In celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, May’s narratives are dedicated to highlighting the voices of students who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander. Each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage with the following stories. More importantly, be ready to interface with an intimate space and allow yourself to step inside someone else’s life. The following is the narrative of Aquib Jamil, a first-year medical student at KUMC.
Note: The third interview question is credited to the NYT article “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Can you please give me a 1 minute summary of your life?
Well, name is Aquib Jamil. I was born in Overland Park, Kansas but my parents originally immigrated here from Pakistan. I went to Blue Valley High School and then went to KU for undergrad in Lawrence. So I’ve been here my entire life.
If you could choose only one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?
See, I thought a lot about this one. It’s kind of hard to pick just one word. I ended up going with adaptable because I think it suits me. I try to deal with stress in a very day by day sort of way. And I try not to let too much external pressure get to me. I think, for the most part, I do that pretty well, obviously the whole med school thing has been a bit a challenge, but I think I’ve managed. So I’d say I’m adaptable.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
There’s a Lebanese poet named Kahlil Gibran, and he wrote this book called The Prophet, which is my favorite book in the world. The entire thing is poetry about these super broad concepts, things like love and power and justice. The words he uses in the poetry itself is really, really amazing. He approaches these topics in ways that I never would have considered. When you read it, you’re like, Oh, that makes sense. I would just love to pick his brain and kind of figure out how he came up with those things.
What is your favorite hobby?
I love to cook. I almost went to culinary school straight out of high school. And then I didn’t because I wanted to keep cooking as kind of a hobby. If I can make what I want, when I want, that serves as a way to de-stress. There’s this whole cultural, historical aspect around a meal; the actual act of making it and the way meals bring people together. I’m really infatuated with that process, so I try to cook whenever I have time.
What is a topic you really care about?
One thing I’m really passionate about is health inequity, specifically, how income inequality leads to health inequity. It’s one of the reasons why I went into medicine because I’m fascinated by all the different barriers that people face when it comes to acquiring health care. I think it’s fascinating because it’s so complicated. It’s also something that I hope to challenge in the future as a physician. It’s difficult because it’s more than just insurance or salary, it’s a whole host of problems that kind of layer on themselves to create health inequity.
How did you first get interested in health inequity?
I took a sociology and public health class on a whim in undergrad. And I immediately fell in love with the subject because everything we learned about, I was like, That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. That led to me taking more and more public health courses. Everything I learned, I enjoyed. I was like, Something’s telling me, like this is a sign from somewhere because I learned something. That’s really, really cool. And I think it’s very rare in academics to find something that naturally piques your interest. I left class and wanted to know more about that subject. Whereas, for a lot of other classes, I would leave and be like, Oh, thank God that’s over.
What is your journey into medicine?
I’d always been interested in natural sciences as a kid, as every pre-med student is. In high school, I took AP biology. I really liked genetics. So I thought about doing some sort of genetic medicine. This is along the time that I was debating with the whole culinary school thing, but that’s a separate story.
So I came to undergrad to major in biochemistry and I wanted to do genetic medicine. I worked in a genetics lab from freshman to senior year. That was when realized I didn’t really like bench work. I didn’t want to do research for the majority of my career, but I still wanted to use all this natural science information. So clinical medicine seemed more appropriate.
I started shadowing and really, really had a great time. I was lucky enough to have shadowed awesome doctors who were super involved in the patient interaction, were really good about following up and and had incredible bedside manner. As a student I admired and wanted to emulate that, which pushed me more towards medicine.
Does your interest in public health and health inequities play a role in this journey?
Absolutely, yeah. Thanks for reminding me. So, around the same time that I was leaning towards medicine, I took that [public health] class. And I was like, I can use medicine and this interest in public health to really tackle this issue of income inequality.
My goal is to eventually do some epidemiologic or public health work that’s focused more on the healthcare system. maybe work in health policy or nonprofit work and just kind of tackle the larger issue of income inequality and health inequality. I feel like medicine as a path is really unique because you can be that flexible. You can be like, okay, I want to practice for this many years, and then go on to something else. Whereas a lot of careers don’t really offer you that flexibility.
What are your future hopes in medicine?
So I’d like to one, find a specialty that I really enjoy. I guess the most immediate hope is to do well on Step 1 and then match. But going beyond that, if I do find a career that I really enjoy, I want to practice in a hospital setting, hopefully. I do think I want to work in-patient and, eventually, work my way into the more public health, societal, aspect of medicine. That’s the plan for now. It could change, but I think that’s what I want to do.
How important is your heritage and culture to you?
As someone who was born to immigrants, it’s something that’s very important to me. I think everyone goes through this phase where they’re growing up, and there’s this rejection of their cultural heritage. They want to assimilate, they want to be “normal”. Then as you get older, you start to appreciate the value of your heritage more. I think that’s what happened to me because as I was growing up, I wanted to be as far away from my culture as possible. Then as I got older, I realized that so much of my identity is tied into that culture, like the food I eat, the languages I speak, the countries I visited, have all impacted me personally.
