Image via Wikipedia
Valerie Wu is a student in San Jose, California. Her work has previously been featured in the Huffington Post, Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, and We Are Three Dimensional. She was a National Gold Medalist in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her personal essay on race in America.
A selection of the following piece was published in Life in 10 Minutes.
The pre-med girls walked down the street every morning.
But they weren’t pre-med, at least not yet. They liked thinking that they were, though; they liked talking about saving lives–it totally wasn’t about the success or anything like that–they liked it when their parents introduced them to other Asian parents with: “Oh, this is my daughter. She’s pre-med.” And then the other parents would smile, grin, say, “Oh, your daughter is so accomplished. She’s going to do great things.”
Because pre-med was a great term, a brilliant term that all the Asians in town wore like a Science Olympiad gold medal. Asian girls liked talking about the kinds of stories you’d read about in novels: late-night football games, high school proms, Mean Girls. But they’d never been to football games. Their high school proms were sitting on benches and finishing up Calculus homework. The only mean girls were the ones who glared at you after the bell rang and you’d finished your test and they hadn’t. These were the little details, the little things that pre-med girls admired–even fawned over–but didn’t fully understand.
When I was younger, my grandfather ran a skin care clinic in Taiwan. We lived upstairs from the clinic each summer. In the mornings we’d come down, watch as my grandfather looked at one person’s foot, the back of a neck, a hand: intimate parts, fleshed-out parts. I’d watch from the worn-out leather stool in the corner. The little plastic fan attached to the sink never worked, and my shorts were always sticking to my thighs. Sometimes I’d buy red bean cakes from the vendor next door and they’d lay on my lap as I listened to talk of ointment and pills and medicine, the best kind.
There was a man–a regular customer–who came to the clinic every week. He had some sort of fungus on his foot, and he’d always stick his foot up on my grandfather’s table. “See,” he’d say in sputtering Mandarin, “Still there!” His sandal would slip off sometimes, and I’d sometimes get a glimpse of what lay beneath before it was covered up by my grandfather’s hand. Let me help you, my grandfather would say. His eyes would shine, and in that instant there would be a visible sigh of the man’s shoulders, as if he’d just realized that this man–this doctor who knew medicine, the art of healing–could save his life.
Every Christmas, we’d have boxes shipped to our home from Taiwan, the bold Mandarin stickers taped to the front: fragile, handle with care. There were tiny ziploc bags of pretty pills and tablets, tubes of cream. I’d always wondered what it meant to have a grandfather who packed pills in bags and wrapped medicinal powders in tissue paper. Each one had its own unique name–the Chinese characters stuck to the bottles. And sometimes they were named just like American names: amphetamine, methylphenidate, vivalin. Other times they were labeled after the purposes they served. Zhang gao meant to grow taller. Tou tung was migraine. Wen zi yao was bug bites. There was something inexplicably beautiful about the names, the way words formulated prescriptions and prescriptions translated to reshaping, reforming.
“Why do you do this?” I’d asked my grandfather once. He’d grown up in the basement of a fabric shop, where rats were always found dead under the piano and poverty was a given. It wasn’t until he decided to open his own medicine clinic that the fabric shop became an apartment. The apartment became a four-story building. I’d always assumed that the reason he chose to go into medicine was for the success.
My grandfather had looked at me as if he couldn’t believe that was even a question. “To save lives,” he’d replied.
In that instant I was reminded of the countless other pre-med girls who had said these exact same words, that I want to save lives, as if those words meant something.
What hurt was that I could have been one of those pre-med girls. I wasn’t really good at math, but I’d done science fair. I hadn’t won anything, but that was okay. What mattered was doing it and talking to those around me: girls who had been doing science for as long as they could remember, girls who designed apps that solved third-world problems, girls who purified water with the formulas inside their heads, girls whose inventions were so, so much realer than themselves.
The first time I ever participated in science fair, I began to split apart.
I’d dressed up specifically for the occasion. As I walked to the convention center, I hitched my board to my waist, feeling professional and powerful. It was a glorious feeling, being pre-med. Maybe this was what the pre-med girls felt like every day. Now I was one of them.
We had all received badges when we entered the auditorium for the science fair; each one listed how many years we’d been participating. I only had one blue dot, but there was an Indian girl next to me who had nine. Her board looked professional, like she had spent hundreds of dollars designing it. She’d connected all these wires to it. The front of the board said her name, big and bold and blue. Her pantsuit made her look like she was running for office, rather than attending a science fair. She wore all the medals she’d received from previous years around her neck, as if to say: I’m experienced. I know how to win. I’m pre-med.
I would have loved to be her at that moment: poised, calm, confident. But then I saw how unhappy she looked. Her project was on trying to find a cure for the developmental stages of cancer, a continuation. She’d done research all for the past few years just to find the cure for cancer. Her dad had come with her, carrying a piece of equipment. He was beaming like she’d just gotten into Harvard. (She probably would.) They came to the table across from my measly-looking board on learning languages, and set everything down with such an alarming speed that it was clear this was just another day to them.
For the remainder of the fair, I watched as the girl spoke to wide-eyed competitors, people who had come with goggles and electrical equipment and things that screamed power, success, and changing the world, one invention at a time. “Yeah, curing cancer,” she’d say, “I’m coming really close to it. Should be a few more months.”
I stood by my project, feeling awkward and ordinary, but most of all not pre-med. Because I’d probably never be pre-med. I’d probably never find the cure for cancer. I’d never be someone who invented things that were realer than myself.
An old white lady passed by–a judge, presumably. The girl stood up, straightened her suit, prepared for a discussion. The lady looked at her and frowned. I watched as she grilled the girl on her project, asked if she really thought she was going to cure cancer, asked why she felt like it was her place to conduct such an experiment.
