dime a dozen

Image by buxtonwolf via Flickr

Hello, readers. It’s been awhile, and I thought I’d let you know about a new blog I’ve started, called Bad Asian Daughter: http://badasiandaughter.com.

Here’s a magazine-length piece that I’m really happy to share with you here. Enjoy!

Dime a Dozen: How My Journey As A Bad Asian Daughter Started

By Lisa Chu, M.D.

I suppose it all started with being the only minority in my childhood hometown of Libertyville, Illinois. My introduction to first grade was being called “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, if you please!”. There was actually full choreography involved, which my classmates performed in front of me: “Chinese” – pull the outer corners of the eyes up, “Japanese” – pull the outer corners of the eyes down, “Dirty knees” – put your hands on your knees, “If you please!” – put your hands together in prayer position, and bow your head forward.

I didn’t get it. Did Japanese eyes really slant down? Were my Chinese eyes really slanted up like they were showing me? Did we really put our hands together like that? I had to go home and ask my parents what these classmates of mine might be referring to.

My mom went in for a parent-teacher conference with my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Brown, and calmly explained how we were very proud of who we are, and that her children were entitled to a public school education like every other law-abiding taxpayer.

I’m sure this didn’t help with my popularity on the playground.

I wasn’t bullied. I revved up my “nice” factor, following the explicit instructions that my mom had recited to me every morning since I can remember, as I rode in the backseat of our brown Ford Gran Torino to my mom’s work at Saint Therese Hospital, where I attended onsite daycare at Melody House. For 1975, the Catholic nuns were quite progressive by providing high quality onsite childcare to employees, and my mom was very grateful not to have to patch together a makeshift network of semi-unreliable and quasi-abusive babysitters like she had done with my brother seven years earlier, while getting her PhD. I started at Melody House at just a few months of age, while she still nursed me. I graduated from there at age 5, as soon as I was ready to go to kindergarten at Copeland Manor School.

Every day from the front seat of the car she would say, “Xiào xiào jiang jiang,” Chinese for “Smile and talk nicely”. And, “Bié rén bù yào tao yùn ni,” Chinese for, “So that you won’t trouble anyone else,” or, “You don’t want to be annoying to anyone else.” It was her way of teaching me to play along with the rules, be nice, and not get in anyone’s way. “Just try to blend in,” I heard her saying in my mind, “so that you won’t get singled out and picked on.”

Other mothers might have told their children to “fight back” or “stand up for yourself”. But in her mind, “Xiào xiào jiang jiang” was the safest way to get by, at least as long as I was a helpless child. It would save me, and her, a lot of heartache, if I just smiled and talked nicely, like I was asked.

So I learned to play along with all the white people who surrounded me for those first years of my life. I didn’t think of myself as any different, because no one ever pointed it out until I got to first grade. I wondered why they thought it was funny, or even noteworthy, to tell me that I was “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, if you please.”

This only made me focus more intensely on pleasing in any way that I could. School was frankly very easy for me. The first challenge I had was writing my own book in Mrs. Kublank’s second grade class. Other kids, like Jane Oakley, read many more books than I did, and my parents used the opportunity to point out that if only I would read more, it would be easier for me to write. I started to resent Jane. Why was it that she could read so fast, and know all the Ramona Quimby and Judy Blume books by heart? I didn’t have time to read. Never mind that I was practicing violin and piano every day after school and spending every other Saturday, all day, at my music school, in repertoire class or watching my brother’s chamber orchestra rehearsal.

I ended up writing a book about a hole. Yes, that’s right, the main character in my little book was an anthropomorphized hole in the ground. I don’t remember what the plot was, but it was all I could come up with at the time. I, and my parents, tried to act proud of it, but we knew it was far inferior to what some other kids were able to come up with. Oh, how I wished I could have written a better book than that.

But we brushed it aside, and took comfort in the fact that I excelled in every other subject in school. Well, except for counting money. I remember the handwritten note on my second grade report card from Mrs. Kublank, which read, “Please help Lisa with learning to count money.” I remembered the page full of punch-out paper nickels, dimes, pennies, and quarters, in one of our math workbooks. I suppose they were there for practice. I told my parents that I couldn’t always tell the difference between nickels and dimes – they looked so similar! Both silver colored, both with the profile of a pony-tailed man on one side, both nearly the same size, and in two dimensions, no way to tell the difference in thickness.

It was around that time that my dad started sitting me down at the dining table in our house, with a pad of white lined paper, showing me “word problems” in math. He pointed out that in Taiwan, by the time he was my age (six), he was cranking through these kinds of problems and honing his “arithmetic reasoning” skills, something he saw to be sorely lacking in the American math education system.

He was my dad, so I sat there, trying to focus on what he was saying. “Two trains leave their stations, located 50 miles apart, headed towards each other at 3 o’clock. One is travelling at x miles per hour, the other at y miles per hour. At what time do the fronts of the trains pass by each other?”

