I recently went out to dinner for a friend’s birthday in Brooklyn. The food was delicious. Zaytoons never disappoints and their choose-your-own combo plate of grape leaves, labneh, falafel, and of course, hummus makes you feel like you’re celebrating a grand occasion even if you’re simply satisfying your mid-week Middle Eastern food craving. Dining together that night were eight people – three of whom were of Asian ethnicity. The five others fall into standardized categories we are all familiar with from various forms requesting us to recognize our ethnic identity.
Pause for a flashback.
I wanted to be a Marine Biologist when I got older. I also wanted to be a writer, an artist, and my mother and grandmother frequently encouraged me to work for Hallmark or go into business for myself making greeting cards. I must not have seen this as a viable career because during my junior year in high school I remember going to Farleigh Dickinson, the first university campus I visited and one of three I was interested in that advertised a marine biology program. Well, crossing Farleigh Dickinson off my list occurred nearly as quickly as pursuing a career in Marine Biology but at least lasted longer than thoughts of a career in the arts. I maintained my interest in science and was accepted into Clarkson University with the intent of studying Biology and Environmental Science. What I planned to do with this degree was still undetermined but numerous possibilities crossed my mind as I neared my high school’s graduation: surgeon, environmental scientist (I still don’t know where I would’ve taken this) and the most clearly thought out profession of them all – an individual who wanted to save the world.
While my ambition to save dolphins was not brushed under the rug, I’d met my threshold for learning chemistry in college. Or so I thought. Second semester of my first year arrived and test results did not reflect the grades of a future Newton. I realized my path forward would have to be rethought and maybe…just maybe the sciences as we generally understand them were not my cup of tea. Think about it, how many friends or acquaintances or friends of friends do you know that studied one discipline in college and they’re either doing little related to that now, or if they are, they wish otherwise. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it’s not unreasonable if it doesn’t. Settling on one industry to begin a career in at 22 years old, hardly having experienced life and being told to make a decision is like being asked to rate a movie you’ve seen the trailer of, are familiar with the actors and read some reviews — you have some general knowledge of it but your rating of that movie is pretty unreliable given you didn’t actually see it.
Choices and research and decisions and months later, I’d graduated from a liberal arts college with a degree in psychology and sociology. My days of balancing equations, calculating mathematical limits and fears of upcoming semester of physical chemistry had passed. What was next?
Fast forward to now.
Without offering an autobiographical narrative of the past 12 years of my life and the many in’s and out’s, ups and downs encountered, I’ll keep it short by saying I’m slowly defining what it is I want to do. It hasn’t been easy…but as the old adage goes, “No one ever said it would be.” One subject that never proved to be a strength is…can you guess it? Math. Yup. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t excel in chemistry. Maybe my brain isn’t ‘wired’ with the capacity to do math like I’m supposed to. Wait, supposed to? Yes, this is a topic I’ve been challenged by (and my dad informed me to challenge IT) since high school: it’s science vs. the arts,…and I’m Asian, so who wins?
Sometimes I think I could’ve been good at math. I could’ve tried harder, studied more, and not been so defiant in breaking down those stereotypes Asians are still known for. People expected top performance and high grades, and because I knew these boxes that people were known to fit into existed, I remember trying to live outside the box. I can’t say I purposefully chose to not get top marks, but I certainly remember not appreciating it when a comment fell on me sounding something like, “Oh she must be good at math, she’s Asian.” This sequence of words made me cringe and belonged to the community of stereotypes I’d personally tried to deconstruct. Years later, not necessarily any wiser, I realize these remarks aren’t meant to harm but they’re simply drawn from history and observations and research, and I should feel privileged to be considered among the many who carry such an aptitude. Do I wish I’d worked harder in 6th grade math with Mrs. Friedhaber? Yes. I do.
Nowadays though I don’t regret where science and my liberal arts background have or have not taken me. We all have our strengths, and weaknesses to make stronger. Recognizing them and developing them into assets is the hard part but we should do as my dad advised and challenge ourselves; or stimulate our mind. I believe our society has reached a point where collaboration between disciplines is necessary to build thriving communities and global partnerships. Although I haven’t rekindled my dream to save the dolphins, or embarked on fulfilling the vision my family had for me in start a greeting card company, I have awakened my creative leanings as I explore the visual arts. It’s inspired me to look at angles and composition, spaces and lighting, all of which have a connection to science. Art, math and science share a common space bound by shapes and sizes, reasoning and logic. It’s important we continue to explore different perspectives so universally, our understanding of the world increases and the vision we saw it with yesterday grows from what we learn today. Asians may be good at math, but that doesn’t mean that they, or others can’t be good in the arts, or both. And next time I’m at dinner and we’re computing what we owe, I should be proud to speak up when someone remarks, “I have the bill. What do we owe? Give it to an Asian.”
A little challenge never hurt anyone, right?