID-19 in Diverse Populations. Chin-Hong had the opening speaker slot in the event. 

“We were being Zoom-bombed,” he said, recounting the racist content of the bomber’s chats. “There was no way to stop this. Our technical team was unable to check the bombers, and we were caught in this ongoing onslaught of hate.”

The panelists chatted frantically among themselves about how to address these messages, which were going to the whole audience. Then Chin-Hong’s colleague, professor of medicine Michelle Albert, MD, MPH, took charge. 

“She told us to soldier on, that we were doing a great job, and we will finish this,” said Chin-Hong. Then chats from the audience started trickling in, and then flooding, with comments like “Thank you to all the panelists, we love you so much.” “Thank you for this wonderful webinar.” “Thank you to all the speakers.”

“Soon these messages from the audience, hundreds and thousands of them, overwhelmed the haters,” he said, amazed at how the audience’s flood of sentiment had turned the tide. “I went home, I tweeted about it, I started publicizing it.”

The experience, particularly Albert’s graceful leadership, had a profound effect on the actions Chin-Hong took as he struggled through the pandemic. “She was the wind that filled my sails, so I could make headway again,” he said.

“I was finding my voice, and I began to believe that I could do something in this pandemic,” he said. “I became enraged by structural racism and the inequities that COVID unearthed.”

These feelings drove Chin-Hong to make his voice heard in a way he hadn’t before. “I began speaking, first timidly, then louder. I tweeted. I went on TV and went on radio. I went on podcasts, both locally, nationally, and globally,” he said. “I used the fullness of my identity joyfully, yet delivered my message deliberately.”

Sometimes what seems like joy has a story behind it that derives its momentum from the urgent need for change, he noted, citing the music he’d chosen for his soundtrack as an example. 

“Calypso may sound like a tropical vacation, but it has roots in revolution,” he explained. “It began with music of 17th century Africans enslaved in Trinidad as a means of expressing daily struggles of living and criticizing racial and economic inequities.” 

The island rhythms of calypso are both joy and political protest, said Chin-Hong. “Everything we do is a political statement, but it can be joyful, too.”

“I have profound faith in all of you to be heroic in the face of what life throws at us,” he continued, “Listen to the songs your ancestors sing to you. Be mindful of the songs you sing to others.”

“The last thing is, before I forget: Don't forget to dance like no one is watching.”