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 Jeanette Tho, 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 one minute rundown of your life?
I was born and raised in Olathe, Kansas. Then, I went to undergrad at the University of Miami and got to spend a couple of semesters abroad in different countries — in Hong Kong and also in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. After all of that, I found myself coming back home for medical school to be closer to family.
If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?
This is two words, but I would say people-oriented. I really try to cultivate a comfortable atmosphere where people can feel free to be themselves around me. With everyone I interact with, I want to give them a positive experience and encourage them in some way.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
I would definitely choose Jesus because my faith is really important to me. Having dinner with Jesus would be the most meaningful experience for me.
What is your favorite hobby?
One of my favorite hobbies would be keeping in touch with friends that I made in college in Miami. A lot of us weren’t from Miami, and now everyone has spread out throughout the country, and internationally in some cases. We make a point to keep in touch and I love hearing how everyone’s doing and what they’re up to.
What is a topic you really care about?
Caring for broken people — physically broken, (in medicine, we care for those who are physically broken), but also those who are spiritually, emotionally, mentally broken. I’m passionate about caring for other’s well-being, helping them reach their potential, and allowing them to lead full and complete lives.
What is your journey into medicine?
Though neither of my parents are doctors, they always told me from a young age [that] medicine is a great career. Stable job, caring for others, a meaningful profession — my parents really desired the best for me. They wanted to help guide me in what they thought was the most worthwhile direction. Still, what my future career would be was a decision I had to make for myself. Later experiences brought greater understanding into this question of what I was to become.
During my high school years, I did a couple of mission trips in Arizona to help impoverished Native Americans. That really touched me, opened my eyes to people who have less than me. That made me want to have a future career where I could help people in need. During
the same time, I was in a science program. I was really enjoying science and found it to be challenging, but also really interesting. So the melding of science and helping others — I thought becoming a doctor could be a good fit for me.
There are other careers which combine science and compassion such as nursing, PA, basically any health profession. But in undergrad, I shadowed several different physicians in different specialties for extended periods of time. My time shadowing demonstrated to me how becoming a physician is what I would want most. I saw how doctors were able to make leading decisions regarding their patients’ health. I wanted to be able to have the knowledge and expertise to help others directly in that way.
I’m curious about your study abroad experiences. Can you share about those experiences?
They’re not necessarily medically related. During the fall of 2016, I went to the Galapagos Islands, which are part of Ecuador. It was a four-month program. During the first month, we were in Ecuador. Ecuador is a very biodiverse area with a lot of different ecosystems. In the first month, we visited different areas of Ecuador. One part we went to was what they call the páramo region, which is grasslands. They’re very high in elevation so [there was a] lot of hiking in mountainous areas. Then we also spent a week in the Amazon, which was really cool. I tell people that it’s very loud there. The wildlife is very loud and it’s incredible because you’re always hearing something.
The last three months were [spent] in the Galapagos Islands and the specific island we were on was San Cristóbal Island. It’s like a small town so everyone there knows each other. Most people don’t speak English. Some people speak a little English, but mostly Spanish is spoken, so I got to work on [my] Spanish skills. I found a local church and local friends that I became close to. It was truly a magical experience.
Did you study environmental science or biology in college?
Just biology, not necessarily focused on ecology. I actually completed my major through [the] program [in the Galapagos] because all my coursework was in biology, mostly ecological and evolutionary biology.
You mentioned you were abroad in Hong Kong, too. Can you share about that experience?
I studied abroad in Hong Kong in the spring of 2018, my last semester of undergrad. Basically, at that point, I was done with all my classes so I was just there hanging out. My sister goes to college in Georgia, but they also have a Hong Kong study abroad program. We both did a program in Hong Kong during the same semester. That was my first time in Hong Kong, and I don’t have family ties there. It was so much fun.
Do you speak Cantonese?
I can speak a little now after my trip because some of the classes I took in Hong Kong were Cantonese classes. But before [the study abroad experience], I didn’t really speak Cantonese.
Were you able to travel anywhere in China during that time?
Yeah, my sister and I traveled to some places where we have family. My mom’s Taiwanese, and we went to Taiwan a couple of times. We went to Malaysia. My dad is Chinese-Malaysian, and my aunt and cousins live there. We also went to Thailand, where a cousin of ours has settled down. Then after that, we went to mainland China for sightseeing.
What are your future hopes in medicine?
I’m open-minded, though I do really like peds or even some sort of primary care. I know that I definitely want to have some involvement with international missions, maybe local missions. I don’t know if that’s going to be a long term thing or a short term thing — I just know some missions involvement.
How important is your heritage and culture to you?
It is super important to me, because it’s a big part of my life and my story. Being Asian American is definitely different than being American, and it’s also very different from being Asian while growing up in Asia. Asian American is a very unique subset!
What is does being Asian American mean to you?
If I think about myself initially, Asian or Chinese wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s definitely there. I know it’s part of the lenses through which I see the world.
What is the first thing you think of when you think about your identities are?
Like I said before, my faith is really important so that would probably come first — Christian. But then maybe Chinese-American.
How has your identity as an Asian American shaped or impacted your life?
This is a huge one actually for me. Growing up in Kansas — Johnson County — there is a little bit of diversity, but the majority of the population is Caucasian.
I don’t remember all of this, but my parents told me things I said when I was younger, like when I would come home from daycare and I would ask my parents “Why aren’t I blonde?” or something like that. I just wanted to be like everyone else. It was hard to be different as a kid. Kids will be kids, and will find reasons to tease and make fun of other kids, especially ones who are different from them. And part of that is they may be more used to people who look like themselves. I think we all are naturally more used to people who are like ourselves. That was pretty hard for me.
I think the climax of my insecurity was in middle school, while dealing with popularity and drama. Also during that time, I went to a Christian summer camp, where my faith grew. I became more confident in myself as I grew my faith. And that also allowed me to look back on myself as a whole, including my ethnicity. So I was able to take a second look at being Asian and start to like that, start to accept that in myself.
I went to a more diverse high school. In our school district, we have different programs at the different high schools. I chose a certain high school its science programs. That particular school I went to was more diverse in many ways, for example, socioeconomically and ethnically. That time was a huge time of growth for me because as I studied and was around very diverse people, I grew to love the person who I am, and love being Chinese.
College was an extension of my high school years because my university was also very diverse. I had a lot of international friends, as well as American friends. But yeah, just continuing to grow to love myself and accept myself.
A big part of who you are is your spirituality and your faith. Would you be willing to share more about your faith and how it plays a role in your life, who you are, who you hope to become?
To me, it’s everything. God is the reason why I do everything I do. I feel like He has called me into medicine. My reason for having compassion for others is from my faith and what I believe. I mentioned earlier how I want to go into missions — that’s also very faith motivated as well, with a desire to help those who are broken.