How I Visited 150 Countries During Med School+Residency & Still Became a Doctor

How I Visited 150 Countries During Med School+Residency & Still Became a Doctor

June 23, 2018

6:46pm: Counting down the last 14 minutes in my last shift of residency and the rest of my life.

6:47pm: In 13 minutes I am about to graduate as an attending physician.

 

It’s remarkable to look back and realize all it took was losing a bet to get here.

4 years of college, 4 years of med school, 4 years of residency, and 150 countries later, ever since my fateful trip to Egypt in 2010, and I’m finally about to graduate. To think I had almost failed out and got kicked out of school/residency more times than I could imagine.

Anyone remember Dr. Greene’s last shift on the show ER? The scene reminds me how every July 1st residents join and say goodbye to hospitals without anyone seeming to really notice. But people always notice.

 

 

I’ve been watching that clip a lot on these last few shifts of residency. Cheesy, I know. Sentimental, I am.

 

“Words really don’t teach but it was you being an example that help me realize it. I know you would be an amazing doctor and traveler. I really didn’t know how you did it as a world traveler and a med student, but now I know for sure there is no excuse and anything is possible if you have the passion and the love and it is thanks to you.” – Iran, 2011

 

Travel is an investment, NOT an interruption.

 

As my last shift in residency comes to a close, I look back on 8 formative years that pushed me to limits I could never have imagined.

 

 

I survived 4 years of one of the toughest med schools in NYC — while having traveled to 70 countries during that time — the likes of which included places like North KoreaIranAntarctica, and Pakistan. I then overcame 4 years at one of the oldest and most challenging Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country — while having traveled to 80 more countries during that time — the likes of which included places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Tibet.

And I never skipped a single day of class or missed a single shift during that time.

(Well, I once was an hour late because of a delayed domestic flight from Arizona, but that was for a visiting rotation and nobody really noticed).

Adding it all up I took 46 trips to more than 150 countries in 7 continents, received international recognition beyond my wildest dreams, met hundreds of monsooners, and made countless more friends around the world. 

I did it my own way, skeptics be damned. And it’s hard to believe that travel would be what actually saved me from the oblivion that is medical school and residency.

 

“‘A bit of madness is key

To give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

 

And that’s why they need us.’

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays.

 

And here’s to the fools who dream

Crazy as they may seem.”  – Audition, La La Land

 

 

 

And before all any of this, I remember writing a post on my first day of medical school upon the conclusion of my first monsoon trip, not knowing if that very post would herald a premature end to my travels.

 

2010

 

Med School

That blogpost belied a complex intersection of feelings: fear, doubt, insecurity, and guiltfear over whether I would travel as much ever again, doubt in pursuing medicine, insecurity whether I would ever become the doctor I was never sure I was going to be, and a guilt to even consider reserving any part of my life for travel while I was just starting to buy textbooks and take out hundreds of thousands of dollars for student loans.

Those were rational feelings, so I did what I knew best — confront them with irrational actions. When you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, sometimes you just gotta look upwards and shoot for the moon instead.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

And so I did just that, irrationally beginning my medical school journey by flying across the world twice on the eves of my first two medical school block exams. One was 22 hours for San Diego (for a wedding) and another was 22 hours for Hong Kong (for my brother). 

Although physically tired, I was emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually recharged. I felt less mentally hungover during med school, and less distracted when I returned home. And I didn’t fail those exams (well, I almost did). Something was working.

 

2010 - San Diego

2018 - Chicago

 

 

OK — Med school can be on an extreme of intense for many people, right? Since we must strive for balance in our lives, I hypothesized that trips of equal intensity could be the cure.

I needed to test my theory and save up for more travel.

 

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 2014

 

 

“I Don’t Have Enough Money”

The first obstacle was money. So I had my travel fund add up however it could:

  • Sublet my apartment for $$$ whenever I was away
  • Accumulate miles for free economy, business or first class flights
  • Pay for big group dinners with friends with a credit card that gives you 3x miles for dining (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example), and then having them all venmo/paypal/zelle/pay me back…I would accumulate up to 40k miles a month this way!
  • Ask for upgrades every time I check in at the airport, and at the boarding gate desk. I found that you’re more likely to get it if you look really jet lagged and exhausted, turn up the charm, and go in with the confidence that you lose nothing by asking; I’m currently at a 50-60% success rate
  • Before I became an attending, there was a time where I accumulated too many miles via manufactured spending (the legit/legal route). I still have hundreds of thousands of these unused miles!
  • If any of my flights were delayed, it was always worth a shot to file a complaint with the airline and get airline credit for a future flight, or via AirHelp and get hundreds of $$$ back…so far they’ve been really good and refunding some of my flights!
  • Perform a variety of odd jobs: I DJ’ed for private parties and bartender on some weekends and holidays for overtime pay
  • Sign up for paid tutoring at my med school
  • Get paid for public speaking on the very topics I was learning about (aka how to save and make money to go on trips)
  • Skip out on paying for gas, car insurance, that nice TV, cable, video games, fancy dinners, and nice clothes
  • Identify all free food events on campus and in the city, even bringing Tupperware to stock up on uneaten food, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
  • Throw potluck parties at my place where people would bring more food that any one person could handle, so I would throw everything in the fridge and ration my meals, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
  • . . . eventually this all adds up.

