In celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, May’s narratives are dedicated to highlighting the voices of students who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander. Each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage with the following stories. More importantly, be ready to interface with an intimate space and allow yourself to step inside someone else’s life. The following is the narrative of Eugene Wang, a third-year medical student at KUMC.
Note: The third interview question is credited to the NYT article “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Can you share a one-minute summary of your life?
I was born in China, Shanghai, China. And I moved to the United States when I was five. I grew up mostly in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I was in about seventh or eighth grade, my family moved to Derby, Kansas and went to high school there; graduated; then went to the University of Arkansas. Then I stayed there after graduating and taught math and science at a charter school. I also coached basketball. Then after teaching for a few years, I decided to go to medical school. So that’s why I’m here now.
If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be and why?
Probably, at this point, just transitioning because I feel like I’m in between a lot of stuff. I’m not really a teacher anymore. I’m not really a doctor.
I think there’s a lot of imposter syndrome and kind of the way that we feel at this stage of things. I have a one-year-old at home. We had a baby pretty soon after getting married. So when you’re surrounded by people who are single — I would guess in medical school you are dating but not necessarily like on the marriage track — it feels like I don’t quite fit in with most of my class. I think like just you kind of feel in between a lot of different worlds.
Is it unsettling to not be in a place of certainty?
It seems like I think it is unsettling. But then you realize that you’re going to be that way until you land somewhere where you’re going to say, I’m going to stay here for the rest of my career. Because next year I will definitely be going somewhere, and it’s not really fully up to me where I will go. I could stay in Kansas City, but odds are that I probably won’t. Then also in residency, each year is going to be different. So you’re never settled into what you’re doing in residency either. Then in the third and fourth year, you’re again thinking about where you’re going to end up because now you have to find a job.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
Probably my grandfather. He’s my dad’s dad. I think I wouldn’t have said that, like, 10 years ago. But now [based on] where I’m at and understanding bits of his life, I never really got to talk to him as a cognizant person talking to another cognizant person because he passed away when I was 15.
I was already out of China for a long time at that point. So I was probably five years old when I had a real conversation with him and it wasn’t really a real conversation. I don’t necessarily have a ton of questions for him. I hear a lot about him, but I don’t really have a sense of who he was as a person, necessarily.
What is your favorite hobby?
I don’t think that school is really conducive to hobbies…Probably cooking. I like to cook a lot. During the first year of medical school, I cooked a lot, but since then, not really.
Do you have a favorite dish or cuisine?
I took a lot of different stuff and I think it changes depending on what I’ve made last and what I’ve made most in the last year. The dish I probably made most is Julia Child’s roast chicken. But I wouldn’t say that’s super fun to make. Cooking ramen is pretty fun to make. It’s a two day process. It’s a lot. It’s pretty labor intensive, but it’s the end product is really quite amazing.
What is a topic you really care about?
Figuring out how to tackle health disparities is something I care about. I think the end game is always some sort of nationalized healthcare system. It’s just how we’re going to get there and how fast we’re going to get there and whether or not certain things are going to be compromised or missing when we get there. I think every doctor sees suboptimal care or patients who don’t seek care because of health care disparities, and you kind of hope that the system will fix itself because one doctor really can’t seem to make that much of a difference.
What is your journey into medicine?
I was 31 when I entered medical school. So it’s been a while for me. My mom was a physician in China. I think both my parents were thinking about medicine as a career for me, probably before I thought about it. When I was younger, Dr. Ho, who was a researcher, he started the HAART trials and he pioneered that therapy. I remember reading the article about him in Time Magazine and I think that was probably the first time that I thought about medicine as a career.
But even then, I wasn’t super gung ho, necessarily, about medicine. I was pre-med going into college and completed the majority of my pre-med requirements. But when I finished college, I really wasn’t thinking about medicine. I wasn’t even thinking about school because I was sick of school and taking tests and going to class. So I taught high school.
After doing that, I looked at the trajectory of my career as a teacher. My job was still interesting, and really fun: building relationships with people and students and your colleagues is always a really interesting thing. But I looked at the academically challenging, the intellectually challenging side of teaching, and I just didn’t see that it was going to maintain that intellectual challenge. I saw a lot of older teachers who basically had all their lesson plans figured out, and they just updated it for each year. It really didn’t require them to think too hard about what they were teaching and why.
