Rather than being inspired by an enlightening experience with a medical professional like some of my fellow pre-med peers have expressed, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability to heal others in general ever since I was young. Throughout primary and secondary school, I remained so oblivious in my fascination and excitement that I never realized what I was getting myself into. I knew nothing of the medical school process or even the specializations within the medical field. For some reason, the mantra “when there’s a will, there’s a way” was all that kept cycling though my head all those years. I never really look back at the times before 2015 because I’m (mostly) no longer that steaming pile of emo angst anymore but in reflecting back, I think that there was a lot more at play than my blissful ignorance at work.
NOTE: This was a bit of a struggle for me to write as I did not want to end up appropriating Essun’s traumatic past.
Combining the fact that I’m a 21-year-old adult now and that I’ve been attending a liberal arts university for almost four years (as an English literature major no less!), I definitely have a much better awareness of the U.S. and the world as a whole compared to when I was a tween. Most of my friends can attest to that as well since advancements in media and technology have rapidly progressed within the last two decades. When we were kids, we didn’t have personal access to any smart devices or computers until high school. These high-speed data connections allowed me to relate to societies on the other side of the world, opening up my mind past my own personal little bubble. While high school made me more open-minded, it wasn’t until I started taking English classes in college that I started to acknowledge and actively think about the bigger picture. With the upsetting rise of tyrannical political leaders (i.e. Donald Trump, Nicolas Maduro, Xi Jinping, etc.), it’s impossible for me to not vent with my friends about everything with the world at least once a day.
Even though I don’t often get angry (as in shatteringexploding with rage), I do have a constant underlying feeling of frustration because I am now made aware of all the local and international social problems (that wouldn’t even be problems if everyone would just act like decent human beings!) every time I use a smart device. This lurking tension underneath my skin has made me more attentive to others’ frustrations as well, no matter how big or small. One particular frustration I’ve noticed among both my family and my friends is their issue with medical professionals. In recent years, my family has started to depend on holistic medicine more than their licensed physicians; not because of our culture, but because they don’t trust their doctors. Surprisingly, my same-aged friends also rely on taking care of any illnesses at home. When home remedies aren’t enough, my friends claim that they go to the clinic with a list of specific medications and end up speaking with the physician’s assistant more than they do with the doctor themself.
Although their reasoning is slightly different, both groups’ issues with these professionals stem from the same problem: their doctors are too intimidating or they don’t seem to show any concern about them at all. For example, every time my mom goes to see her primary physician, she always comes back with a list of prescriptions and instructions but never with the understanding of her diagnosis. Every time she asks her doctor about a concerning symptom, the doctor always sighs and coldly responds “that’s normal, you shouldn’t be worried about that” without any further comment. An accumulation of these types of interactions are what creates a disconnect between patient and doctor and it makes me wonder what the point of going through all that schooling and training is for if you just end up pushing your patients away. If your own patients would rather heal themselves than go to your clinic, doesn’t that make you bad at your job?
I am being a bit of a hypocrite in posing that question though because there was once a time when I also thought that the only requirement you needed to be a good doctor was just being good at your studies. Throughout my college career I’ve constantly doubted whether the pre-med track was the right path for me at all because of the conflict created from this uncertainty and my fluctuating STEM grades. Who would’ve thought my decision to change my major from biology to English would help me find some clarity in my future? Not I! In fact, it was after I read The Fifth Season that I realized my doubt in both myself and my professional career have been more strongly influenced by the three educational institutions/eras in my life than I thought. With each new time period, my perspective of what I was capable of or what being a doctor entailed would shift because of the environment from which I depended on to teach me life lessons. Just as N.K. Jemisin divides the protagonist’s experiences into three individuals, I find my own history to be divided into three similar, chronological experiences in which I can sympathize my own journey towards understanding what kind of future is right for me with Essun’s journey towards understanding her orogenic abilities.
Up until the eighth grade, I was innocent Sabeen, otherwise known as the name that my grandma would call me with her thick Toishanese accent. I always associate this name with my childhood right before I had to step foot into the “real” world. For ten years, I went to the tiny, private Catholic school literally half a block away from my house with the same, isolated community of 25 kids (who were mostly Italian-American). The school was so miniscule like Damaya’s comm Brevard that none of my high school friends who were raised in the same neighborhood ever even noticed it. Nothing exciting ever happened there but everyone always looked forward to the Scholastics Book Fair every year, which led to my love for all sorts of magical fantasy book series. Back then, without much deep understanding of science or the human body, I often saw any sort of healing to be a form of magic which definitely appealed to my nerdy little brain (it didn’t help that Chinese traditional medicine often includes foul herbal concoctions that really remind one of a witch’s brew) and contributed to my ignorance of how one becomes a doctor. As Sabeen understood the causation of certain methods (i.e. icing a bruise will make it heal faster) but not how the method works, Damaya knows how to activate her orogeny but not how to explain what orogeny is.