 

 

On the flip side I would budget my travel into costing no more than $500 all-inclusive for a trip that could last as long as 2 weeks:

  • Constantly look up flights on budget airlines such as WoW Air or Norwegian Air Shuttle to get ridiculous deals such as $60 from NYC to Dublin, $144 from NYC/Chicago to Norway, or $496 from NYC/Chicago to the other side of the world in Tokyo or Beijing.
  • Skyscanner is my favorite search engine for ridiculously low-priced flights. Close seconds are the Google ITA Matrix, Google Flights, Kayak, Hipmunk, and Skiplagged
  • If you do a multi-city search on those search engines (especially Skyscanner and Kayak), changing a single date or switching the order of destinations can dramatically lower your cost by a few hundred dollars. Compare this multi-city itinerary of 5 flights in Europe for $3600 side-by-side with the exact same itinerary (but in a different order) for $400. WTF?!
  • It doesn’t cost any money to search for flights, therefore finding such a deal above with any of those sites is worth your time
  • Stay in $5-$10/night hostels and guesthouses
  • Or stay for free doing Couchsurfing
  • Kill 2 birds with one stone and forego paying for any lodging by taking overnight buses
  • Get group discounts by taking others with me (my spot for Antarctica was free after I spent a year finding 20 people to go with me!)
  • Bring a student ID to get discounts on all admission fees
  • Acquire free flights by accumulating thousands of miles (whether by sign-up bonuses or getting 3x points on travel and dining — pay for your friends’ dinners and have them Venmo/Paypal/Chase Quikpay you back!)
  • Befriend people at my hostel so when we went out to explore, we’d split a cab/meal/bus tickets/train tickets/admission fees/etc etc. instead of paying for the whole thing alone
  • …eventually this all adds up.

 

Uzbekistan, 2015

 

“I Don’t Have Enough Time”

As money trickled in, I needed to handle the issue of time to travel.

So I made time: If I had 2 consecutive days off from school or work, I would try not to see those 2 days as another regular weekend to recharge, but rather an opportunity to make an international trip possible:

For example, if you can get on a flight out on a Friday night, you can reach almost anywhere in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, or South America by Saturday morning. Then the next 36 hours anywhere is enough to explore most medium-sized cities and towns before you have to return Sunday night.

Our recent trip to Ireland with 7 people best exemplifies this. Even The New York Times has an entire column on how to maximize “36 Hours” for a trip. We’re not the only ones.

But there are those of you who feel like it might “not be worth it” and “I’ll wait until I have more time.”

Then is it fear that’s stopping you from moving? For fear never gets us anywhere unless we reframe it as another challenge that we use to push our limits: The biggest risk you can take is to take none at all. Or rather, what I usually say, strive to fail  — meaning, if I’m not pushing myself to one step away from figurative failure, then I’m not doing enough.

We all feel fear — what matters is what each of us does with that fear. Perhaps fear shows us what the next step is to push our limits, existing also to motivate us to achieve things we never thought we could.

 

Mostar, 2017

 

Give us the benefit of the doubt and consider looking at 36 hours differently than what we had been brought up to believe: can you leave the country for 36 hours? Sure you can (and many of us have), so isn’t it better to travel a little bit than none at all?

 

Now let’s take it a step further: An analogy with food

Think of a buffet and it’s there right in front of you. You’re STARVING; you haven’t eaten and you would like to. So would you continue to starve, refusing to eat anything just so you can wait for a “full experience” that may not even happen? Wait long enough and you’ll be too old to travel, too old to eat any part of that “buffet” because by then you’ll have been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and all that bad stuff. Some of the food might be gone by then.

You would miss out more than you could imagine.

. . . OR would you eat a bit of everything now while you’re younger, without all those ailments, so you know better which food to come back to for your seconds and thirds?

 

Lake Baikal, 2016

 

This logic propelled me forward. Similar weekend and blitzkrieg travels followed, such as:

This was my life in med school.

I did it. I did it all.

 

Leading a Mehndi in Lahore, 2014

Doing The Math

While it seemed as if I was pulling off superhuman heroics to travel every weekend, I took “only” 46 trips over 8 years. When you do the math, that’s 4-6 times a year during my 4 years of med school, and 6-8 times a year during my 4 years of residency. That’s an average of a trip every 2-3 months.

This can still be considered to be a lot of travel, but it certainly wasn’t “every weekend.” And if a 2-day weekend getaway can count as one of these “trips”, a weekend trip every 2-3 months can seem pretty manageable!

Soon this lifestyle drew me to other like-minded wanderlusters and strangers who — rather than choose either the life of a nomad or the life of a working professional/student — would instead choose both.

I was not alone.

 

“Thank you for these weekend trips. And for showing me they are possible.” – Mihaela K.

 

Cuba, 2014

 

Even when it seemed obvious that taking time and money off to travel would jeopardize the stability of our lives back home (let alone our professional futures!), we encourage one another to believe in the magic of travel. Whether it was just for a single day in Ireland, a 3 month epic from Turkey to North Korea, or just the magical eternity moment of complete strangers falling for each other, travel became an investment in our lives instead, not an interruption.

We were not alone.

 

“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

 

Hyderabad, 2010

 

Reality Bites

However, the pipe dream seemed to fade: midway through my 3rd year of medical school, I had almost failed out twice. By the time I applied to residency during my 4th year I was:

  • ranked in the bottom 50% of my class
  • not only scored below average on my Step 1 Medical Licensing exam with a 212, I also passed by only a single point above failing in Step 2 with a 204 (furthermore, you’re supposed to do better on Step 2 than on Step 1, but obviously I didn’t)
  • I was called out for missing an entire month of potential residency interviews for that trip to Antarctica and Pakistan. 
  • I acquired $200,000 in debt to student loans, all of which payments I deferred and put into forbearance.

