For a young Burmese American, intense pressure from her immigrant parents to go into medicine led first to cheating and later to independence and the discovery of her own goals.

By Ophelia Young, Pacific News Service


SAN FRANCISCO – July 25, 2005 – I’ve wanted to be a lawyer, a ballerina, the president, even a nun once, but never a doctor. Guess what my parents pushed me to be?

Like many Burmese American parents, mine longed for the day when their child became a doctor. In Burma, if you weren’t a big-time government official or a successful businessman, the only way to bring home any income was to be a doctor. Even doctors didn’t earn much, but at least they were respected.

The gap between the rich and the poor in Burma is huge and widening. While the government and the rich plate their doorknobs with gold, the poor struggle to live on an income that is, on average, equivalent to $7 a month. There is little opportunity for the poor to rise — annual state spending on education is among the lowest in the world, estimated at 28 cents per child in 2002.

As a result, in Burma, the competition for a profession in medicine is intense. My parents’ dream was to come to America so their daughter could study … medicine! Then, in 20 years or so, they could bring me back to Burma and proclaim to relatives that their daughter was studying to be a doctor in America.

So my parents immigrated to America and began their new lives as postal service employees, working hard to establish a better future for their children.

As soon as I started to play pretend, my parents started lavishing me with one doctor’s play kit after another.

At a Buddhist ceremony in Fremont, Calif., when I was 7 or 8, I had to make a wish and lift three boulders. If I were able to lift all three, my wish would supposedly come true. When I neared the front of the line, my mom whispered, “Wish to be a doctor.”

But I hated going to the doctor, shivered at the thought of giving another person a shot and did poorly in science courses.

In my junior year of high school, I decided to make my parents happy and take my first step into the medical field. In addition to two other AP classes, an honors class, two jobs and the swim team, I signed up for AP chemistry.

I started off OK, but as the year progressed, I found myself slipping in chemistry. I panicked — how would I get into a good college now? As my grade coasted out of control, my best friend, who was also failing, and I resorted to cheating. We found a way to break in the building at night to look at the exams in advance. We did this successfully for a couple of months. But one night …

We succeeded in entering the building, but not the teacher’s office.

Earlier in the day, my friend had distracted the teacher while I unlocked the office door so we could come back that night — but now it was locked.

I remembered that there was a hole in the ceiling of the classroom that led to a crawl space where wires and pipes ran and only technicians would visit for repairs. Desperate, we planned to reach the room by walking through the crawl space and jumping through that hole in the ceiling. We knew that ladders to the ceiling could be found behind the walls in the boys’ bathroom.

We found the ladder, and after a dangerous pitch-black climb, reached the crawl space. We made a precarious climb over protruding pipes and boards, but when the light emanating from the boys’ bathroom faded to blackness, we turned back in disappointment.

The next day, I failed my chemistry test. I was dozing off in class when a tall, bald security guard with a walkie-talkie stomped into the room and bellowed my name. I was suddenly as awake as if I had swallowed a bottle of No-Doz.

I’m still not sure how the staff found out I’d broken in. They suspended my friend and me for three days and gave us F’s in chemistry.

At home, I discussed the incident with my parents. They were worried about college admissions, and especially about how this would affect my prospects as a doctor.

At first, I blamed them for making me enter a field they knew I was weak in. But blaming others for my actions could not be right. By the end of that conversation, I was blaming myself. I blamed myself for not being in control of my future; for letting my parents live my life.

It was then that I realized I was mature enough to make major life decisions for myself. I let my parents know that I could not let them decide what I would study or who I should be. If I did, I would hate school and regret my life.

I explained to my parents that I could be successful in other ways while enjoying what I do. “I promise you, Mom, Dad, whatever I will be, I’ll be successful,” I said. “I will make you proud.”

With that, my parents — sadly, hopefully — let me go.

I am currently a journalism major at the University of California, Irvine, pursuing a career in broadcasting — a field I discovered I love.


PNS contributor Ophelia Young, 19, writes for YO! Youth Outlook, a magazine by and about Bay Area youths and a PNS project. She is a journalism major at U.C. Irvine.

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