Or, “A barn contains a mixture of chickens, horses, and cows. There are a total of 46 feet in the barn, and the number of horses is equal to the number of cows. How many chickens are in the barn?”

Or, “There is a bathtub that holds a total of 100 gallons of water. The hot water faucet fills the tank at a rate of 5 gallons per hour, the cold water faucet fills the tank at a rate of 7 gallons per hour, and the drain, left open, empties the tank at a rate of 3 gallons per hour. If both faucets are left on, and the drain is left open, how long will it take to fill the tub?”

I never got these answers right, or even demonstrated any clue as to how to approach these problems. This always disappointed my dad, which he always took as an opportunity to comment on the amazingly poor quality of math education in America. He never criticized me for my lack of ability. He did sigh when he’d see that I was both bored and showing very little curiosity or interest in improving my arithmetic reasoning skills. His response to this was to create pages and pages of handwritten problems for me to solve, all written on that same white lined paper.

Most of the time I never did them. I just didn’t care that much about math.

That was the way my dad loved me, though.

He loved to tell me stories of how the merchants in Taiwan’s open-air markets had such quick arithmetic skills, using no calculators (abacuses) and writing nothing down. They could keep track of an entire day’s worth of sales completely by memory.

This was the image he painted in my mind of what “mad math skills” looked like. It wasn’t about winning math competitions, it was about having very practical life skills that would help me survive.

At some point in our childhoods, the focus shifted from learning life skills to “making it” in life. It shifted from growing and experiencing to establishing and fulfilling expectations.

I’m not sure exactly when that happened.

All I remember is that one day, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I found myself, at age 18, in the office of Eugene Sun, M.D., Ph.D. He was a “Venture Head” at Abbott Laboratories, a big pharmaceutical company that had employed my dad for over twenty years at that time. I was a summer intern, working in a lab that was supposedly doing research on new drug targets for the immune system. My dad had asked for this meeting because he was proud of me for being enrolled at Harvard, and because he wanted to show me someone he thought I could look up to, someone “like me”. He wanted me to see that in America, I had opportunities that he himself could never imagine. I had chances, because of my command of the language and knowledge of the culture and access to the best education, that he could never hope for, not because of any intellectual disadvantage, but because he was slow at writing reports in English and could never schmooze effectively in the corporate political game.

He wanted to show me a real person who had grown up Asian-American and “made it” to “the top”, or at least, to levels higher than my dad had been able to achieve. He wanted to show me what this sacrifice was all about.

As I sat in the spacious office, with my dad seated in a chair to my left, and with both of us facing Eugene Sun, M.D., Ph.D., across from his large desk, with the windows behind him (you know you’ve made it in a corporation when you actually have an office with windows), I wondered what I was supposed to say.

He started off by saying, “So tell me about yourself, Lisa,” as he leaned back slightly in his chair, seemingly ready to listen. He looked at me without a smile, and just waited with his hands folded together, scanning me with his eyes.

“Well,” I began. “I just finished my freshman year at Harvard. And I’m working in an Immunoscience Venture lab here as an intern this summer.”

“No wait,” he stopped me, already bored. “Don’t tell me. You’re a Biochemical Sciences major, you want to go to medical school, and you played violin and piano growing up. Right?”

“Um…well, yes, that’s true, but–” I tried to interject.

“You’re a dime a dozen. That’s really not going to be enough to make it very far. You’re going to have to find something that’s really unique about you, something that sets you apart.” He went on to say something about how he did something at UCSF, got an infectious disease fellowship at someplace, and blah blah blah blah, the rest plays back in my mind like the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in one of the Peanuts television specials.

I didn’t get to say much more during that meeting. I suppose that the part of me that was trained from such a young age to “ Xiào xiào jiang jiang,” along with the part of me that was an innocent 18-year-old, just starting off on the exploration of my individuality and adult life, joined forces and I simply sat there and smiled. Took it all in. Listened.

A dime a dozen? I didn’t feel like that about myself. But here was a person “like me” who had “made it” and he was telling me this. What was I supposed to believe?

In fact, I knew somewhere very deep inside me that how he had summed up my life – the few bullet points that might appear on a resume or even someday on a match.com profile – did not at all define me as a person. I didn’t have the words for it at that time. I just knew two things without a shadow of a doubt from that moment on: someday I was going to be a better mentor than he was, and I would not get there by playing “Xiào xiào jiang jiang” to people like him.

Thus began my journey as a Bad Asian Daughter.


Eugene Sun, M.D., Ph.D., has continued to rise in the ranks of senior corporate management at Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT), and currently is Vice President of Global Pharmaceutical Development. I am proud to be me, the Bad Asian Daughter who chose to disbelieve his label and create a life that is anything but dime a dozen. Read more about me on badasiandaughter.com, on Facebook, on YouTube, or on Twitter. My dad retired from Abbott after twenty-five years of service, having funded college and medical school educations for both of his children, and still lives with my mom in Libertyville, Illinois.