My advisers began to doubt whether to bother endorsing my candidacy for residency training at all. Perhaps I was never meant to do this.

The skeptics’ echo of “I told you so” started to become louder.

 

 

The universe will find a way to support you, as long as you believe in yourself

5 minutes with Dr. Salifu, the Chair of the Department of Medicine at my medical school, changed everything.

Getting that interview wasn’t special — we all got 5 minutes to meet and make our case with him to get a much coveted recommendation letter. However, as I introduced myself and presented my file, about to apologize and explain for my sub-par academic record, he put up his finger and motioned for me to stop talking; his eyes briefly glazed over my academic transcript but then furrowed his eyebrows on the part of my CV that mentioned travel.

He then asked about leadership, and what it took to lead. He asked about leading these trips around the world.

 

Machu Picchu, 2011

 

One hundred seconds later Dr. Salifu made a smile I will never forget, reached out his hand to shake mine, and remarked that I reminded him of himself, and that he wouldn’t be where he was today if it wasn’t for similar risks he took during his medical training. He never let fear stop him.

He said he would write me a recommendation letter that would “make everyone in residency pay attention.” Then there was a knock on the door — our 5 minutes was up.

Little did I know then that I would walk out a different candidate for residency than when I had first walked in.

 

Iran, 2011

 

Scores of interviews at residency programs followed afterwards, many accommodating my travel schedule. I would learn from my experience with Dr. Salifu by no longer apologizing for my academic record. I instead doubled down, shot for the moon, and intersected travel with medicine: You can teach any medical student clinical skill and knowledge, but not attitude and humility. I made a case for travel and how it helped develop cultural competence and empathy; my subpar test-taking abilities could never teach me that. I stuck to my guns and told the truth.

People listened.

When Match Day came a few weeks later, I opened up the envelope to find that I matched into one of the top Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country. wtf.

 

 

How life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of medical school would also be the very reason that got me into residency.

Travel was no longer the gamble; it became the investment that actually paid off.

 

 

Furthermore, on an ironic footnote of this experience I was asked to give my class’ graduation speech as the outgoing class president. So I bid my medical school adieu with remarks that implored my colleagues to think of themselves not only as doctors, but also

as activists, peacemakers, statesmen, ambassadors, innovators, philosophers, or engineers. And above all, that we become artists, always pushing the limits and our dreams of what medicine can accomplish.”

I believed we were graduating not just with new titles as resident physicians — it was an opportunity to remember that we’re humans first. We’re complex creatures. We can achieve that level of self-care and self-awareness than what others give us credit for. We need to be good to ourselves first so that we can be good to others.

 

 

Residency Woes & The Imposter Syndrome

About a month later I began my 4 years of residency.

As soon as it began, a horrible habit of learned helplessness soon had me back in a stranglehold — I began to doubt myself once more, believing instead I had been lucky this entire time and that my run of good fortune was about to end. I questioned whether I belonged among my colleagues; imposter syndrome kicked in (after all, I was the actual imposter that got in through the back door).

Worst of all, midway through residency I was asked to tone down my travels if I wanted to stay in the program given a perceived capriciousness in the way I carried myself and how much more I seemed to care about this blog. Another wave began crashing down.

 

 “. . . As you no doubt recall, you and I spoke at length last week regarding attending feedback and their serious concern for your genuine interest in the patient care mission. This theme has now been noted by patients, supervisors, and colleagues. The residency leadership has made you aware of such issues multiple times, paired you with Attendings for closely monitored shifts, and even revoked your moonlighting privileges. 

. . . I think it is time that we speak regarding your professional future. It seems to us that you need to re-evaluate your priorities and be honest with yourself about some tough decisions, not least of which needs to be, ‘Do I really want to be an Emergency Physician?’ and ‘Am I giving my patients the dedication they deserve – that which I would want the physicians of my most loved ones to get from their physicians?’ If you cannot give us and your patients 100% through June 30, 2018, I expect you to only give us 0%. Anything else is unfair and unsafe to all parties involved. 

Please let me know of your availability to speak over the next few days and have prepared a response to these questions. If you so decide, we can work with you to ensure a smooth transition out of the residency program so that you may pursue that about which you are truly passionate and at which you truly excel. Otherwise, please be prepared to redouble your patient focused efforts, even at the expense of other pursuits, while in residency. Thank you.”

– E-mail sent warning me about my medical residency status being revoked

 

 

But after a grueling road trip across the United States and Venezuela, I responded with a 2 year process of consciously developing new habits. I cut out the negative toxic influences in my life, let my fears go, surrounded myself by loved ones who supported me instead of telling me what to do, and accepted my own intrinsic faults by diving headfirst into self-reflection. I shared insecurities far and wide among my colleagues and they reflected back to me theirs. We made sure as residents to not be afraid to ask for help.

I soon realized the beauty of foregoing things out of my control, allowing myself to directly steer toward the places where I could make a difference. I began to renew my confidence, deftly bringing my studying from the passenger to the driver’s seat while I travelled. FYI – The NYT agrees: Studying becomes more effective when you’re traveling. I also started coming back from work everyday feeling that true fulfillment I always long sought, beginning to believe I had the best job on the planet.

After casting doubts into shadows, light shone in the overwhelming encouragement and support from my peers — several of whom eventually traveled with me, and sometimes, because of me.

However, I refused to stop traveling. I knew what was good for me and what wasn’t. Nobody else could tell me that. And sometimes, old habits die hard. In fact, I balanced the stress in residency with traveling even more, covering another 80 countries and reaching the coveted number of 150 before marking the end of my medical training.

