My sister likes to carry herself like a six-foot-three, white man, with a presence that commands respect and demands to be heard. And, I think, given her current foremost identity marker as a medical student, this is her way of fighting for the right to live and be treated with dignity (Chou 181). However, since coming home for Thanksgiving after a string of interviews at the innumerable schools my sister applied to for a spot in a general surgery residency, she frequently gripes that all of a sudden, since being forced into moving through life in a more (self) evaluative way, she has become unpleasantly aware that she is decidedly not a tall, white man, but, in fact, a medium-sized Asian woman. That there are certain rules in terms of social etiquette for professional women that she is uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. That pantsuits are damn expensive.
But, as a painfully self-aware Asian-American woman, how one presents herself in society becomes unduly complicated as this act carries the heavy responsibility of negotiating the odd position of being both somewhat protected by society as a part of the “model minority” but, simultaneously and evermore apparently, being a second-class citizen in the eyes of many people. What happens when, of all of one’s identities, the most frustrating is the most basic status of gender? In what has been historically a white-male-dominated vocation, entering the medical field as a woman requires gender roles to barge into the forefront as a conscious play compared to male cohorts, an unfair mental burden. Because just trying to save people isn’t enough stress.
To my sister, what’s scariest about joining this traditionally boy’s club is, being clearly feminine and of minority status as a surgeon, it behoves her to be aware of the possible Clinton effect. So, the day before every interview phase is speckled with sartorial questions, really the most important ones of all:
To each social – dress or pants?
To each interview – pantsuit or skirt suit?
Requiring consideration of more than just finding which outfits physically fit well or which suit has been laundered, it becomes necessary to engage every day in this manner of conscious decision-making that her male colleagues do not, because implicit in that choice of dress is the decision to be seen as beyond being a female or beyond being a medical professional. The skirt suit, in accentuating her femininity, may be an empowering counter as being, just through clothes, unapologetically and undeniably woman. However, it also carries with it implications that may be difficult to reconcile with a professional identity: is it necessary to be labelled so visibly – nay, even boisterously – as a female surgeon and not just surgeon?
This struggle also extends, of course, to character: being attractive but not too much, assertive but not aggressive, a team player and a hard-worker.
All female surgeons run the risk of falling under the umbrella term of “nasty woman” that is used most generally, and there is definitely a sense that female surgeons are often harder on female residents because there is a need to toughen them up, since this has always been a boy’s club…And there is also the fact that if you are considered a tough badass sort of woman as a surgeon, it’s something you try to strive for: if you are intimidating and feared you are more likely to be respected. On the other hand, you also can’t be mean because you’re just a bitch about it.
Part of the conflict is no longer simply complying with or battling Asian female stereotypes of being gentle/quiet/asexual, but also in struggling with one’s right to be seen in a public space and how one is allowed to occupy it. In this article, Namey Wilson addresses “The Secret World of Women Surgeons”, opening her article sharing war stories with an older cohort who fits it all into one nifty line: “Surgery made a man out of me”. By wearing the sports bras, pantsuits, by airing on the side of negating the fact that she is female to level the playing field, my sister constantly straddles the line between wielding her femininity carefully so that it works to her advantage and swinging too far, not being female enough, and colleagues disliking her for being uncomfortably masculine.
Is that the day she becomes a “nasty woman”?
Even though the female population in medical schools is growing, this is still an environment heavily weighted towards men, wherein there is this implicit understanding, especially amongst women, of “we are making tiny strides, but they are most certainly not far enough to allow any sliding backwards without that inch becoming an enormous step backwards”. The day after the election, whenever my sister made eye contact with female friends, there was a lot of visible upset: people were tearful and wrought with a horrible sensation of disappointment, fear, sadness. Conversely, male counterparts were far more cavalier and cheerful. To them, this wasn’t such a cataclysmic event. In fact, to her intense chagrin, they expressed surprise at how upset my sister was, unable to decipher how she could be so emotionally impacted by something is still relatively remote from the context of medical school and the non-existent political identities within it. Such a dichotomy of reactions reveals how sharing space does not mean sharing experience or purpose.
To my sister, for physicians to wield information, there exists an inherent power differential such that patients, by virtue of being patients, require their physicians to understand, accept, and educate them. And so, what was most surprising and devastating to her was that there are still people in this field who are Trump supporters despite everything he represents going against the idealistic selflessness and justice of medicine. During her graduation this upcoming May, part of the ceremony is the recitation of the “modern” Hippocratic Oath:
The Hippocratic Oath is clearly outdated: certain things definitely no longer apply. For example, with more treatment options, there are more ethical issues. It’s no longer about life and death, but also quality of life – and that’s very subjective…But we continue adhering to this tradition because medicine is very much about history and tradition, but also because the spirit is “do no harm”.
In Rosalind Chou’s last chapter on forms of resistance in her book Asian American Sexual Politics, she details the two overarching strategies on either working within the system through a politic of reform or working to fundamentally change the social structure through revolutionary and radical movement (Chou 178-9). While ultimately condemning the former for the dangers of that hegemonic structure brainwashing the promising activist of colour in how to “think white”, (ideally) the medical community is particularly unique for its altruistic devotion to non-discriminatory treatment of all humans: “that into whatsoever home I shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick and the well to the utmost of my power”. In upholding these ideals, working within this kind of system presents advantaged participants with an opportunity to self-empower with empirical knowledge that can be immediately utilised for the benefit of marginalised peoples (in the sense that my sister can finally start being a real doctor within the next decade because did you know that general surgery residencies can take five or more years, how awesome is that timeline).
Although it may have taken being a part of the “model minority” to be part of the intellectual elite, it then becomes imperative and a part of our responsibility that we as members take advantage of that liberal bubble to practice how to abandon the model minority image (Chou 190).
So, let’s embrace the nasty.