Off the Beaten Track
LAST WEEKEND I made two decisions. I quit the premed track and I moved to the right politically. The two, surprisingly enough, are related.
I am an Asian-American--more specifically, I'm Korean-American. You know the stereotype: studious, passive, sometimes cliquish--but individually inconspicuous and unoffensive, even deferent, crouched over thick science texts in Cabot library for hours at a time, impervious to politics and completely anal.
And, most conspicuously, on the premed track.
As with most stereotypes, many find this one offensive. This past weekend, I attended the National Conference on University Race Relations at the University of Virginia School of Law, where a Black female law student said, "I know lots of Asians who don't just study. That stereotype is completely untrue." The Asian female law student standing next to her nodded, "Yeah, that's right."
That statement really pissed me off. First of all, what she said was patronizing, coming from someone who isn't Asian. Second, she thought she could dismiss for my benefit a stereotype that had been uncomfortably palpable to me all my life.
With one politically correct assertion, she chucked the struggle of my life into the garbage heap of politically incorrect generalizations.
Until high school, studying was my life. It was only after I found out that Harvard admitted only the well-rounded that I joined a slew of clubs and activities. I was pressured into making myself atypical, special, outstanding, characteristically non-Asian.
Even today, I know a few Asians at Harvard who concentrate in English and whose shirt pockets are free of four-color clicker pens. But I know many Asian science concentrators and even more Asian premeds.
Stereotypes don't materialize out of thin air. No matter how patently offensive, distorted or uncomfortable, there is always a certain degree of statistical significance at the core.
Whenever I meet an Asian student at Harvard, I offer the same salvo of ice-breaking questions: "Hi. What house do you live in? What's your concentration? Are you a premed?"
When they are premed, about half the time, after a moment of hesitation, they admit it--but often with a tinge of embarrassment. Still, the running tally I keep falls overwhelmingly on the side of the stereotype: many Asians are premed.
"IKNOW A LOT of Asians who don't just study." At that moment, I realized what a sham political correctness is--a placebo, a magic hallucinogenic pill that causes uncomfortable facts to recede into a distant haze. Political correctness directs all our frustrations at racists, real or imaginary, at the price of losing any realistic assessment of ourselves.
Asian-Americans get the short end of the multicultural stick. I feel like we're the only large minority at Harvard without a collective sense of identity. Black students have Black pride, Black culture, Black role models, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and a fledgling professor named Spike Lee who can draw thousands to Sanders Theatre.
Jewish students have Hillel, Alan M. Dershowitz, Zionism and a collective sense of persecution and strength. Both of these groups have things to write Crimson editorials about, week in and week out, from the Confederate flag to Leonard Jeffries.
Asian-Americans, by contrast, languish in a never-ending identity crisis, both individually and collectively. We suffer from a conspicuous lack of role models and political causes, rallying points and shared symbols. In short, we lack a public life.
Our struggles have remained largely private and individual--getting good grades, fitting into a social scene, managing our own affairs. At Asian-American Association meetings, I feel absolutely no esprit de corps but rather a suspicious inkling that everybody joins simply to pad their resumes. We have a stubborn, sad tendency to atomize into our individual selves. Hence the premed syndrome.
Last weekend, when I told my mother that I was leaving the premed track, she refused to let me hang up the phone until I promised to finish my premed requirements and take the MCAT. Left no other choice, I hung up on my mom for the first time. She fears for me more than she hopes for me, and for her the security of my future far outweighs the fulfillment of my dreams.
Her sentiment is a common one among Asian-Americans. Professors don't make any money, she told me. She said I wouldn't find a woman who would marry me, either.
I apologize to all the Asian-American premeds who really have a genuine interest in medicine. I know they exist. But many Asian-Americans are pressured into going to medical school, whether they admit it or not, and some even convince themselves that they made the choice for themselves.
Going to medical school is an easy choice for many Asians at Harvard because it is for many Asian students and their families the default career choice. Plenty of Asians have become successful doctors, so plenty of Asians take the path most traveled. Racial discrimination is relatively uncommon in science, where recognition and advancement hinge on correct answers and well-designed experiments, epitomized in lab reports and objective test scores.
IWRITE THIS, it would seem, at the risk of drawing the ire of many Asians and "politically correct" liberals at Harvard. I might even alienate some of my friends. But political correctness has come down to something too important to ignore: No one self-reflects.
Everyone covers up for everyone else, hushing every single innuendo, ignoring the obvious facts and doling out hollow compliments of every kind to every group. And since no one else will take a hard look at Asian-Americans at Harvard, Asian-Americans at Harvard will have to take a hard look at themselves. No matter what the politically correct say.