 

 

And despite nearly stumbling out of the gate at the beginning of residency, I buckled down and took in the feedback that worked for me without giving up any of my core values or changing who I was.

“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming WOO HOO what a ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson

A few months later I was named as one of the program’s first 3 Residents Of The Block during my end of my 2nd year of residency. The imposter was no longer the imposter.

 

 

Coming Full Circle & Finishing Residency

Then a year later I was given the fortunate task to serve as the program’s first Director of Resident Wellness in my final year, which role would become the fifth Chief Resident position. I was also presented the Ramsey Rod Award, the only award bestowed upon 3rd year residents/PGY-3s for “marching to the beat of their own drum.” And just like how it was in medical school, last week I was grateful enough to give a small speech about its importance to me at my own residency graduation.

Again, how life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of residency would be instrumental in propelling me to become the doctor I was meant to be.

And now I’m graduating one last time, to embark on a lifetime of service onto others as an attending physician tomorrow without forgetting what magic and beautiful souls I have been blessed with along the way.

After all, graduation is also known as a “commencement” and it certainly feels like I’m about to commence upon another journey.

 

 

The universe has a fascinatingly lovely way of working out.

Since The Monsoon Diaries began in conjunction with the beginning of my medical training, it would be fitting to mark the end of one phase of my life before beginning the next. We mark our existences with milestones and this one’s no less deserving.

 

6:55pm: I give sign out and take a shot with my attending. I shake his hand. I feel tears coming on.

7:00am: I go over and shake hands with the family member of my very last patient. It’s time to go home.

 

Today I have become a full-fledged attending physician, mark my 150th country, and close a chapter to my life to begin another. Here’s to 8 years and 150 countries more, with and thanks to you

If not now, then when?

If not you, then who?

 

 

 

The 20 Rules Of Monsoon

(aka everything I learned the hard way these past 8 years in school that got me to where I am today):

1. No More Excuses. 

When presented a challenge, make it a habit to always think of solutions and always think in the realm of what’s possible (“how can I make this work”), instead of the bad habit of giving an excuse why you can’t do something.

“Impossible is nothing.” “Just do it.” “Stay foolish.” These aren’t declarations of cliché, they’re evidence of experience.

2. Sleep well:
  • 7-9 Hours a night, 25 hour cycle
  • Moving forward (aka sleeping later the next night) is easier than back (sleeping earlier the next night)
  • Consistency & regularity is preferable
  • No alcohol, caffeine, or heavy foods 4-6 hours prior to sleep
  • Don’t ever study or lie awake for too long in your bed — you’ll begin to associate your bed with staying awake! If that happens and you just can’t fall asleep, just get up and do something productive and try again
  • That said only 2 things should happen in bed: sleep & sex.
  • Life hack: See rule #18b

The more you sleep, the more efficient your work will be, the more quickly you’ll finish your tasks, the more free time you’ll have to do more the things you enjoy, and the more time you have for more sleep. Positive feedback, baby!

 

 

3. Eat Well.
  • Stress = Overeating or Undereating
  • Fat + simple, & complex carbs = Decreased neurogenesis
  • Lesson: If you’re gonna eat, avoid fatty foods and complex carbohydrates

 

 

4. Exercise.

Exercise everyday. Your body is your temple. You only got one and it’ll be with you for the rest of your life.

 

5. Unlearn bad habits, while developing good ones.
  • Habits are unconscious, automated processes
  • It is difficult to change habits
  • Habits, however, can work in your favor — they carry you forward when your will to get something done fades (aka brushing your teeth)
  • Therefore your habits = You
  • You can incorporate good behavior into habit if you go about it in a goal-directed way
  • Habits usually takes an average of 66 days to form — Taking 2 months to improve the rest of your life is not that long!

 

6. Give yourself enough me-time for introspection, self-awareness, and ultimately, self-forgiveness.

 

7. Maintain quality relationships:
  • Stay connected to the people who truly matter
  • Cut out those who are toxic, aka anyone who add little value to your life
  • Stay away from negative people: They find a problem to every solution
  • The people who truly truly love you will support you in whatever you do, and never tell you what to do (especially when the advice is unsolicited). If they are telling you what to do instead of supporting you, then their “love” may not be right for you.
  • Learn to stop caring about what strangers and acquaintances think about you. Most people don’t even care that you’re alive. So when people don’t like you, nothing actually happens. Once you accept this, you’ll have total freedom to do whatever you want, especially choosing those who actually do matter to keep in your life. Aka, it’s time to stop giving a F#@$%*!
  • Touch. Aka hug your friends, kiss a loved one, cuddle, snuggle, pet a cat or a dog, make sure you give and receive enough love.
  • Talk. Dare to open up to both old friends and new ones, especially those who are not afraid to be both honest and kind with you — they are your mirrors who can reflect upon you what they see so you can better understand yourself (hence the concept of “Ubuntu” – A person is only another person through another person)
  • Your relationships with your friends are more important than any relationship with money: Money is a replenishable resource; friends, experiences, and the youth to enjoy those experiences are NOT.

 

 

8. Manage your expectations realistically without being negative.
  • Go into this knowing that this shit is hard.
  • Go into this knowing that this shit is hard and yet you’ve always risen to the occasion (See #1).

 

 

9. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.

All that stress might be devoted to something that might not even be worth all that stress. So save that energy for something more productive (repeating to myself “we’ll cross that bridge of despair when or if we even get there” has saved me a ton of grief).

