Guo: When I Grow Up
Spring 2005: I am 10 years old. It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a classroom. My blue and red Chinese dictionary is opened to “Jing” in “Jing Ji Xue Jia.”
I’m a sixth grader at Hope Chinese School. Today, we’re writing an essay about our future selves.
My essay is titled, “Me in 20 years.”
“When I grow up, I want to be an economist. I really like math, and an economist does a lot of math. Also, economists do research on the economy. Plus, economists make money.”
In 10 years, I want to be an economics major.
Autumn 2008: I am 15 years old, standing with my English teacher outside of her trailer.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks.
I do not hesitate before I answer. “I want to be a doctor and lawyer.”
“Good for you,” she responds.
Mrs. Bello tells me that sadness is acceptable, that stress can be motivating. She trusts me. She believes in me.
Autumn 2012: I am 17 years old, and I am scrolling through the Common Application.
I am painstakingly evaluating the pros and cons of my answer to “intended major.”
I must choose between engineering, computer science, neuroscience, pre-health and pre-law. I want to stand out as an applicant, and statistics advise me to answer “(Asian female) mechanical engineer,” instead of “(Asian female) future doctor.”
I complain to my parents as only a teenager can do. “Why do we even have to put our majors? It’s idiotic. And stupid. And unfair. We’re not even 18. How the hell are we supposed to know what we want to be when we grow up?”
My parents hesitate. They attended high school in China and completed higher education in the States. The American college application process is as new for them as it is for me.
“You’re not boxed in, though,” they answer in Chinese. “You can change your major if you want to when you get to college.”
“But I have to answer all these silly questions about why I want to major in what I want to major in,” I grumble. “I don’t know why I want to major in ‘mechanical engineering.’”
“So don’t put mechanical engineering,” they respond. A maddeningly simple solution.
A few days later, I decide on “neuroscience, pre-health.”
I do not know what I want to be in 10 years.
January 2014: I am a neuroscience major on the pre-med track. I’m supposed to take Chemistry 5, Chemistry 6 and Psychology 6 as a freshman so I don’t “fall behind.”
I don’t consider the reference group of “fall behind”; I don’t question the rigidity of my D-Plan.
When I walk into Chem 5 on my first day of freshman winter, I am greeted by over 100 other pre-med students — all eager, competitive and intimidatingly certain of their success. Hands fly up during the lecture. Most of their questions are thoughtless at best. Easy questions with easy answers. Some, though, are rather intelligent. Hard questions with no answers. I am intimidated by the intelligent ones.
I doubt my ability to graduate medical school within 10 years.
February 2015: The F train is delayed 20 minutes, and I am late for coffee with Monika.
I walk past bustling New Yorkers in suits and heels and push through the crowd of tourists already gathered in Bryant Park. Monika greets me at the door of the coffee shop and buys me a pour-over, black.
We sit in the corner, and I ask her, “Why publishing?” I believe it to be an innocuous question. Uncreative, perhaps, but essential.
She tells me she wanted to be a doctor up until college. “Everyone told me I would be a good physician, and I believed them. It’s so easy to internalize compliments, to allow others to shape your self-image as an adolescent.”
I’m surprised by her eloquence, and then I am ashamed by my surprise. She’s a literary agent — of course she’s eloquent. She probably majored in English, and she interacts with clients constantly.
“I don’t really know why I fell out of love with science,” Monika continues. “I wish I could pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I can’t.”
Summer orgo, my mind screams. I fell out of love with science during summer orgo.
“I thought I would go into publishing directly, work at a publishing company.” Monika pauses. “Do you know what the career difference is between a publishing company and an agency?”
Her tone is humble, not condescending. I shake my head.
“Publishing is very hierarchical. There’s a set career path, so you know that you won’t be an editor immediately, but you know that you can if you’re willing to wait a few years and work your ass off. Agents are often blessed with more variety. Editing, outreach, marketing, cover design, negotiations.”
I wonder if my next question is too direct, too corrosive and unprofessional. “Would you ever consider working at a publishing house?”
Monika pauses. “Maybe if I were younger.”
In 10 years, I fear regret.
December 2015: It’s my second to last day shadowing a neurosurgeon. This morning, he performed another anterior cervical discectomy with fusion. We’re eating tacos for lunch.
“I’m worried about entering the field of neurosurgery as a female,” I say.
The doctor is an Asian male. He received his bachelor of arts from Dartmouth.
“Well, I’m pretty sure one top residency program accepted a female this year!” he responds. “I hear she’s excellent.”
He proceeds to list the female neurosurgeons he knows.
He lists four.
In 10 years, I will face a neurosurgery residency.
August 2018: I’ve been at Clarion Medical Technologies for nearly a year now. A few of the consultants and managers ask me if I’m applying to medical school this cycle. I say yes.
No one asks me what I want to be when I grow up, and I find the absence of this question disconcerting.
Sometimes, I am asked, “What are your plans for the future?” as if I have already grown up and stagnation is not an option.
I refuse to believe that titles like “former healthcare consultant” and “medical school graduate” will define me.
In 10 years, I would like to know who I am as a “grown-up.”
2028: I am exhausted all the time as a resident. I haven’t seen my husband since Tuesday or worked out since Sunday.
In 10 years, I will be a physician. I would like to be a mother.
2038: In 10 years, I hope to own a private practice.
2050: In 10 years, I hope to be a grandmother.
2063: One day, I hope to be someone else’s Mrs. Bello.