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–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.” Pre-med was a great term, a brilliant term that all the Asians wore like a Science Olympiad gold medal.
When I was younger, my grandfather ran a clinic in Taiwan, where we lived upstairs each summer. In the mornings we’d come down, watch as my grandfather looked at one person’s foot, the back of a neck: 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.
“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.
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. Her dad had come with her, carrying a piece of equipment. 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.
In biology, mitosis is defined as the type of cell division that results in two identical daughter cells. These cells are identical copies of one another. The last stage, cytokinesis, overlaps with the final stages of mitosis. 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?