 

 

10. Take productive and quality time off.
  • That means not sitting on your ass watching Netflix
  • Productive breaks can include cleaning your room, organizing an event, planning your next week — they all can play a role in better organizing in your brain whatever you just studied

 

11. Stay grounded and get out of the bubble.

Do one non-medicine (or whatever is your main profession) activity every day.

 

12. Don’t “give back.” Instead, give as you go.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, teach those a year or two below you. You were in their shoes once. Their appreciation will motivate you and make you feel like you belong where you are, especially if you have the imposter syndrome.

 

13. Always do it your own way.
  • The first doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, programmer, accountant, artist, designer, anything, traveler, explorer, philosopher, anyone…they didn’t follow a blueprint to get to where they were. Neither should you.
  • See Rule #7c

 

14. Humans are meant to be complex creatures: You can do more than one thing.

 

15. Let the imposter syndrome pass through you. It’s a normal feeling.
  • Everyone else feels the same way as you do
  • That said, fake it until you become it. This is not a sign of being an imposter — everyone else around you who seems more successful is and has been doing it too.

 

16. Avoid the psychology of postponement. 
  • You’ll never be as young as you are today
  • Your job will never love you back

 

17. Don’t be a dick.
  • Take 3 deep breaths before you do or say anything negative, especially with your personal relationships.
  • With all my advice above, especially with rule #13, there’s this one important condition: Make sure you’re not restricting someone else’s freedom to do the same (ex. don’t go on a warpath where you’re willingly hurting other people and creating collateral damage…aka, don’t be a dick).

 

18. Simple life hacks are “hacks” for a reason.

If they’re that simple, then do them all because they’ll add up

  • Feeling down and don’t know where to start? Give both your hands a good washing with soap for at least 30 seconds (real seconds, not rushed). Once you’ve dried them, you’ll suddenly feel a little better about your situation: 6 Purely Psychological Effects of Washing Your Hands
  • Can’t sleep well? Too much on your mind? Write a to-do list before falling asleep may help you sleep better: Write a To-Do List Before Bed to Fall Asleep Faster
  • Schedule the fun things FIRST. That way you always have something to look forward to and motivate you finish the boring things.
  • Adjust your body language;  it shapes who you are. For example, to gain confidence simply stretch out those limbs and take a confident stance (aka a “power pose”). “Fake it until you become it” and within minutes you start really believing you’re as confident as you look.

 

19. Be honest.

Communicate. Always tell someone how you feel as long as you can do it with love and kindness. And if you can’t, see #17. You can always find a way.

  • Don’t miss any chance to say “I love you” whenever you can if you mean it. You have so much more to lose by not saying it.

 

20. Travel. Often.
  • If it sounds easier said than done, see #1.
  • Remember, you’ll never be as young as you are today. And you’ll never get today back.
  • “Never let your work become your life. Live a little.”
Transcript Of Calvin D. Sun (ECAASU Board Of Directors) ECAASU Goodbye Speech

Transcript Of Calvin D. Sun (ECAASU Board Of Directors) ECAASU Goodbye Speech

 

Harvard University, Boston University

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

7:00 P.M. EST

With nearly a quarter of our monsooners coming from those that I’ve met at ECAASU for the past 10 consecutive years I’ve been involved, I finally say farewell:

 

Video

 Transcript

It’s hard to believe this is now my 10th ECAASU. I’m old. I remember my first ECAASU — I was about 19 and an attendee just like you, sitting where you are sitting (hungover as some of you may be), checking out some cute people in the corners of my eye . . . and yet, I remember being scared to death.

Because at that conference I was told in order to make change, I had to “transform myself.”

What the hell? What does that mean? At that time, I was a young pre-med who didn’t want to be a doctor. Hell if I even knew if I wanted to be anything, I mean, I knew I wanted to break some kind of mold, but I was also profoundly insecure. Either way, whatever I thought I wanted to be, it definitely didn’t fit “Asian doctor.”

So I struggled with an identity crisis. We all have. Even ECAASU has had one, for like 37 years (Understandable, given how this country has a hard time figuring out who we are).

ECAASU’s precursor and the first national AA conference was founded in 1970, and their goal was to seek justice for a black man and Black Panther member Bobby Seale.

Then came the Bakke Decision, where the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a white pre-med when he sued UCSD for rejecting him on the basis that he was white – a slap in the face to black activists everywhere who fought so hard to get affirmative action passed. But they weren’t alone: Asian Americans – whether or not they were for affirmative action — stood by their black allies by forming APSU, MAASU, and ECAASU as national demonstrations of solidarity.

Do you think that would still happen today?

Identity crisis! Because 26 years later — or 8 years ago – when I joined ECAASU as our National Board was created in 2008, this conference became known only as one giant hook-up party. It went from badass grassroots organization to prototype Tinder for horny Asians.

The challenges facing us as first year board members to redirect this organization back to salient civil rights issues seemed insurmountable: I remember all of us on the National Board, we had just graduated college and had our own personal identity crises; I still didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor, only 8 people applied for 9 positions, and more than half the board didn’t even come to meetings. The few of us who did, well, we had no idea what we were doing. But we went with our gut, made risky decisions and recalibrated our brand with messages we never tried before.

ECAASU has since grown with 4 times as many annual events, and over 10 times the number of applicants every year. Our reach has touched as far south as Florida and as pacific as Hawai’i. We still have our parties, but we’re once again focused on pertinent civil rights issues. We redefined our organization . . . and not on anyone else’s terms but ours.