And the girl just kept on stating the same fact, the same I want to save lives. I just want to save lives. She said it so methodically that I began wondering if she really wanted to save lives at all, or if it was more of the feeling of being pre-med, the feeling of power, of success–feeling like you were someone to be proud of. Not just a collection of cells, but a complete, full, whole human being: someone who could save the world, but not someone who was real.
I checked the winners list a few weeks later. She had gotten first place.
Top student Laura Zhang committed suicide on a Wednesday in December.
That was the headline: top student before her name, as if it was expected that academic excellence would always take precedent over just another Asian, just another one of those pre-med girls, accomplished daughters, people who were going to do great things.
They say she lay there on the railroad until the train came. That she didn’t open her eyes, not once. That her biology textbook stayed right next to her until the end, flipped to a page on mitosis because she had a test on cell division the next day. She’d always been fascinated by splitting apart that it wasn’t so surprising she decided to do it herself.
I’d never really known Laura Zhang, except that she and the pre-med girls were always walking down the street across school. They were good with the whitening cream. They ordered boba at the milk tea shop downtown. It was always the same, perfect ratio: regular size, seventy-five percent ice and twenty-five percent sugar. One of the pre-med girls would chew one-sided while talking about plasma membranes and looking through an electron transmission microscope. The other would be reading a chapter on cellular respiration. Laura, though, stood out. She was the one who was always talking about saving lives, just saving lives and helping people, the kind of medicine that mattered. Her eyes would shine.
About a week after her death, we learned Laura Zhang had been taking Adderall. They’d found the pills in the front pocket of her backpack; she’d overdosed on the night of her death. Probably because of the AP Biology final tomorrow, we said. It was just the stress, we said. Familial pressure, we said. We joked. Pre-med gone wrong, we said. What we really wanted to know was why. Was there something else going on we didn’t know about?
Truth was, I don’t think we ever really understood why Laura died the way she did. We always thought about her like chemotherapy–a source of healing. She was the pre-med girl who every mother wanted her daughter to be like, the perfect one. Back then, we never realized that she was the cancerous cell in all of us: the internalized self-hatred, the anxiety of trying to follow a path we’d never fully understand, the bitterness of a pill past its expiration date.
Laura Zhang always talked about saving lives. But in the days and weeks after her death, I began to think that maybe she was so focused on saving other people’s lives that she forgot about her own.
My mother drove me past my old college prep center in December, a year since Laura Zhang’s death and an hour after my last final exam of the semester. The window was rolled down and in that brief second, I could hear murmurs of conversation: I have a violin competition this week and I don’t think this SAT score is good enough for the Ivies and I’m already taking three sciences, but another one wouldn’t hurt.
There used to be flyers that would hang on the windows listing the center’s alumnae and their college majors. Three-quarters of the sheets said Biology. I remembered how Asian parents would cling to those sheets as if they were lifelines. When the center faded from view, I couldn’t help thinking about how we’d all been clinging to those dreams like lifelines.
In the small, Asian American community I’d grown up in, you either knew what you were going to be or you didn’t. Whenever someone asked you how you were doing, you’d reply with I’m doing fine, how about you? You knew who you were. There was no undecided. Pre-med was brilliant, a glorious thing you’d wear around your neck like a Science Olympiad gold medal.
The thing was, I would never be one of those pre-med girls. I liked my milk tea regular size, but with seventy-five percent sugar and twenty-five percent ice. I’d never won science fair. I’d probably never be someone who invented things that were realer than myself.
My mother turned to face me in her seat, as if the college prep center had reminded her that I was a student too. “How did your exam go?” she asked.
Briefly I thought back to how it had went: monomers, polymers, things that would string together to form bigger things. Proteins were made up of amino acids. There were hydrogen bonds, peptide bonds, and covalent and ionic bonds. Mitosis was the repeated division of the cell. And I knew that what my mother wanted to hear wasn’t about biology and the processes that formed them, but whether or not I’d make her proud, give her something to tell the other parents–something that they’d smile at, say: “Oh, your daughter is so accomplished. She’s going to do great things.”
Across the street, the pre-med girls were entering the boba shop, biology textbooks in arm. I watched as two of them went inside, perfect genomic replicas of one another. The third one stood outside for a while, staring through the window. She opened her backpack and slipped the textbook in. And then she walked the other way, and I wasn’t sure how to react, except that this–this was real, and this was mitosis in action, cells splitting apart and reforming again.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I really don’t know.”
In biology, mitosis is defined as the type of cell division that results in two identical daughter cells. These cells have the same number of chromosomes. They contain the same genes and the same replications of those genes. They are identical copies of one another.
What many of us didn’t understand was that saving lives in concept is much different from saving lives in practice. Because saving lives wasn’t just pills and powders; it wasn’t just talking about it. It was knowing that this was your purpose. It was knowing that throughout all the phases of your life, this was what you wanted to do. It was knowing that the cycle would start again, and this time you’d be an intrinsic part of it.
There are two different types of mitosis: closed and open. In a “closed mitosis”–the kind that fungi undergo–chromosomes are only dividing within a nucleus. It’s limited. In an “open mitosis”–the kind animal cells undergo–the nuclear envelope has already broken down before the chromosomes separate. There are no more restrictions.
The last stage, cytokinesis, overlaps with the final stages. That’s when the daughter cells split apart, reform again. No matter the mitosis, though, the cells are the same: always dividing and developing, regenerating and replacing. There will always be parents who introduce their daughters to others, saying: “Oh, this is my daughter.” And there will always be unspoken questions. Why do you do what you do? Why is it your place to conduct such an experiment? Is there something else going on that we don’t know about? What’s your major?
What will you be?