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 Ravji Shah, a second-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 one minute rundown of your life?
I was born in Kansas City. Then I spent the next 10 years of my life in Grandview where I attended elementary school. Then I moved to Leawood, Kansas, which is where my parents still live and where I attended middle school and high school. After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Kansas and I was a member of their honors program. I majored in neurobiology with the intent to pursue medicine here, which is why I applied early decision. My sister is a sophomore actually at the University of Kansas. She’s studying finance and she also has the intent of pursuing medicine at this institution.
If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what word would it be and why?
I think the word versatile describes me. Not only my interests because I’m interested in Bollywood dancing, political science, the environment, interior design, but also in the way I approach people. I like to think that I can relate to a broad variety of people that come from any background. So I think that’s where versatility comes into play.
Given this was anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
I think I would choose Mrs. Jackie Kennedy. I’ve read several biographies on her and her family and watched documentaries. I think she’s someone who has such poise, and I would love to be able to speak to her, not only about like fashion and being First Lady, but her education, her experiences, and what serving the country meant to her.
What is your favorite hobby?
I mentioned Bollywood dancing. Since I was like six or seven, in first grade, I joined KC Bollywood, which is a dance troupe led by two mid-20 something Indian women. I’ve been with them since I was in first grade. During my senior year of high school, we helped choose outfits and the choreography and the music, and those traits, I’ve taken into undergrad. I choreographed different Bollywood dances for the South Asian Variety Talent Show. I’ve performed in Indian wedding receptions and cultural shows, like expositions that happened in Overland Park.
Do you feel like participating in Bollywood dance is a way you connect with your culture?
Yeah, I think it gives me a point of reflection of listening to music and watching the movies. It immerses you and reminds you of the other side of me. That’s what I liked about it.
What is a topic you really care about?
So without getting on a soapbox because I can honestly talk about like space exploration, domestic abuse, safe and clean schools. There are so many things that just fire me up, but I think something that I really hope to make a difference in is the opportunity for girls to pursue their education no matter where they live. I look at how fortunate I am to be able to pursue higher education or even to go to high school, in general, where a lot of girls don’t have the opportunity or [are] denied the joy of learning with the idea of child marriages or something. I’d like to be able to really make a difference and work with organizations that give women not only the opportunity but also the resources they need: backpacks, clothing, things like that so that they can pursue education.
What motivated this interest of yours?
I think knowing that my ancestral roots from India and that there are so many girls in India that don’t have the opportunity, but here I am in this country, being able to pursue that. When I visit my family, I see how destitute the conditions are. I think that if I were to be born in another family, in another country, what would my outcome be? So I think being very mindful of my privilege, of everything my parents have given me and everything they put into me succeeding, is something that means a lot.
What is your journey into medicine?
My grandmother had ALS. She was diagnosed when I was around fifth grade and she passed away when I was in sixth grade. I think that year, number one, not even knowing what ALS was, but trying to do my own research and trying to figure out why things happen, like pathophysiology, why is this happening but not happening to this person or something. I think that really stemmed my interest in neurobiology, which is why I majored in that at KU. But also, my grandmother slowly lost functioning when it came to speaking. So we had to use different pictures that would say “I’m hungry” or “I want to use the bathroom”, etc… to communicate and I thought that way of communication and being able to relate to somebody or meet someone at their level was something that I loved doing. The idea of pathophysiology but also communication, so I thought medicine was the best thing to do to figure that out.
When I was in high school, when I turned 14 during my freshman year of high school, I started volunteering at a local hospital. So not only do I spend time in the gift shop and helping people pick out toys and candy and stuffed animals for newborn babies, but also on the ICU floors or in the surgery waiting area and so I was able to see how there’s so much difference to medicine. From there, I was just sold.
What are your future hopes in medicine?
So, as a system, that communication thread is something that’s really important to me and so there are two ways that can play out. One is preventative medicine and one is basic human interaction with your patients. With preventative medicine, I think it’s communicating the risk. You can tell people “Smoking is bad for you”, but do they really understand why? You don’t have to go into the nitpicky of molecules and everything, but being able to tell them not only can it affect your lungs, but it can affect your kidney. You could have an increased risk for bladder cancer and explaining the toxins. You can say, “Eat healthy” or “Exercise” but I think that idea of having your patients understand why is a big part of it, which goes into the second thread — having that communication and not just throwing a bunch of things at them or pamphlets. Explaining why drinking milk or having vitamin D in your diet is important for kids, rather than just saying you need to drink milk.
So, hopefully as a physician, I can be good about communicating, but I think overall a physician is someone who’s not only a leader and a healer but also a partner. A lot of the partnership comes from being able to be on the same page about what’s going on.
Do you have an idea of what specialty you would like to go into?
So I thought I did in M1 year. Then every week or every block it kind of changes because you’re in the repro block, you’re thinking, Oh maybe urology. In the neuro block, you’re thinking, Oh I could be a neurologist. So I have not narrowed it down. I thought I did, but I do not have it just yet.
What does being Asian mean to you?
Being Asian has really influenced almost every aspect of my life, more specifically being Indian-American. I mean, if you look at the food or the clothes I wear or the languages I speak or my morals, my values, my faith, the music I listened, to the movies I watch — all of that has stemmed from being of Indian heritage. The classifications of race in this country are really muddled. Being white can mean you’re from Northern Africa, the Middle East or of European descent. So I think that often gets conflated with ethnicity or other vague terminology or not historically accurate terminology. So I wish that was clear in this country. But, yes, being Asian is very important to me. It’s influenced me a lot.
How has your identity as an Asian and/or Asian-American shaped or impacted your life experience?
Growing up when I was younger, I didn’t really notice that I was different. But after 9/11, being brown – I saw a lot of backlashes. I know people would say things to my parents when we would be in the grocery store around November or December right after 9/11 happened. I was in first grade and I remember teachers pulling me aside and asked me if I had family members who lived in the Middle East. I had kids making fun of me asking if my dad or grandfather were terrorists. So I can see the negative side of what being Asian has impacted me. But I would also say the discrimination that I face is nowhere near the discrimination that other minorities face. I think that’s because Asians — and I can only speak for myself — are often looked at as the model minority. So what I’d really like to do is encourage all people of Asian descent to also advocate and be an ally for their peers that fall into these other categories and really understand that racism. Just because it doesn’t impact me or — as I don’t want to speak for all Asians — that doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem.
How important is your heritage and culture to you?
It’s very important to me. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that it doesn’t influence me in some respect. Like yesterday for lunch, I had Indian food. This morning I woke up and I was listening to Bollywood music. Just the relationship that I have with my family and how a multi-generational family is really rooted in my culture, and the importance of education, things like that. Everywhere I look, [my heritage and culture] impacted me and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to be raised in a Hindu family have you know all these opportunities to explore other cultures. So, it means a lot.