And in those 8 years, I also became a doctor. But not my father’s doctor, or society’s perfect little Asian American doctor. But like ECAASU, I’m something on my own terms: A doctor who hates studying and almost failed out of med school twice because I traveled to 71 countries during that time and started a business, but used that instead of my piss-poor board scores to get into one of the top Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country. I learned from ECAASU by trading fear for trust, flipped the bird at the antisocial Asian doctor stereotype and did it my own way, even when everyone else said I wouldn’t get into medical school and when everyone said I wouldn’t get into residency.

My transformation and ECAASU’s go hand-in-hand and one could not have existed without the other.

And neither of those transformations would have been possible without you. Having met thousands of students like yourselves around the country, I’ve listened to your stories in car rides to and from countless airports; from train stations in Durham, NH to bus stops in Allentown, PA, over kitchen tables in Gainesville, FL in dorm lounges in Northampton, MA on living room floors in Davidson, NC to diners in Columbus, OH and Atlanta, GA and in tons of hookah bars from Richmond, VA to NYC to Austin, TX.

You invited me to your homes and showed me how in quiet corners around this country you chose not to play it safe, not to be polite, and you inspired me to continue believing in risky decisions.

But, with risky decisions comes passing that lesson onwards to a younger generation. So after 10 years, with my term up on ECAASU, and as its longest serving member, I’m passing the baton and saying farewell to an organization that has intimately witnessed my transformation as a student, college grad, alumni leader, medical student, and now as an ER doctor; an organization that that has redefined me as much as I’ve helped redefine itself.

Most of all, I’m grateful to have been a part of ECAASU with you during some of the most seminal moments of what it meant to be an Asian American in this country:

Because let us say that we lived in a time of Wen Ho Lee, Better Luck Tomorrow, and Harold and Kumar. Let us say we lived in the time of Barack Obama, The Arab Spring, and the Far East Movement. Let us say we lived in the time of Jeremy Lin, Ferguson, and Fresh Off the Boat.

Before society defined them, they went out there and did it themselves, their own way. For you are what you do. Your choice to even be here has significance; you’ve inserted yourself in a tradition of breaking tradition, to constantly find out new ways to fight for our communities and others, because we still got problems to solve – young black kids are still shot with their hands up, our media turns a blind eye when young Muslim Americans are indiscriminately murdered, young 20something Asian American women constitute the highest percentage of mental illness and suicides, Hispanics have the highest dropout rate for students ages 16 to 24. . . .

Yes, we have a lot of work to do. And remember that the transformations we want for this country, the future, and for ourselves all go hand in hand.

I remember when I was challenged 10 years ago, sitting where you are sitting right now, to “Transform  myself, Transform the country. Transform the future.” I now know that being scared to death by the very idea of transformation was just the crucial first step.

So before I leave, let me part with my ECAASU family with 4 valuable lessons I’ve learned 10 ECAASUs since: 

#1) When that person you’ve been flirting with says they want to see you again at the ECAASU afterparty, you better get their number before those elevator doors close because you definitely will not be able to find them at the afterparty.

#2)  In redefining the future for yourselves, the safest choice may not be the best choice. So live for yourself, not the aspirations that society – and your parents — had set out for you.

#3) Like how I did it my own way to becoming a doctor: Trade your fear for trust. Believe in yourself to find that area of passion that motivates you to overcome any challenge, even if it means taking the less popular path.

#4): Do. Not. Apologize. One of the most amazing moments in your life will be when you realize you can stop apologizing for who you are, what you want to do and who you want to be.

 

To my ECAASU family, to my 10th and final conference as an ECAASU board member, to everyone here in Boston on the closing of the 38th ECAASU, it is time that we stop being afraid of being afraid, that we stop playing it safe, and that we stop being so fucking polite.

Stay classy ECAASU. I’m going to miss you.

 

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This Is My Medical School Graduation Speech

This Is My Medical School Graduation Speech

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Before I give you the transcript, a preface: I started this blog 4 years ago, exactly at the time when I also started medical school. In a way, my journey with The Monsoon Diaries would not have been possible without my parallel journey through medical school.

And after about 70 countries with The Monsoon Diaries, I’ve also been conferred my medical degree in my very home of New York City. Therefore, I figure it would be appropriate to mark the end of my 4 year journey of medical school by posting my graduation speech here on The Monsoon Diaries, because again, one couldn’t have existed without the other.

Thanks to Lei Zhao for all his guidance in how to write a good graduation speech.

 

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Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

09:00 AM EST

SUNY Downstate College of Medicine Commencement, May 28, 2014.

I’m feeling nostalgic for right now, this moment already becoming a memory. And I’m feeling nostalgic for the time when I was applying to medical school, the day when my pre-med advisor told us: “Look to your left, look to your right. Chances are, neither of them are going to be doctors.”

I’m feeling nostalgic for the day when I told my friend, a fellow pre-med, how I had been studying for the GREs. I remember when she furrowed her eyebrows and shook her head at me, telling me I was studying for the wrong entrance exams. This friend then got me a spot on a volunteer program in Emergency Medicine, which would become the specialty I would love and match in a few years later.

This selfless friend, Sonia, however, never got to go medical school. Something happened in the applications process that gave her no choice but to re-apply the next year. By the time the next cycle began, Sonia died from an aggressive form of breast cancer. She was 24. A vibrant, beautiful person, and the very reason why and how I’m standing here today, was taken away from us.

Sonia‘s life and legacy remind me how from the very beginning I wouldn’t have been able to do this by myself. She was with me every step of the way. Especially when I felt most alone, I would need her the most. And everyone graduating today knows in some way what that feels like: When medicine may feel daunting, overwhelming, and at times even impossible, we must remind ourselves of the countless people who believed in us more than we did. So we share this achievement, as well as the responsibilities, with people like Sonia.