So I was like, Well, probably in 10 years, I won’t find this job is interesting as I do now. I can either quit my job in 10 years and figure out what I want to do. Or, I could quit my job now and figure out what I want to do. Ultimately, [I] made the decision and said, You know, I’m going to figure it out now.
I took a year off to fulfill some requirements and apply to medical school and take my MCAT and all that stuff. I didn’t get in that first cycle. That was a tough thing to kind of deal with. So I took a year to think about it and my MCAT scores were expires so I was like, I guess I’ll apply again. And I got into KU.
Was it scary to change careers? Can you talk about the emotional journey or struggles you experienced?
I think it was a bit difficult. I think it wasn’t scary from the perspective of myself. I feel like I’m always willing to take risks for me. But I think it was harder to leave the relationships that I already had. I had a great relationship with the school where I worked and a great relationship with my colleagues there. I was coaching basketball at the time. So I felt like there were people who were relying on me to do certain aspects of my job. So it’s always hard to leave positions that you feel like people are counting on you to do that.
The struggle was thinking about the parts of teaching that I did enjoy and the parts of coaching that I did enjoy. And wondering, is this what going into medicine going to be like? Is it going to be as fulfilling as some of these other things? If I was leaving my job to do like medical research, I think I would be a little bit reluctant. But I think in aspects of clinical medicine, you can still have really strong relationships with patients and your colleagues and the people around you. And it’s that relationship side of medicine, I think, that will always be fulfilling.
[After] talking to a lot of doctors, they’re like, there will come a point where you just get really good at your job. And the intellectual challenge really isn’t there day to day, but the emotional challenges and the relationship challenges are always going to be there. So that’s what you’re focusing on, not the “am I going to diagnose this correctly”, or “manage this condition correctly” because everyone gets, at least in their opinion, everyone gets good at their job.
Have you ever looked back on that decision and wish you had chosen differently?
Yeah, because I have friends that are still working there and still teaching there. So you hear about them winning a competition or going on an international trip or something. And you’re like, oh, man, that was really fun when we did that.
I think like there’s nothing like medicine, there’s really nothing like teaching to a certain extent. And they’re both very similar in some ways. I’m certain that I will get into some sort of teaching role at some point in the future. I just don’t know how or when.
I forgot to ask, what subject did you teach?
Math and science to pretty much all the grades in high school. The school is eighth through 12th grade.
What are your future hopes in medicine?
So a lot of that is a bit unclear because you’re not sure how you’re going to end up, where you’re going to train, and what opportunities are available to you until you get into a residency or see what research other people are doing — that kind of thing. But I think I want to be a general practitioner in OB-GYN. I would like practice where everyone is welcome and I can have a diverse patient population — that I’m not just focused on the richest people or people who can afford care. Hopefully, some of my time will be split between the regular practice of medicine and maybe focusing on higher risk populations [like] volunteering at clinics that serve higher risk populations than your normal everyday clinic.
What do you like about OB-GYN?
So my answer for this is like the most cliche answer that everyone gives for OG-GYN, which is that it’s a mix of so many different aspects of medicine. You can be a surgeon. So some days, you’re in surgery. You’re primary care for a lot of people because a lot of women don’t see their PCP. They don’t know who that person is, but they’ll go see their gynecologist and say, “By the way, I’m also having this problem” and their gynecologist is all of a sudden referring them for hypothyroidism. Then there’s also a bit of an emergency aspect because there’s a lot of obstetrical emergencies that can be managed.
I think that all of those components — the ability to form these long term relationships with patients, surgeons don’t get to really do that and ER physicians don’t really get to do that. Then on top of that, in obstetrics, you get to be there for the most joyous day of a person’s life versus a lot of professions, you’re there for the worst day of somebody’s life. And that’s, I think, something that is unique to OB-GYN.
How important is your heritage and culture to you?
