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Laundry On Sundaes

Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This is perhaps the most asked question of all when we were children. My parents often tell me of such a story: around the time I was 2 or 3, my answer to that question would be get my PhD and become a professor. They are fond of recounting the story year after year, as if it were a sign that I was destined to have a great and noble profession, in academia or otherwise. In reality, we all knew that my odd response was a result of constantly hearing my dad talk about his job as an academic; no one would expect a two year old, no matter how precocious, to understand what it means to obtain a doctorate.

By the time I actually begin to comprehend the concept of having a career, my answer changed. An artist, I would say; I wanted to study art in Paris and become an artist. Grown-ups would think that it was cute, probably picturing a little six year old Chinese girl in a beret in front of the Eiffel Tower. No adult took it seriously, but to me it was all very real. In the yearbook of my kindergarten, under “dreams for the future,” I had written: “I want to go to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and become an artist when I grow up.” (I guess Paris was going to come later). It was a veritable dream alright; I remember watching outside the window on tiptoes each year when the time came for the art students to take the entrance exam to get into the Central Academy in Beijing, thinking that one day I would be on the other side of the window. My parents were supportive enough. After all, it was good to have some kind of extracurricular talents; all the other kids were doing it. So I was enrolled in art classes in some form or another since I could remember. And I was happy with that.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, art fell by the wayside. Academics took over my life because people told me that it was what mattered. I had always been good at school, but now it was actually Important. The people that surrounded me didn’t help much; I was drawn into the hysteria of getting the best grades, of doing all the toughest classes just because, and later, of the craze over getting into a top American university. I had a science heavy course load; why not? That’s what all the other smart kids were doing, and I had to keep up, I was ambitious. Besides, Biology class was always interesting. My answer changed once more: I wanted to do something with science. My parents were glad. Being the daughter of a chemist and an engineer, this was exactly the path they wanted me to take.

Art was not entirely forgotten, though. I still enjoyed it tremendously, and I took art classes throughout high school. Every time I even considered doing art as a career, nearly everyone told me the same thing: it’s better to just keep it as a hobby; I was more ambitious than that; I was too good at science to give it up. And so I listened. I went ahead and worked hard. And all my efforts paid off: I got into Columbia.

I was happy too. Look at me! I’m an Ivy Leaguer now. I’m going to be successful. Sometime during freshman year, I became a pre-medical student. Look now! I’m going to be a doctor. People regarded you with awe when you told them that, and I enjoyed it. I never stopped once to ask myself why I came to that decision; I can’t even remember when or how it happened. Wasn’t that like just THE thing to do? So I shrugged and forged on, driven by my ambition, never looking back.

(Continue to Part II)

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