And responsibilities, there are many. The obvious one is that I hope we as superb doctors will practice superior medicine. But I also hope that we have the courage to follow our gut when something makes us feel uneasy. In memory of Maya Angelou who happened to have passed today, we honor her with a quote: “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.” Medicine is a noble practice, but it is not perfect. It can be good, but it is not always fair. We must remind ourselves of this as we labor to improve our shared practice. Hippocrates himself would accept nothing less than a continuous desire to expand, deepen, and transmit our knowledge as healers. 

And as we continue to grow and learn as doctors, we will confront situations that force us to think of the world in terms that aren’t simply black or white, right or wrong. We thus must strive to find beauty in the gray area, and revel in the nuances and complexities that make medicine an art.

It is never simple, but simple is not what we signed up for.

So while in medical school they’ve taught us to think like doctors, I hope we also don’t forget to think like human beings. Because in the end, the practice of medicine is a deeply personal and human experience. It is a delicate and demanding art where the end result of medicine practiced well Is a renewed life for our patients, free from the pain, suffering, fear, and anxiety that any illness may burden us with.

I also hope we will feel it incumbent upon us to treat even the non-biological issues of the world, identifying ourselves not only as doctors after today, but also as activists, peacemakers, statesmen, ambassadors, innovators, philosophers, or engineers. And above all, that we become artists, always pushing the limits and our dreams of what medicine can accomplish.

And I never thought about how dreams could be made real until I met people like Sonia who shared in that dream with me. As we celebrate the fulfillment of another dream today, I know that we will carry our achievements onwards with the everlasting support of others. Our achievements are theirs. And on that note, our achievements are also each other’s.

To my classmates — “Look to your left, look to your right”: the people next to us today are all now doctors because we did this together.

And with my speech already a memory, I salute my colleagues here on a bright future of making a difference at every level of society.

Let’s go make this world a better place. Congratulations.

 

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- At time of posting in New York City, it was 12 °C - Humidity: 30% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Directors) Keynote Address at PURSUIT

Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Directors) Keynote Address at PURSUIT

 

University of Virginia

Saturday, April 17th

10:00 A.M. EST

Well that was certainly embarrassing. I don’t know why I signed up to do that but I hope that got your attention. I don’t know how breakdancing will save the world, but it did save MTV’s late night programming…

 

Greetings University of Virginia and the 300 of you out there! I would first like to thank the organizers of PURSUIT for making the mistake of inviting me to speak here today. I don’t know what they were thinking when they approached me, but I jumped at the chance for a free trip to see Virginia. Not to mention all the free food for a whole weekend. Thanks guys. You have me sold on global justice. So you got 1 down, 299 more to go.

 

The reason why I mention the idea of my being here as a mistake is because I don’t think I’ve hit it there yet. I’m still young. I’m your age. And I’m not here to give you all the answers like what you might seek for other keynote speakers. But maybe that’s why this conference is so amazingly unique; you’re going hear it not from a person 1-3 generations ahead of you, someone who really has only a vague understanding of the way we think and live, but rather you’re going hear it from a peer – me — someone who’s going through exactly the same thing you’re going through. Again, don’t look to me as someone with all the answers, but rather as someone who’s involved in the fight with you, giving a different perspective on things. So if I could address you all here today as a fellow colleague instead of an old fart of a parent-figure, I think this could be a beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

That being said, I’m so happy to be here and truly honored to be the opening and first ever keynote speaker for PURSUIT in its inaugural year. And I’ve been invited here today to address a number of topics that pertain to our mission as future leaders of this world. This crazy crazy world we’re about to inherit. It’s a monumental task, and I must remind you that I’m only a wee bit over 23 years of age. That’s not very much older than at least a quarter of the people in this room. So don’t take my words as gold; I’m still learning as much as you are…hopefully this will be more sharing than it would be lecturing.

 

If I can summarize my experiences of my growth as a student leader, it would be this: 7 years ago I took up a passion in addressing a personal and social issue, and then translated my experiences into learning how to become a global citizen and social activist on others issues in the greater community. In other words, I learned how to help myself first before learning how to help others. But how I did I get there? I think the best thing for me to answer that is to tell you how it happened from day one. Why? Because one, you might be able to take away something from it. And two, it’s a great rush to talk about yourself in front of 300 people.

 

I grew up with a childhood that might be familiar to some of you. Son of an immigrant family in a big city, struggling with the dual identity of being both Chinese and American, I lived the reality of looking and being different from everyone else. The food I ate was too foreign, my speech was too accented, my eyes were too small, my nose was too snubbed, and my teeth were all braced up. I was the class platypus and I knew it. And enduring the stereotypical schoolyard bullying, I was taunted and kicked around like a slop bucket day after day.

 

In being different based on negative stereotypes, I dealt with the fact that I would be immediately perceived as “uncool” and socially awkward. That my innate shyness (yes, I was shy once! It was really bad) – that my innate shyness would only exasperate overwhelming social expectations to a greater degree, where I would always be picked last for kickball, dodgeball, basketball, soccer, the middle school dance. I was living the nightmare of being the asexual and shy Asian American male, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it. All I really wanted was not be afraid anymore, to achieve the impossible dream of becoming the darling role models showcased in the media but who looked exactly nothing like me, to simply having the confidence that I completely lacked simply stemming because of the way I looked and the way I was raised.

