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 Nicole Balmaceda, a fourth-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 share a one minute summary of your life?
I am a 26-year-old First-Generation Filipino-American. When my parents were in their young twenties, they immigrated to the U.S. for medical residency training, leaving behind all their family and friends. They hoped to create a better life for themselves and for their family in the Philippines. I was born in Los Angeles, California and grew up really close to my two older brothers and younger sister. While in California, I enjoyed living close to a few aunts and uncles who immigrated after my parents, and friends who helped my parents when they first came to the U.S.. Being close to them was important since the majority of my extended family was still in the Philippines. When I was 8-years-old, we moved to Kansas after my mother was offered a job as a GI oncologist. In Kansas, I attended a small Catholic grade-school and then an all-girls Catholic high school. I did the typical stuff- played soccer, basketball, ran cross-country. I graduated from KU where I was on the rowing team and earned a BS in Biochemistry. I am graduating KU Med this May and start my Internal Medicine residency shortly after. I hope to become a medical oncologist!
If you could choose only one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?
Nikulasa. My parents have been calling me Nikulasa since I was a little girl. It combines my name Nikki, which is traditionally an American name, and then Kulasa, which means “loved one” in Tagalog. To me, Nikulasais a mixture of cultures, something that’s pretty unique to me.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, deceased or alive, who would you want as a dinner guest?
I would love to have dinner with my mother’s father, Marcial. He passed away shortly after my parents immigrated to the States. At the time, she had a green card and if she left to go to the Philippines, she wouldn’t be able to enter the States again. So, it was a really hard time for her. Hearing all the stories of how amazing he was and supportive of my mom and dad’s journey — I would love to have had the opportunity to meet him – to tell him about how proud I am of my parents and how thankful I am.
What is your favorite hobby?
Eating. Not only do I feel great after eating something delicious, eating is so enjoyable because I associate it with family gatherings. Coming from a family of six, I think eating really joined us together. Dinner was our time to slow down from the busy day and to enjoy each other’s company. My mother used to say: A family that eats together, stays together. Also, there are a few funny Filipino superstitions about eating. Like if someone leaves the dinner table early, that person will have bad luck. Side note: Filipino food is the bomb.
Do you have a favorite dish or family get-together?
During birthdays and holidays, it’s tradition to eat noodles– a Filipino symbol for long life. Pancitis one of my favorite dishes. It’s a popular savory noodle dish with a variety of vegetables and seafood or meat. You can probably find it at any Filipino party.
What is a topic you really care about?
I am extremely passionate about oncology. Ah I really geek out. My biggest fear in life is being bored, and I think Oncology is a field in which I’ll never be bored. I love being mentally stimulated everyday: the science and research – the biochemistry of cancer cells and the tumor microenvironment is fascinating to me. How cool is it that we can give a drug that uses the body’s own immune system to cure cancers? I remember when I saw a few of the immunotherapy clinical trials for the first time, I was amazed at how the CT scans showed tumors melting away. But with that being said, not everyone responds this way and some may even experience adverse effects from these drugs. I hope to help figure out why this. It’s important to know if there are certain tumor or patient characteristics that may predict if a person will respond to certain drugs. If they are less likely to respond to a certain drug, we may choose a different treatment option that would work better instead of putting patients through treatment that could potentially be harmful to the patient. Personalized medicine plays a huge role in oncology. I also love the teamwork involved in the field. I enjoy working with other medical disciplines and with researchers and physicians all over the world who share the same goal of improving the lives of people with cancer. Most importantly, I love working with my patients and their families. They are the real drivers of my enthusiasm for oncology.
What are your future hopes in medicine?
I hope to become a medical oncologist.
What is your journey into medicine?
With my mom being a GI oncologist and my father being a pulm critical care physician, I was exposure to the medical world early on. By the time I was in grade school, I knew how to use the pager system. I also learned the hard way how expensive stethescopes are. I accidentally borrowed my mom’s for a Halloween costume and came home to a displeased mom. Oops. Dinners were usually filled with medical jargon. My mom would draw out the colon on a paper napkin and explain to us where her patient’s cancer was and why it caused certain symptoms. Usually I’d say: “Mom, can we not talk about the colon during dinner?” But I was secretly fascinated by all of it. As I grew older, I asked my parents more medical questions. I took special interest in biochemistry and really enjoyed working in a colorectal cancer research lab with Dr. Kristi Neufeld. I loved the science part of benchwork research, but something felt missing – things got lonely with the western blots and laboratory mice. I decided that I needed human interaction. After starting medical school, I worked with an oncologist at UCSD. He specialized in melanoma and led many clinical trials. I loved seeing both the science side and patient side integrated. After this experience, I knew I belonged in oncology.
Do you view your parents as role models for who you want to become in residency and as an attending?
Yes, my parents are my role models and I hope to be as amazing doctors as they are! I am so happy seeing them do what they love. Their passion and ability to provide care and support to all their patients is inspiring. Gosh, they are so cool! They are my heroes. I really hope to write a book about their journey to America one day.
As someone at the end of her medical school journey, do you have any words of reflection or advice you would like to share?
