The pre-med girls walked down the street every morning.
But they weren’t pre-med, at least not yet. They liked thinking that they were, though; they liked talking about saving lives--it’s totally not about the success or anything like that--they liked it when their parents introduced them to other Asian parents with: “Oh, this is my daughter. She’s pre-med.” And then the other parents would smile, grin, say, “Oh, your daughter is so accomplished. She’s going to do great things.”
Because pre-med was a great term, a brilliant term that all the Asians in town wore like a Science Olympiad gold medal. Asian girls liked talking about the kinds of stories you’d read about in novels: late-night football games, high school proms, Mean Girls. But they’d never been to football games. Their high school proms were sitting on benches and finishing up Calculus homework. The only mean girls were the ones who glared at you after the bell rang and you’d finished your test and they hadn’t. These were the little details, the little things that pre-med girls admired--even fawned over--but didn’t fully understand.
I could have been one of those pre-med girls. I wasn’t really good at math, but I’d done science fair. I hadn't won anything, but that was okay. What mattered was doing it and talking to those around me: girls who had been doing science for as long as they could remember, girls who designed apps that solved third-world problems, girls that purified water with the formulas inside their heads, girls whose inventions were so, so much realer than themselves.
We had all received badges when we entered the auditorium for the science fair; each one listed how many years we’d been participating. I only had one blue dot, but there was an Indian girl next to me who had nine. Her board looked professional, like she had spent hundreds of dollars designing it. She’d connected all these wires to it. The front of the board said her name, big and bold and blue. Her pantsuit made her look like she was running for office, rather than attending a science fair. She wore all the medals she’d received from previous years around her neck, as if to say I’m experienced. I know how to win. I’m pre-med.
I would have loved to be her at that moment: poised, calm, confident. But then I saw how unhappy she looked. Her project was on trying to find a cure for the developmental stages of cancer, a continuation. She’d done research all for the past few years just to find the cure for cancer. Her dad had come with her, carrying a piece of equipment. He was beaming like she’d just gotten into Harvard. (She probably would.) They came to the table across from my measly-looking board on learning languages, and set everything down with such an alarming speed that it was clear this was just another day to them. I stood by my project, feeling awkward and ordinary, but most of all not pre-med. Because I’d probably never be pre-med. I’d probably never find the cure for cancer. I’d never be someone who invented things that were realer than myself.
An old white lady passed by--a judge, presumably. The girl stood up, straightened her suit, prepared for a discussion. Then the lady looked at her and frowned. I watched as she grilled the girl on her project, asked if she really thought she was going to cure cancer, asked why she felt like it was her place to conduct such an experiment.
And the girl just kept on stating the same fact, the same I want to save lives. I just want to save lives. And she said it so methodically that I began wondering if she really wanted to save lives at all, or if it was more of the feeling of being pre-med, the feeling of power, of success--feeling like you were someone to be proud of. Not just a collection of cells, but a complete, full, whole human being: someone who could save the world, but not someone who was real.
I checked the winners list a few weeks later. She had gotten first place.
San Jose, CA
Valerie Wu is a Chinese American student at Presentation High School in San Jose. Find her on Twitter @valerie_wu.