By Sabrina Lue Tam – Class of 2017
You might have an idea of who I am when you first look at me. You might guess from the colour of my skin, the slant of my eyes when I smile, the way my hair falls straight as a sheet from the crown of my head. You might think my identity is clear as day because I am a girl, my eyes are brown, and my nose is short and round.
You may accept this as who I am—who I must be—and never choose to look any closer.
But if you did, you would see the lines in my hands, each a different aspect of me carving their own path through my palms like a roadmap of where I’ve been and how it’s changed me. Some paths cross and some do not. You would see the scars that interrupt the finer lines of my skin from childhood mishaps, from mistakes, from sacrifices made that cost their pound of flesh. But those pounds excavated from me are the pounds lighter in my steps that let me embrace my imperfections and learn to let them lift me up instead of bring me down.
If you looked closer, you would see my grandfather’s laughter in the arches of my eyebrows, laughter that was never taken away from him even though he’d always wanted to be a scholar but instead toiled away in a factory so we would have a better life. My grandmother’s gnarled knuckles sculpted the bones of my hands, layered them in tissue and skin that would never bear the same calloused armour as hers because she took care of her whole family on her own in not only one new country far from home, but two. My other grandmother gave me her short stature but also a life where I would never have the marks she bears on her thighs, burn scars from prejudice and the arson of poverty when there was too little to go around and too much hate and discrimination to rise above it unscathed.
Maybe you would see that I have my father’s determination running through my veins, my mother’s refusal to pass up a challenge. A blue web beneath my skin that holds me together like the rivers and tributaries leading to my heart because no matter how far the rivers split into streams, they will all make it back to the ocean. My family has laid my foundation and wherever my journey may take me, I will always find my way back home.
Sometimes I forget that my identity is more than the sum of all my parts. It is more than the dancer that struggled with being “not ideal”; the drama major that “tried too hard”; the health sciences student that was simultaneously blessed with an incredibly supportive academic network and cursed with the stigma of perceived entitlement, laziness, and complacency. Sometimes I forget that these things that I do are also the things that I am. I don’t usually introduce myself as a medical student unless someone specifically asks because there are so many things about me that come to mind first, but that doesn’t make me any less a medical student, or studying medicine any less a part of who I am and who I will become.
My identity was planted in the soil of poverty and hunger but nourished with love, determination, hard work, and perseverance. It flourished with education and the freedom of creativity and expression as I began to forge it in my own hands. When I meet someone for the first time or the hundredth, I wonder if they can see it as it continues to grow, cradled in the spaces between my ribs. They may judge me because my religion is part of the majority, they may assume that I come from money because I can pay my tuition to be here, or they may think highly of me just because they assume that if I’m going to be a doctor someday I must be a good, smart person that “deserves” to be here.
It’s a funny thing, the connection we like to make between someone’s identity and their “deserving” of something or another. As if just because someone does well on a test, they “deserve” to be accepted for that program, or just because a girl is a girl she “deserves” to walk home at night fearing that someone might attack her after dark.
When you see the colour of my skin, the slant of my eyes, the straight veil of my hair, do you think about who I “must be” and, consequently, what I “deserve”?
I hope not. I hope you just think about all the things there are to know about me that go deeper than skin, and I hope that as I move forward in a career in medicine, I will be able to look at all my patients in this way. I hope that the person will always shine through the patient and that everything that I do for patients would be because it is in their best interest and their choice, and not because it is what people (or even the patients themselves) think they “deserve”.