Since my parents are immigrants they were constantly gone for work and didn’t know anything about the American education system, so they always just assumed that the school would provide advice as I got closer to eighth grade. However, my school didn’t have a guidance counselor or anything like that and since I wasn’t aware that I should’ve been thinking ahead, I never though to ask anybody about it. Without any adult guidance for years, I just methodically went to school and cruised through every year with average grades like any other student. Luckily in the seventh grade, a friend’s parents mentioned the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) to my parents. My dad responded by signing me up for prep classes with their daughter in the year before the test was to be taken. Similar to Damaya’s early days in the Fulcrum, I adapted well to the classes and my grades significantly improved as a result. Although the sudden unearthing of this academic potential threw me off and I didn’t know where to direct it, I figured it couldn’t mean anything bad. Unfortunately, my new capabilities also contributed to the toxic model minority stereotype for Asian Americans (in that we are expected to be smarter amongst other traits than other ethnic groups) as both the teachers and my parents un/consciously began to start expecting more from me and to constantly keep climbing “as expected.”
In a high school where everyone had to choose majors for their last two years, I was selected for a rigorous pre-med program called Gateway which was the only major that lasted the full four years. Compared to junior high where I was known as “one of the two asian girls,” I had to get reacquainted with my name “Sabrina” in a high school with a 60% Asian student body just as Syenite had to choose her name to identify herself as a Fulcrum-trained orogene. The student body of this school was literally 16x the size of my junior high so I had to constantly introduce myself all to the point where “Sabrina” felt like a title but at least it was mine. Just as Syenite created an identity for herself amongst other orogenes, I started to carve a space of my own amongst my pre-med peers. Due to the requirements of the program, my classmates and I had to fulfill our general requirements as well as various STEM classes that are all scheduled by the school in order to challenge and best prepare us for a smooth transition into a competitive college. The program often grouped “cream of the crop” students together (which some people took a little too far) and I felt appropriately challenged but also afraid that I would struggle to keep up my grades because even though I had potential I was nowhere near perfect. If political tact is Syenite’s weakness, then history and geography are mine as I struggled to get closer to my own version of a tenringer’s status. I related to Syenite’s hesitation in accepting the mission with Alabaster because in risking the chance of being imperfect, I had the fear that I might lose any opportunity altogether and be replaced with another “model minority.”
Back then, I genuinely believed that I wanted to specialize in dermatology because of my family’s medical history (not that I still don’t have an interest in it). However, being constantly surrounded by peers who easily maintained 4.0 GPAs with the lofty dreams of, for example, becoming neurosurgeons had warped my own desires. Instead of taking the time to figure out my true aspiration, I believed that I wanted to fit in with the community and have an “impressive” (AKA a job that was known to be difficult or made decent money) dream as well in order to stay on the same step of the ladder with my classmates to even stay in the community. The constant pressure of having at least two AP STEM classes a semester left me with the impression that one had to stay in STEM as an undergrad before applying for medical school. This belief became so ingrained in me that I didn’t even bat an eye at the enjoyment I felt from taking an AP English literature and composition class and automatically entered Geneseo as a biology major right after. I was reminded of Syenite constantly having apathetic sex with Alabaster because it was her duty as a Fulcrum orogene (which is technically her comm at the time) despite the two’s respective feelings. The continuous emphasis on grades from the Gateway advisor even pushed me to believe that the more knowledgeable of the STEM topics one was, the better doctor one would be. I ended up being so focused on the grades that I just assumed I would love dermatology as long as I made it in medical school; kind of like how Syenite assumes that being a tenringer is living the life but Alabaster proves otherwise.
Now that I’m about to graduate from undergrad, I can comfortably settle as Sab. For a long time, I subconsciously thought that being at the top would give me happiness but I was definitely wrong about that. My initial two years as a biology major taught me that research is really not my passion and that my capability of being of a doctor is not limited by my grades. I’ve realized pretty late in the game (but not too late!) that not only do medical students not have to be limited to a STEM major but also that dermatology isn’t the right fit for me. I had a slight panic attack at the end of sophomore year from the stifling weight in my chest as I watched my STEM grades slowly go down the drain because of the biology major classes that I didn’t even need for medical school. With the overwhelming number of pre-med students in Geneseo, the STEM department (specifically biology) is focused on weeding out the weak students and pushing students to believe that their failure in the STEM classes meant that they weren’t capable of achieving their dream. It didn’t seem real when I switched over to an English major and yet was still continuing my pre-med track; it was like when Essun entered Castrima and couldn’t comprehend how orogenes and stills were somehow co-inhabiting. However, I finally accepted that I didn’t have to be at the top (a tenringer) according to the system’s standards in order to be a doctor. I realized that I get the same warm, satisfied feeling of completing a successful English assignment (because it’s something I genuinely enjoy) when I help diagnose/ take care of my friends when they get sick. While grades are a part of the equation, a doctor also needs to be an excellent friend and listener to their patients to soothe both their body and mind from pain.
Looking back on my previous English classes and from building my NRA post specifically, these classes have honestly taught me how to be more compassionate and how to be a better listener, friend, citizen, and human being in general by allowing me to refine my critical thinking and communication skills both inside and outside of class. In becoming a more competent and ethical human being, I am able to clear some of the doubt I hold in my abilities as a professional and as Sabrina Chan. This doubt was constantly present in my blog posts from Dr. McCoy’s 101 class last year as it would take me weeks to spit out a blog post because I did not believe my thoughts were strong or solid enough to send out onto the blog page. In the 431 class however, the blog posts helped me value my own thoughts better by pushing me to accept my confusion and doubt. Rather than holding all these thoughts and ideas inside, I realized that I could turn my doubt into a stepping stone that might benefit myself and others. By clearing this self-doubt, I can solidly declare that I would love to be a general physician in the near future!