My Father, the Classroom Beast

Hey guys! Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and are ready to get back into the daily grind.

A little update on my life before we get into the meat of today’s post: I just finished a Russian exam this morning and, as I finished early, have a bit of time to kill before my 11:30am music practice session (I am getting back into piano and am also picking up singing). So, I decided to crank out this blog post, ’cause what better way to kill time than to write?

The next couple weeks will be devoted to prepping for finals and finishing the last of my classes’ curricula. My apologies in advance, if I don’t do much writing for the next fortnight… painful as it may be, I gotta prioritize my studies above all else. Although, I’m of the mind that, as important as classroom learning may be, out-of-classroom learning, like reading, watching classic films, traveling and gaining work experience through internships, may be just as, if not more valuable than what you learn in the textbook. A big theme of mine this past quarter has been doing outside reading beyond the classroom. Not only is losing yourself in a brilliant novel a wonderful way to de-stress and temporarily remove yourself from the pressures of academics– it’s also yet another means of enriching your mind and gaining a well-rounded education. I recently finished the memoir “An Unquiet Mind”, written by esteemed UCLA and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor of psychiatry, Kay Jemison. Jemison herself was also a survivor of manic depressive illness, and in this way, I can relate tremendously to the harrowing experiences she recounts in this life-changing memoir. Stay tuned for a future post on the myriad of ways in which this book has altered my view on my mental illness and helped me greater understand manic-depressive illness.


Alrighty guys. On to the heart of today’s topic– MY FATHER! So, my brother Austin and I went home for Thanksgiving holiday and spent some much-needed time with the family. We were eating out one night at a Chinese restaurant, when the topic of my father’s college days arose. Mother, always the braggart, boasted of how my dad graduated top of his class in pharmacy school, and number two in medical school. Dad, ever the humble one, said nothing, but only smiled knowingly. My mother continued, “You know, your dad scored the highest grade for this one midterm, and all his classmates told him to ‘Stop doing that’, as his outrageously high score was raising the class curve!” My dad, brought back to the memories of his disciplined youth, said, “I remember I got a 119/125 on that midterm– it was a pretty difficult exam– and the next highest score was a 109!” My mother, probably trying to inspire Austin and me to be more like our father, continued: “Your dad would get 100% on all the exams, until one time, he didn’t. His professor told him, ‘Thank goodness, Tom. You’ve finally proven that you are human!'”

All the while, Austin and I looked at each other, thinking, Man… our dad was a freaking BEAST in the classroom! While Austin and I have always been great students, I don’t recollect us ever being in the top 1% of the class (at least not me), let alone THE number one student. I jokingly remarked to my dad, “Why are you so smart?” My dad replied, “I’m not smart. I just work very hard. But I also sacrificed a lot to achieve what I did.”

Mad respect for my father.

But I also wonder… was it all worth it in the end, for my dad? At the end of the day, what difference does it make if you graduate first or last in your med school class? Everyone becomes a doctor! My dad gave up a lot to earn the A+’s he did in the classroom… I’m sure he didn’t have much of a social life in his 20s… and he’ll never get those days back. I asked my father what drove and inspired him in his youth, and he replied, “I always wanted to do better than my parents did.” Which made sense for him, as he was a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong.

I later said to Austin, “I think I work very hard in my studies, just like dad did… Why don’t you think I can be top of my class?” Austin replied, “I don’t know… privileged upbringing, maybe?” I brushed this off as one of Austin’s usual witticisms, and laughed. But there seemed to be some truth in what he said… Perhaps, having grown up in a place of security and privilege, my brothers and I may lack some of that hunger– both physical and mental– that drove my dad when he was our age. Never has poverty been an issue for my brothers and me… not by a long shot. Truth is, we are very, very lucky. We never had to go through the suffering that our forefathers endured. And maybe, just maybe, that took off a bit of our competitive edge in the classroom. To many young people in first-world nations, school is just something they “have to do”. To first-generation immigrants like my father, school was the ultimate key to a better life… a life without hunger or poverty or physical suffering. It’s difficult for me to put myself in my father’s shoes, as my upbringing could not have been more different than his. But if there’s one thing I’ve garnered from my dad’s inspiring story, it is this: I must appreciate the privilege and opportunity of higher education. It is true that education leads one to a better life. It is the surest way one can climb up the social ladder. I mustn’t resent school and studies. Instead of trudging myself to lecture each day, I should be skipping with joy and gratitude! It is truly a privilege for me to be at such a great university like UCLA. If I don’t see this, I couldn’t be more ignorant. And to think that, not very long ago, I was willing to give it all up for a dream to become a professional dancer… How silly was I? No, not silly… just blinded by what was, at the time, a guise of a burning passion. With time, though, I realized that my aspiration to make a mark in the dance world was simply an extension of my unfulfilled Olympic dream as a gymnast. I love dance… but I can imagine myself doing so much more in life. I am transitioning to a chapter of my life devoted to the enrichment and expansion of my MIND. Dance is only one of the many ways in which I do so.

And so, having been freshly inspired  by my father’s story, I am ready to tackle the rest of the quarter with resolve and determination. The goal is not to be top of my class, as my dad once was… but, rather, to appreciate the opportunity I have to be at UCLA, surrounded by equally driven and intellectually hungry peers, learning and growing under the tutelage of my brilliant professors and mentors.

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