By some accounts, I may be counted as a high achiever. For starters, I graduated top of my class in elementary school. This was back in Singapore, where they had an inhumanely stressful Primary School Leaving Exam to classify students into secondary schools by ranking. I then graduated top of my high school in Canada. This was a school known for its academic rigour, as evidenced by their underperforming sports teams. I was involved in extracurriculars, had several leadership roles, and was considered well rounded by my peers. But despite all that, I was not happy.
If I were to introduce myself in a group setting and had to share one interesting fact, depending on the situation, I might either use the fact that my Chinese name is phonetically spelled the same way as “Viagra”, or that I’ve travelled a lot growing up. In fact, when I was 14, I left my parents for Canada, which was then my fourth country. Growing up in a strange place alone can really challenge a 14-year-old, but that was what I wanted when I asked my parents to send me in the first place.
That said, I felt out of place. I was heavily entrenched in Eastern culture, with its emphasis on community, duty and fidelity, and had a muddy awareness of the Westerner’s values about individuality and self-expression. To some of my friends, I was an “old” figure, a throwback to a time of outdated values and beliefs. To others, I was simply that kid with the strange accent. Amidst all this, I was searching for my own identity, my own uniqueness that can gain recognition, respect, and, yes, even love, in this strange new world.
Unromantically, I found those in grades. I did well in school, and people respected me for it. Slowly, I began forming an idealized image of myself that was brilliant, witty, and out-of-the-world intelligent. I fed it over the years and it grew and grew while I shrank and shrank. I kept people at a distance, and spared little time for romance, although in high school I did have a girlfriend. I delved into work, because in work I found surety and control. I did not want others to expose my insecurity, because I hated to think that after all these years of developing an ideal version of myself, I was just an ordinary guy, lonely and afraid.
I first considered going into medicine in freshman year. I remember speaking with someone at my volunteer place who had been diagnosed with cancer and, as I was busy that day, for the entire time she was sharing her story, I could not stop thinking about an assignment question I had been mulling over. I was disturbed by my lack of empathy. I knew that I had the capacity to empathize, but because I valued schoolwork – my definition of self worth – so much, I did not spare any attention to care.
How can I heal someone else when I could not even heal myself? I thought. My friends say I think too much, and that is probably true. But therein also lay my one salvaging quality: I was keenly aware of my own cognitive dissonance. I believed that learning was more important than grades, yet I could not dissociate my own sense of self worth from my transcript. I believed in the value of human connection, but my own insecurities prevented me from pursuing them. I was a walking contradiction. I knew it, and I wanted to change it.
Three years of soul searching later, I am still learning. I am still exploring who I am, what my values are, and where my self-esteem really comes from. All I can say is that I’ve now accepted the fact that it’s OK to be an ordinary guy, flawed, limited and still learning.