It’s pretty important, but it’s always one of those things in the background. I think for a lot of Asian Americans — at least most of the Asian Americans I know — assimilation is such a big part of our culture. I think some immigrant communities are pretty insular. They focus more on staying within their communities and speaking only their language. But if you talk to Asian American young people, specifically living in like Chinatown of anywhere, you find that they want to have a diverse group of friends and they speak English without an accent and they want to branch out and find their own way in their careers.
So I think a lot of their heritage tends to end up more in the background. It’s the thing that they do when Chinese New Year rolls around or it’s the thing that they do when a family gathering is happening or like a community event, but it doesn’t take necessarily front and center because they want to assimilate well with their friends in school or they want to be able to date everybody and not just within their community.
I have a son now. And I think a lot of my heritage is taking front and center. My Chinese is not great and I don’t want my son to grow up feeling like he doesn’t really have a connection to being Chinese. So how I do that? I think it is tricky because he’s mostly going to grow up with my experience, but him not being born in China — he has even less of a connection. Whereas I am somewhat close to my cousins and China. He won’t necessarily have that unless I create that for him.
What does being Asian meant to you?
That’s tricky because we’re not just Asian Americans, we’re Chinese-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans and Korean-Americans.
I would say that to me, being Asian, at its heart, ties back to a sense of community. I think sometimes it’s overstated that Asian cultures tend to be more like community focused rather than individualistic. The reason it’s overstated is because a lot of lot of westernization leads to a lot of individualization. Because of the one child policy in China, a lot of children are growing up incredibly selfish, incredibly materialistic, even more so than people who grew up in the West in some ways.
Ultimately, you can see that there’s this way of thinking of putting your community above yourself in some cultures. I think having that that sense is pretty Asian. I don’t think it’s true all the time.
In the United States — being Asian American — I think there’s a lot of good and bad and a lot of baggage to unpack. It’s pretty complicated to think about, but to me, it means I just have a strong connection to where I came from. I’m very thankful that I have the parents that I have, and that they had the journey that they had and that they gave me the values that they have. I think it’s those values that I want to pass on to my son.
If you want, can you unravel the “baggage” that you talked about?
Some of that baggage is the stereotypes that come with being Asian. I think that baggage is very specific to the way that, let’s say the Korean American community interacts with the African American community, or like how racist Chinese people are in some ways. So there’s a lot of baggage there.
But I think it also has to do with how in general people view Asians in the country. I think there’s a lot of double edged sword stuff like people tend to assume you’re smart if you’re Asian. That tends to work out in most people’s favor rather than not. Then, people assume that you’re just book smart in some contexts so they think that Asian people aren’t able to communicate effectively or be effective in roles of leadership.
How has your identity as an Asian American shaped or impacted your life experience?
I think a lot of the impacts are so subtle because as a kid growing up, you don’t notice all the time that people are treating you differently. It’s only when it’s blatantly racist or blatantly discriminatory that you feel it. Otherwise you’re just like, This person doesn’t like me. That’s fine. I don’t need to be his friend or I don’t need to like them back.
I think it ultimately has worked out mostly as a positive [experience]. I feel like when I say something or when I speak up, I’m given the benefit of the doubt a lot more often than people are willing to challenge. At least in my job as a teacher, I had a much easier time as an Asian American man, than some other teachers because people just assumed that I was smart or that I knew what I was doing. And if they try to challenge me, they’re going to lose that argument. I was just a new teacher, just like everyone else. I wasn’t more or less effective than other new teachers out there.
So I would say it has probably affected me a lot, but I couldn’t tell you specifically all of the ways that it’s affected me. I don’t think that it’s significantly hindered my ability to succeed, the way that some people might say, Oh, I didn’t get into this school because I was Asian. I don’t I think that is true in specific circumstances, but it’s not as true as people make it out to be.
You immigrated to the US when you were young. If you identify as an immigrant, can you talk about how being an immigrant affected your life?
I think for people who identify themselves as immigrant, they had to go from one familiarity to a completely other familiarity. I would say that even though I’m not fully aware of that transition period, I think you still have a sense that my life was different and my thought patterns were different at a certain time.
Now, I’m in a place where some people will always see me as different regardless of any other circumstances and that’s going to be true to some people certain communities for the rest of my life. I’m going to be seen as foreign and I think that’s just the immigrant experience for everybody.