Identity, Expectations and Choice: Asian Americans on the Premedical Track

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Now that I am a college senior, the most pressing question on anyone’s mind seems to be, “What are you planning to do after graduation?” Many people are visibly unsurprised to hear that I have set my sights on medicine. Their eyes thank me for confirmation of what they guessed I would want. From people who know me well, this is a compliment—that if I keep working hard, I might make a good doctor someday—or, if not a compliment, at least a seal of approval, encouragement to fight the long fight in pursuit of my dream. From people who hardly know me, though, I start to wonder how much the Asian American stereotype affects their perception of me and other Asian premeds like me. And for a second, I start to wonder how our stories and our identities, shaped by the assumptions of others, might affect our own self-perceptions.

When I told my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, they were supportive, but not too supportive, because they knew how difficult the path would be, and told me they didn’t want to influence my decision-making process. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, kissed me on the cheek and thanked me. When I asked her why, she said it was because she never had a doctor she really trusted, and she wasn’t getting any younger.

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Because both my parents were born in the US (as were my paternal grandparents), I do not feel some of the pressures other first-generation Asian Americans face. For instance, my close friend from freshman year, a first-generation Chinese American, has a background vastly different from my own. While my parents only speak English at home, his parents primarily speak Mandarin. While I have never had the opportunity to visit Asia and am unfamiliar with what relatives I might have there, my friend is close with his relatives in China, where he lived for a time, and often visits during the summer. And while I was the only fully ethnically Asian boy in my grade for as long as I can remember, he attended a magnet school with a majority of Asian students. To him, some of the pressure to become a doctor stemmed from a competitive environment among his Asian-American friends, people with whom he and his parents naturally made comparisons. In my case, any pressure I felt was my own reactionary response to fitting too neatly into stereotypes my classmates would good-naturedly joke about. Above all else, I wanted to self-define, and for a time, this meant rejection of some of my actual likes for things that I could claim as my own.

Our experiences also diverged in terms of parenting. I was fortunate enough to have parents who wanted, above all else, for me to enjoy the process of growing up, so long as that meant I could one day live with the satisfaction that I made the most of my chances and was doing what I wanted to do. I appreciated this lack of parental pressure growing up, but never as much as I did after hearing some of my friend’s stories.

“I had to practice an hour of violin and an hour of piano every day, which didn’t leave time for a whole lot else. Practicing these instruments,” he said, “taught me to multi-task. To have time to read books like Redwall or Harry Potter when I was younger, I would practice with the books open on my music stand, and would read and play at the same time.”

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“Actually,” he added, “that’s how I came to prefer piano over violin; it’s much more difficult to turn the page while holding a violin and bow.”

The first time we went for a drink, he was visibly nervous. When I asked him what was the matter, he revealed to me that he had never tasted alcohol before, out of fear of what his parents might say. “At my high school,” he told me, “at least in the magnet program, there was no culture of underage drinking. If one of your friends were at a party one weekend, you used that weekend to study more to get ahead of him.”

Sometimes, when we were out, his parents would call. He would always leave to someplace quiet so he could answer, which I never understood. Finally, he revealed to me that his mom would often call on weekend nights to make sure he was studying, and he would have to lie about where he was and what he was doing. “She never actually tells me to study. But the pressure is implicit, so I have to make sure she doesn’t worry. It’s actually kind of strange. Sometimes I wonder if she actually thinks I never go out, and that I’ve quit all the clubs she says I don’t have time for,” he said.

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I can’t imagine having to decide what I wanted to be under such circumstances, and I’m thankful my friend was able to finally diverge, however slightly, from the path his parents had wanted for him for so long. He recently decided that he did not want to go into medicine, and instead hopes to attend graduate school to go into research. When he first told me of his decision, it looked as if he had finally been able to take the piano off his back. His visible physical relief made me believe his decision was the right one.

Though no two cases are the same, many Asian American students recognize the great sacrifices their parents or grandparents made in order for them to have a chance to live successfully and comfortably. It’s hard not to be motivated to succeed when considering the unlikely circumstances surrounding the opportunity. The challenges of immigration are many, and often involve forsaking an easier life in a place called home to start anew, with the hope that one day their children or grandchildren might live comfortably. In light of these calculated choices, pursuing medicine makes sense from a risks-rewards standpoint— after following a clear-cut path, unemployment is unlikely and a six-figure salary seems guaranteed, if you can get through. But the challenge for the children of these immigrants lies in overcoming a sort of intergenerational burden—the undue pressure to fulfill deferred dreams, so that years of personal sacrifices finally bear fruit. To me, much of the intergenerational conflict for Asian Americans lies in the value differences in defining the nature of that success.

Because obtaining a medical degree requires so many years of preparation, and the field is one in which dead certainty is required, the combination of pressure, prestige and prematurely forced decisions make many students decide to become doctors before they have a real idea of what they want to do. To appreciate what I actually want, I need an awareness of whatever else might be obscuring my perspective. Every person is different, but in my case, I will have to differentiate my desire to do something I want and an innate desire to make my parents happy and proud.

While I recognize the challenge of learning how dreams and identity fit together in my story, I’m confident that if I am honest with myself and am never too quick to close doors before doors need closing, I will come to know exactly what I want to be.

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alex-jonokuchi

Alex Jonokuchi

Alex is a Neuroscience major in his senior year at Columbia University. At school, he is a research assistant in a brain imaging lab, an outdoor orientation leader and Vice President of his fraternity. In his quest to become a doctor, he hopes never to forget how much he enjoys campfires, baseball games, short stories, and the taste of a perfectly hopped pale ale.