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you had a rough day, just step back, realize why am I in this. It’s really hard, but this is going to pay off. This is going to serve my future patients. And if you need a break, take a break. Go to JayDoc or shadow a physician. It’s a good way to re-center yourself. Or just treat yourself, go to dinner with a friend. Take care of yourself. My biggest piece of advice is to remember to say thank you – to your teachers, your patients and their families, the residents and attendings you work with, the social workers and nurses, etc, and your families and friends. Also wash your hands…
You moved to Kansas at the age of eight from Los Angeles, California. Did you have any difficulties adjusting to the diversity difference between the two locations?
It was harder growing up as a Filipino American in Kansas than when I was in California. I have such fond memories living in the diverse city of Los Angeles. I remember the smiling faces of my relatives and friends who truly loved and embraced the Filipino culture – and they were eager to share it with everyone. There was no hiding of who we were. I thought it was the coolest thing! I was proud. But maybe I felt this way because I was too young to understand or become aware of my cultural differences. After I moved to Kansas, I did not immediately feel different than my classmates. I had a solid group of friends – who were primarily white- but they were family to me. We played the same games and ate the same after-school snacks. Every once in a while, I would do a “double-take” in the mirror and be reminded of how much darker my skin was than my friends, but it never bothered me. High school is when things changed for me. I remember walking into my winter formal dance and feeling so beautiful. I had just convinced my mom to let me get this pretty, pink dress and heels that made me feel tall and confident. Going to an all-girls school, I loved dances. It was an opportunity to actually put effort into my appearance, I was excited to talk to boys and feel beautiful. Something to be excited about besides a good grade on a Chem test. I walked in and the first boy I see stared me down. I nervously ignored him and walked past. I thought: “Maybe I actually am pretty. Maybe he thinks I am too.” Instead, he cursed under his breath and said “Ugly Asian,” as if in disgust. In disgust that I’m actually at the dance. He shakes his head in disbelief and aggressively walks away. I suddenly felt this gross feeling in my chest. I will never forget how ugly I felt and shocked that this was the world I lived in. In college, the uneasiness continued. I heard comments like: “you’re pretty for an Asian…usually Asiansall look the same” or “Your English is very good.” Sadly, these experiences made me very guarded and shy growing up. For some reason, I felt more hurt for my parents than for myself. I never felt comfortable until I graduated college and started Med school.
Now, when someone points out that I’m different, I embrace it. I am so proud of my culture. I love being Filipino American. I love talking about how brave and cool my parents are for the sacrifices they made and how they selflessly care for others. I enjoy telling others about the many fun Filipino parties and awesome traditions that join the Filipino community together. I don’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt growing up. It was hard, but it taught me to be open-minded and resilient. I think diversity is beautiful.
What does being Asian mean to you?
Being Asian is a big part of who I am, but it does not define me. I am so proud to be Filipino American. How exciting?! I get to have all the cool “parts” (the food, the new year traditions, and all the parties) of both the American and Filipino culture! To me, being Asian and Filipino American means living every day with love for others and remembering my roots. It reminds me of my heritage – where my parents are from and how much they sacrificed to give me the life I have. You cannot go on without knowing where you came from. I love the culture of my parents and I hope to share these with my children someday.
How has your identity as an Asian American shaped or impacted your life experience?
My heritage is a huge part of who I am. Growing up, it was confusing. In California when I was surrounded by family and a diverse group of friends, it seemed like every day was a huge Filipino party. I never noticed my being different. But when I moved to Kansas, it became more apparent. I felt like I was more “Asian” at home and more “American” at school. Sometimes I even got Tagalog words mixed with English ones at school. I felt embarrassed, uncomfortable, and awkward. When I was 16, it was time to visit the Philippines. IT WAS AMAZING. It wasn’t the fancy beaches. It was the “oneness” of the community. Despite being in a third world country, everyone seemed happy. I guess it was the Filipino way. They have so little, yet they are so welcoming and selfless. It was so refreshing. Being Filipino American has made me strive to be a wholesome person: To look at the bigger picture. When I’m having a hard day, my mom used to tell me: “look at the bigger picture.” I am just one person in a huge world. I have one hard day. But in the grand scheme of things, I have so much. I am a healthy person in medical school. I have a loving and caring family. There is a roof over my head, food and clean water at the table. I have many blessings in my life. Being Filipino American, I feel proud, resilient, open-minded, and a curious to learn more about others.
How do you connect with your culture?
I learned the majority about my culture through my family – through the stories of what it was like being a kid riding the back of a jeepney, or cooking sinigang with my Lola, the small folk-songs Bahay Kubo, and rhymes. Today, I even use Filipino tradition when I call my brothers Kuya Alexand Kuya Chris– as a sign of respect. Over holiday celebrations, we combine Filipino and American Traditions. On New Year’s Eve, we watched the colorful ball drop on television – an American tradition. We also hung up grapes over the doors – to bring in good luck and wore clothing with polka dots and held coins in our pockets jumping up and down when it was officially a new year – a Filipino tradition to bring in a bountiful year. The Filipino people are so humble, hospitable, and selfless. In addition to spending time with family, I connect with my culture through providing service to those in need.