“i’m so glad you didn’t go to med school,” said my father, turning briefly from the turkey he was tending on the stove. it was a few hours before thanksgiving dinner, i was setting the table (my chore since my youth), he was making the asian half of our turkey — and his words caught me completely off-guard.
the statement was so shocking because growing up, my parents’ sole ambition for me was for me to become a doctor. the plan was simple, really — i would go to inteflex, michigan’s 8-year undergrad/med program that essentially admitted high school seniors into their med school. almost all of their friends’ kids had done it — and why wouldn’t they? medicine was prestigious, stable, and financially lucrative; michigan’s med school was one of the top 10 in the country; and being in-state, they could go at minimal cost. it was the dream of every asian immigrant living in michigan.
so i went along with it. i told people that i wanted to be a neurosurgeon and was generally pleased with the “oohs” and “ahhs” i got in return. i overlooked the fact that i passed out in 6th grade after reading — yes, just reading — about a girl getting fitted for a back brace because it sounded so uncomfortable. (it was judy blume’s deenie, for those who are familiar.) even as i began to discover my own interests, i fitted them into the framework of medicine. i started to be curious about why people behave the way they do, so i figured that i could go into psychiatry. i became interested in theater, so i reasoned that i could major in theater as my undergrad major before med school. when i mentioned this to my mother, she said, “you can do whatever you want, as long as you get your m.d. as a backup.” like michael crichton, she said. it sounded reasonable to me then.
but then, in my early high school years, i began to see that i really did not want to be a doctor, and this began a long-standing conflict with my parents — especially my father. there was more than one shouting match. the arguments became less and less rational (he had always wanted to be a doctor, and since i had his genes, i wanted to be a doctor too. what?), and the more we fought, the more resistant i became.
… to them, at least. otherwise, i was a bit of a mess. i knew that i didn’t want to be a doctor, but i didn’t know what else i wanted to do. on top of that, pretty much every high-achieving person i knew was pre-med — or pre-engineering, which interested me even less. medicine was the very definition of a successful student. so while i resisted at home, whenever other people asked what i wanted to do with my life, i told them that i was pre-med. i went to orientation at michigan and signed up for organic chemistry and multivariable calculus. those choices made sense to me at the time, but looking back, i think i just didn’t know what else to do. this path was all i knew.
it wasn’t until the middle of my first semester that i finally threw in the towel for good. after working on an orgo coursepack for 6 hours on a saturday afternoon, i realized that it wasn’t worth it to put this kind of time into a career i didn’t want. the only part of medicine that interested me was the part relating to psychology… so why bother with anatomy and physiology and all the rest? it was a liberating moment, but also a scary one. if not math and science, what else was i supposed to do?
i knew that i liked psychology — it had seemed like the perfect pre-med and pre-theater major, and even though i was no longer pursuing either, i still loved the subject itself. i knew that i had been called into full-time ministry. my mom, hearing my dilemma (and fearing that i would enter the pastorate and my salary would be dependent on other people’s mercy), introduced me to a friend of hers who was a christian clinical psychologist. it seemed to fit well — it was essentially the part of medicine that interested me without the drugs, which i didn’t want to deal with anyway. the schools she suggested — fuller, rosemead, wheaton — were christian and saw clinical psychology as a ministry of its own.
and, for my parents’ sake, it was a doctorate degree. talk of med school subsided after talk of getting a phd — a degree that both my parents hold — started to enter. and that is really the only way, i think, that my dad was able to let go of the idea of me being a medical doctor.
i didn’t know that he was actually happy that i didn’t go to med school, though, instead of mildly resigned, until today. my parents are good friends with the parents of one of my old roommates, who is an m3, and they have filled my parents in on her backbreaking schedule, her 12-hour days of studying for boards when she wasn’t in school, the fact that they had to move her to new place because she simply didn’t have the time. that, if anything, is what has made them grateful that things didn’t work out the way that they had planned.
“if you had to work like that, my heart would just ache,” my dad said.
i never thought i’d hear him say that, that he would not only put aside his dreams for me becoming a doctor but be glad that those dreams were dead. it’s been a long time since i closed that door, but now, 7 years later, it’s a bit of a comfort to know that he’s glad i closed the door too.