How my culture affects my professional life

How my culture affects my professional life

When I interviewed at medical school earlier this year, I felt the interview went well.

In preparation, I practiced my answers with several fictional interviewers, watched countless videos from past applicants, and researched the school extensively. While the actual interview had its hiccups, I attributed that to the result of the online format and the inevitable difficulty of establishing a connection with a stranger on a virtual platform like Zoom.

After my interview, I made sure to send a letter of intent reconfirming to the school that they were my first choice. Having done what I could, all I could do at that point was hope for the best.

Unfortunately, I was put on the waiting list a month later and finally rejected when classes started in July.

Wondering if I had a glaring error in my application that ultimately resulted in rejection despite getting an interview, I asked the admissions office for feedback on my application for re-application.

The Dean of Admissions was kind enough to schedule a phone call with me where she provided some fairly specific feedback: “There was nothing wrong with your written application, but both investigators got the impression that you didn’t seem not enthusiastic about school.”

I was shocked and appalled.

She continued, “For introverts like us, we have to challenge ourselves to say our thoughts out loud, like your interest in our medical school, even if it doesn’t seem natural.”

In my mind, my presence at the interview itself was a subtle but significant expression of interest, whereas outright declaring my interest in the school to the interviewer seemed indelicate and direct – essentially cringe. It was less a question of introversion than a question of culture.

Taking the Dean’s comments to heart, I reflected on our conversation over the following months. Last week I had the opportunity to interview again at the same medical school, but in person. The day before my interview, I had dinner with a friend who attends the University of Philadelphia, where we discussed the influences of our cultural background on our professional lives.

Although I grew up in a traditional Chinese immigrant household where love is shown and never spoken, I learned to verbalize my love by forming deeper relationships in college. However, working through my cultural differences and their influence on my professional relationships proved to be more difficult.

Chinese culture values ​​humility and deference, such as refusing to accept praise for showing modesty. On a Zoom call with my Principal Investigator (PI) earlier this year, he complimented the work I was doing. Not knowing how to accept the sudden praise, my mind raced to say something, only to respond with ten seconds of uncomfortable silence.

In interviews or in professional contexts, I tend to suppress my personality and sometimes act robotically and unnaturally. My parents taught me that “professionalism” is stoicism, which (in a way) demonstrates that I am “serious about my job” and reflects my work ethic.

However, my lack of verbalization does not mean that I am not as passionate as the next person or candidate. I know that to be successful in the United States, I will have to challenge myself to play by the rules and norms of American corporate culture.

But departing from the values ​​and practices that were instilled in me also feels like a betrayal of the culture I’ve worked so hard to reconnect with over the past decade. There is no middle ground here. I feel like being in the middle is counterproductive and will end up making me sacrifice both my American and Chinese identities.

I feel like I have to choose, but I’ve also learned that living as a first-generation immigrant is a never-ending balancing act – whether it’s how I dress, who I friendships or the values ​​I choose to live by.

As an Asian American woman, I face both a glass ceiling and a bamboo ceiling (the Asian American version of the glass ceiling).

Asian Americans are the least likely demographic to rise to leadership positions, despite having the highest level of education. It is estimated that, on average, Asian American women earn significantly less than Asian American men. These statistics show that my cultural differences are not limited to my own experience and encourage me to advocate for the wider Asian American community.

I believe it is my responsibility as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a member of the Asian American community, and a future physician to educate others and challenge these differences and misunderstandings, such as the myth of the “model minority” which not only disadvantages Asian Americans in the workplace, but also leads to deep health disparities and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to these larger issues involving my community, I am convinced that silence is no longer an option and that I must speak up.

Even if sometimes it seems cringe to share my personal experiences and all of my thoughts and feelings related to it or to tell a medical school how much I love their program, I believe I can begin to make my voice heard by sharing my experiences through my writing here.

Shihua Chen is a research assistant at Hopkins of Rancho Cucamonga, California.

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