Trying to untangle my identities, but it’s impossible
Somehow it goes deeper than the Chinese characters tattooed on my skin
“Your personal statement was very interesting and enjoyable to read, but it doesn’t present a clear argument why Joanna Lin would make a good doctor.” Somehow, this sentence hit me like a ton of bricks, especially because it was spot-on. I had recently received advice to keep my entire essay moving towards a defined thesis, so I did my best to not write in my usual scatterbrained format. Unfortunately, my draft was a clear, convincing argument for why doctors should exist, but barely touched on why I should be given the chance to become one.
The more we talked about my passions and motivations for pursuing medicine, the more we delved into my identity as an Asian American. While it’s a topic I have discussed at length with a lot of people, I had really hoped not to talk about it at this particular meeting.
The conversation brought me back to another I shared with a long-time high school friend. Amid reminiscing of our freshman selves acquiring guava juice for a summer reading presentation and the shocking realization that we had been friends for nearly seven years, we got to the point of her research project: to examine college personal statements.
I shared my memory of suddenly being struck by inspiration in the shower, only to now look back on my personal statement with discomfort at the privilege it exuded. I also acknowledged that the failure of that essay to get me into any “good” Common App schools played a large factor in my feelings — I don’t think I would have been admitted to MIT if they had read that essay.
But that’s beside the point. The point is, I wrote about my great-great-grandmother, sending off her only grandson to school through a landmine set by the Japanese; I wrote about my great-grandmother running a grocery store with nothing more than a kindergarten education; I wrote about my parents making their way in America on pennies. Being Asian American, being the child of immigrants — that was integral to making me who I was. It wasn’t even a question that I would include those stories. And every single Asian American woman my friend interviewed did the same.
Was there something about our Asian American identity that demanded to be the most compelling part of our much more complex personalities? And is that a bad thing, anyway?
In exasperation at myself and at how much stronger my rewritten personal statement was, I messaged my friend again that I had, sadly, come crawling back to the cliché. She just responded, “well now is an especially good time to capitalize on the asian identity tbh.”
She was referring to what you could say is the AAPI community’s “moment” right now, with the unbelievable surge in hate crimes and an unfortunately believable absence of mainstream media attention. I’m seeing East Asian support of darker-skinned Southeast Asians, and the discussion with the Black community about standing together has never been more loud.
Our collective suffering is not something I want to capitalize on. Not now, not ever. I think I particularly didn’t want to write about my Asian American experience because of our current visibility.
This is not to say that I wish being Asian American were not part of my identity. I would never give up my lived experiences or those of my ancestors, and I celebrated a heartbreaking Lunar New Year alone this year. It’s still an integral, immutable part of me that brings me so much pride.
But I wonder if it’s possible to write about, or even describe, myself without it just once. Evidently the first draft of my personal statement was an utter failure at achieving this goal: I had written myself completely out of the picture. Upon reflection, there is literally no other part of my identity, not even my gender, that has this profound of an impact on describing myself.
All I wanted to write in my new personal statement was how medicine is the most important gift you could give anybody, how I love connecting through language, how I simply wish to soigner. In the short 5,300 characters I was allowed, I wanted those ideas to be able to exist in a vacuum without functionally depending on my identity as an Asian American. But maybe I shouldn’t even try to extricate myself from the tangled roots of my family, my history, and my culture. In the end, I guess it wouldn’t be me anymore.