I can’t shy away from that. I think it’s something I should be proud of. I think every first-generation American has the same experience. Without my culture, I wouldn’t be the person who I am today. And I’m pretty happy with the person who I am today. So I’m very thankful.
Can you share about how or when you finally accepted your culture and heritage?
I think it was during college when I got away from my family. When you live at home, you tie in your cultural identity to your family, and it can be seen as this overbearing, or oppressive or force. But when you get away, you realize that there’s a lot more to it than that. So when you’re allowed to explore it at your own pace and express the parts of it that you want to express it become easier to embrace the positives. And that’s a uniquely immigrant experience to be able to pick and choose what parts of your culture you you identify with. I think once I had the ability to that, I really started to appreciate it a lot more.
As a child of immigrants, do you feel like you’re stuck in the middle of two cultures, two nations, and two generations?
I’m going to say yes, but I don’t think that’s it’s bad thing. I think it’s just part of the first-generation American experience. When you interact with other people who are in the same position you are, it gets easier. But when I was younger, and even now, you’re the foreign kid when you’re around American people. Then you’re the American kid when you’re around foreign people. So I think being able to toe that line can be a little isolating at times.
But I think that it’s also a really unique privilege because you can occupy both spaces and be comfortable in both of those spaces. I think that’s something that even my children won’t be able to experience, you know, what I mean? I think it can be upsetting at times, and it can be difficult, especially when you’re growing up and you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. But when I got older, I realized that it was a pretty valuable experience. I think there is a lot you can learn about yourself, and a lot you can do from that position. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. It’s refreshing to hear your perspective because you’re putting a positive spin on being in between two cultural identities. You don’t have to be either A or B. It doesn’t have to be binary.
Exactly, you’re not A or B and that’s not a bad thing. I almost consider it a privilege because you get to, again, pick and choose what aspects of A and B you want to express any given time. A lot of people don’t have the ability to do that.
What does being Asian mean to you?
I think being Asian American in the US is complicated because, for the most part, we are a marginalized group. [Being a marginalized group] comes with its own set of obstacles, but at the same time, we enjoy a lot of privilege relative to other marginalized groups. So you run into the typical immigrant struggles of like, Okay, I have to excel academically because that’s an expectation. If you’re Asian American, you’re supposed to be good at school, which is fine. But the unspoken pressure that comes with that is you have to be good at school to justify being here. People who aren’t minorities, they belong here, period, no one questions your right to exist in the United States, you’re American. But if you’re not an American, or you look like an immigrant, then it’s like, I have to do well because if I don’t, that means I don’t deserve to be here. And no one explicitly tells you that, but there is this societal pressure to earn your spot in America.
Then, it’s also interesting because Asia isn’t this homogenous entity. But as an Asian-American in the United States, you’re lumped into this larger pan-Asian group, which is really cool because you have that kind of solidarity and community that doesn’t and couldn’t exist in Asian countries independently. If I wasn’t born here, I would never have described myself as Asian, because, you know, your Pakistani, or your Indian, or your Chinese, your Laotian. So I think there’s this unique pan-Asian identity that is a product of being born in the US.
I find that whole idea really interesting. In terms of tolerance of other cultures and understanding more about countries that aren’t just Pakistan, that’s a real advantage and privilege I’ve enjoyed, compared to if I had been born and spent my entire life in Pakistan. Like, if you’re Pakistani and you only interact with Pakistanis, that’s it, and you lose out on the rest of Asia which is so, so different.
How has your identity as an Asian American shaped or impacted your life experience?
I think it’s really deepened my interest in being a global citizen because my identity isn’t just American or just Pakistani. I think that makes it easier for me to learn more about and take an interest in other cultures places that a lot of people traditionally don’t go to. So going to someplace like Pakistan, has really broadened my perspective on the human experience as a whole. And I think that’s incredibly valuable, especially as someone that wants to be a future physician. The fact that I’m able to have such strong memories of my ethnic heritage, while still also being able to live here is really, really amazing. And that’s something that I used to take for granted.
Are you fearful of “diluting” your cultural heritage as the generations go by?
Yes and no. I wouldn’t say it’s diluting per se, because it’s just a whole new cultural experience.
It’s like yes, my children and their children, won’t have the same understanding of Pakistani culture as I do. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. They’ll have their own lives here, and that’s okay.
I think I’m incredibly lucky that I got to have that experience, but I’m not worried that the generations that come after me will lose out because they’ll be able to deal and work with their identity in their own way.
I think the mindset of dilution can be very harmful because then you’re in this like, I don’t know — it’s kind of like holding on to sand. Eventually, yes, you’re going to lose some aspects of the culture, but that’s life. That’s globalization, that’s immigration. That’s what it is. So I think approaching each generation’s experience as its own entity with its own value is better. It’s less futile.