My family is a collision of ethnicities in the cultural melting pot that is my city. One side having been in this country for seven generations, the other new immigrants. Through my mother, I’m the first generation to be born here. Her influence was definitely stronger than that of my father while growing up.
This reflected heavily in their views on life and work. While my father is an eternal optimist that believes chasing your dreams is a noble pursuit, my mother is pragmatic. Routine, hard work and never quitting is her mantra. She taught my persistence and discipline. In her mind, and her extended family’s mind, stability comes first.
They arrived in the 70s, fleeing from the military dictatorship of their homeland. Where they lined up for hours in the street for bread, saw people being shot and feared being “disappeared”. On arriving to this country they lived in a small one bedroom house, somehow fitting six of them. They worked as cleaners, slowly progressing to small business owners after years of hard work.
For my grandparents, their sacrifice in uprooting their family to a foreign land was completely worth it. Purely for the success they see in their children and grandchildren. My grandmother tears up in pride when she speaks of how everything she did was for us. The fact that I’m a doctor is like her own achievement, tangible proof that she made the right choice.
Three of their children are professionals with tertiary education. Almost all of their adult grandchildren are university graduates. We are working, we have a roof over our heads, food, education and access to great healthcare. What more could we ask for?
Is it human nature to always want more? Is it that inner need to strive for something else? When I took a gap year in the middle of medical school it was much to my family’s dismay. They couldn’t understand why on earth I would want to have a break from my studies. In their minds I had hit the jackpot in life and should be grinding on the fast track to specialisation. My father was my one silent supporter, saying I deserved a break and an adventure.
Many doubted I would return to finish medical school. I did return, I graduated with first class honours and then to their horror I took another year off. My grandfather, a man of very few words, voiced his disagreement. “One needs to work,” he said. That was all.
The priorities of my family are family first, second and last. You work for your family, you spend your time and energy for your family. You sacrifice for your family. It’s not a matter of what you would like to do, it’s a matter of what has to be done.
My idealistic views of pursuing happiness, chasing dreams and swerving off the straight road for adventures is a foreign concept for my family. Self-indulgent, frivolous…completely unnecessary. Why go travelling when you can work and enjoy the beautiful country we live in?
Coming from a place of privilege
I’m acutely aware of the fact that I come from a privileged place. My parents and grandparents sacrificed so much to give me the education and resources I had growing up. They didn’t pursue their dreams. My mother wanted to be an artist, but became a nurse as artists didn’t make money. My grandfather never wanted to leave his home country, but was pressured to by my grandmother. Grandma would’ve liked to finish high school, but had a rare form of cancer as a teenager and ended up in a hospital for years.
Yet they survived it. They put aside those ideas and focused on their reality and family. Their achievements can seen in the strong family unit that surrounds them. All of their energy was funnelled into me and here I was, threatening to throw it away, for chasing happiness.
Guilt at looking away from medicine
Having reflected on my background it’s no wonder that I’ve felt intense guilt when realising that I didn’t love medicine. I was supposed to graduate and then live successfully as a doctor. My family love telling anyone that’ll listen that I’m a doctor. The fact that I’ve been mentally struggling in my job is something they turn a blind eye to.
I know that my job brings my grandparents and mum so much pride and joy. It almost feels like all of their failed hopes have been pinned on that fact that I “made it”. Basically, I don’t want to let them down.
It’s taken me two years to come to terms with the fact that I don’t want the straight forward road in medicine. Living my life on my own terms is difficult, and I’ve not had much practice at that. Sometimes I wonder whether I should just work and do the stable path, as my family would like.
Not working full time this year is a big step. I haven’t completely shut the door on medicine, with the plan to locum. Grandma doesn’t like this at all and wants me to be an anaesthetist, but in the end I’ll be the person that has to put in the ten more years of work to get there. Only me. Then it’ll be me that works in that speciality, no one else. There comes a time you can’t live for others and their approval, as hard as it may be.
My family still don’t know that I would ultimately prefer not to practice clinical medicine, but for now they know I’ll locum and that’s enough. Maybe moving countries to give your family opportunities opens up into endless possibilities and choice that you’re not familiar to. If you can’t dream in countries like this one, where can you?