Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 26, 2023

How my culture affects my professional life

By SHIHUA CHEN | November 28, 2022

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COURTESY OF SHIHUA CHEN

Looking back on her experiences applying to medical school, Chen considers how her culture plays a role in her professional life.

When I interviewed at a medical school earlier this year, I felt the interview had gone okay. 

In preparation, I practiced my answers with multiple mock interviewers, watched countless videos from past applicants and researched the school extensively. While the actual interview had its hiccups, I chalked that up to being the result of the online format and the inevitable difficulty of forming 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 top choice. Having done what I could, all I could do at that point was hope for the best. 

Unfortunately, I was waitlisted a month later and ultimately rejected when classes started in July. 

Wondering if I had a glaring mistake in my application that ultimately resulted in rejection despite having received an interview, I asked the admissions office for feedback on my application in preparation to re-apply. 

The admissions dean was kind enough to schedule a phone call with me where she provided pretty specific feedback: “There was no problem with your written application, but both interviewers felt like you didn’t seem excited about the school.”

I was shocked and dismayed. 

She continued, “For introverts like us, we need to challenge ourselves to say what we’re thinking out loud, like your interest in our medical school, even if it feels unnatural.” 

In my mind, my attendance at the interview itself was an expression of interest that was subtle but meaningful, whereas outright declaring my interest in the school to the interviewer seemed indelicate and blunt — essentially cringe. It was less a matter of introversion and more a matter of culture. 

Taking the dean’s feedback to heart, I reflected on our conversation in the following months. This past week I had the opportunity to interview again at the same medical school, albeit in person. The night prior to my interview, I ate dinner with a friend who attends college in Philadelphia, where we talked about the influences of our cultural background on our professional lives.

Despite growing up in a traditional Chinese immigrant household where love is shown and never spoken, I have learned to verbalize my love as I formed deeper relationships in college. Still, working through my cultural differences and their influence on my professional relationships has proven to be more difficult.

Chinese culture prizes humility and deference, such as refusing to accept praise to demonstrate modesty. While on a Zoom call with my principal investigator (PI) earlier this year, he complimented the work I was doing. Unsure of how to accept the sudden praise, my mind raced for something to say, only to respond with ten seconds of uncomfortable silence. 

During interviews or in professional settings, I tend to remove my personality and at times end up acting robotic and unnatural. My parents taught me that “professionalism” is stoicism, which (somehow) demonstrates that I am “serious about the 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 applicant. I know that to succeed in the U.S., I will have to challenge myself to play according to the rules and norms of American business culture. 

But deviating from the values and practices instilled in me also feels like a betrayal of the culture that I have worked so hard to reconnect with over the past decade. There is no happy medium here. It feels like being in the middle is counterproductive and will ultimately cause me to sacrifice both my American and Chinese identities.

I feel like I have to choose, but I have also learned that living as a first-generation immigrant is an unending balancing act — whether it’s how I dress, who I make friends with or the values I choose to live out.

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 management positions, despite having the highest educational attainment. 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 larger Asian American community.

I believe it is my responsibility as a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a member of the Asian American community and a future physician to educate others and speak out against these differences and misunderstandings, like the “model minority” myth that not only disadvantages Asian Americans in the workplace but also leads to profound 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 need to speak up.

Although at times it feels cringe to share my personal experiences and all my thoughts and emotions tied to them or to tell a medical school how much I love their program, I believe I can start growing my voice by sharing my experiences through my writing here.

Shihua Chen is a research assistant at Hopkins from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.


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