 

During high school, I made one of my first attempts in finding refuge in what seemed like would be a familiar community: the Asian club. But to my immediate disappointment, I saw that the only thing they did was have dinners and touch each other. As someone who was looking for a way out, I only got free food and sympathetic nods of the head. There were no role models to look up to, no mentors who cared. The name of the group was the “Asian Appreciation Club.” I mean what the hell are you supposed to do in an “appreciation” club? “Look, there’s Asian people here, let’s appreciate them!” Think how awful it was to be both marginalized and have a shitty name for a club. Finally, their club tendency was to move in the familiar method of self-exclusion; to become safe from the taunts, we’d create our own safe haven, our utopia, our social clique…This wasn’t what I was looking for. I sought harmony and gradual understanding, not division and separation.

 

Then back in the early winter of 2002, my older brother from the Bay Area sent me a trailer for Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow.” With my crappy 56k modem — remember those days? — I waited 2 hours for a 5 minute trailer to load. And then I saw the images. For once, it wasn’t porn. Young Asian American faces, speaking fluent English and being tough. They were flirting, they were kissing, and they were in high school. I didn’t know what the movie was about and frankly I didn’t care. Here was a film with major Hollywood support that was showing off young Asian American talent in non-stereotypical roles.

 

Within a week, I went on crazed autopilot. I started hijacking the Asian Appreciation meetings and hyped the film. I called up friends at other high schools and told them to organize their local Asian American clubs. And if they could, they should talk to their friends and their friends of friends, didn’t matter what color they were. In all of this, I learned that simple genuine enthusiasm will get people to listen, as long as you’re not drunk. Once they’re convinced, they’ll start doing work for you. In 2 months, I had a list of 300 high school and college students and a handful of New York City theaters wanting to do business with us.

 

I decided to settle for the larges theater in NYC – the AMC Empire in Times Square — who in turn offered us their biggest theater…but on the condition that we could sell out all 600 seats. If I failed, I would be banned from ever coming back. So did I tell the manager that I was a junior in high school and I had never done this before? You bet your ass I didn’t. I was precocious as I was stupid. So I took the risk and tried to figure out how I could fill the last 300 seats in only 30 days.

 

I realized that if you’re stupidly passionate about something, someone out there will also be just as crazy as you are to make it happen. You just have to find those stupid people. And you know what? Sometimes being stupid can get you somewhere. Being stupid makes you take those risks most people won’t even dare consider. But those people also won’t learn as much as you will. So I started posting our screening all over film forums, Asian American forums, indie forums, even porno forums, you name it. And one of my posts caught the eye of the co-producer of Better Luck Tomorrow: Julie Asato. She told me she was interested in sending out the cast and the director to our screening as long as I could pull off a good showing. If I failed, I would have been banned from being Asian American. Did I tell her I was a junior in high school and I had never done this before? Maybe. She probably would’ve laughed at me and called me stupid.

 

So I took that development as an added bonus to our publicity: come to our screening and you get to rub shoulders with upcoming Asian American Hollywood stars. And on Saturday April 12th, 2003, I can safely say 600 Asian Americans and their friends attended a sold out screening in Times Square. The director, Justin Lin, who now directs the Fast & the Furious movies and indie flicks like Finishing the Game, came out along with Sung Kang, Parry Shen, and Julie Asato herself.

 

And it was partly because of our screening and other similar efforts on the East Coast that Better Luck Tomorrow made the highest average ticket sales per screen than any other big-budgeted Hollywood film that weekend,       including the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson hit “Anger Management” which opened on that same weekend. (and just to compare: Anger Management made $11,889 per screen while Better Luck Tomorrow made $27,751 per screen). That’s where being stupid gets you. And for a 16 year old high school junior, that night taught me 3 things. First, I didn’t do it because I consciously wanted to represent Asian American pride; before this I had no experience with Asian American issues. I did it because I just felt I had to. There was no other choice for me. I saw a non-stereotypical Asian American ensemble in a Hollywood film and I felt that was enough to become part of a groundbreaking movement. And it was after this screening when I knew for fact I identified myself as an Asian American and I was proud of it. The second thing I learned is that it doesn’t matter how old you are to get things done. Passion knows no age limits. And the third? For the first time I grew a fucking pair. I was no longer the shy, stereotypical Asian guy with no identity to call his own…I had cajones, and it felt GREAT.

 

Even though most of my concerns before then had stemmed from petty superficial desires that any insecure adolescent would be guilty of, it nonetheless represents the overwhelming social issues that all of us – even adults – struggle with when addressing arbitrarily constructed and superficial standards that encumbers those who look “different” trying to be “accepted.” Those issues have always been universal, whether it’s being accepted as the “cool” kid when you’re young or being accepted as a “real American” when you’re an adult. Now, our two choices have always been to take the passive approach, to assimilate and lose your identity, or to take the activist role in changing the status quo. For me on that fateful April night, I became an activist.

 

And I want you to know that each of us in this very room is capable of activism no matter how young you are. By the very nature of being here, as part of a passionate community hungry for change, the chance for us to succeed multiplies. The next Helen Zia or Barack Obama could be you, you, or you. All it matters is discovering that passion and seizing the opportunities. And I think that by all of you being here today, a little bit of that passion is coming out.

So with Better Luck Tomorrow I took something personal and turned it into a cause others could join in on. That’s all it took for me to get involved. Then I realized how useful it was to promote what I learned in even greater community affairs; there’s so much more you can do for communities beyond your immediate ones.

 

For example, as soon as I became a freshman at Columbia, I immediately noticed how ethnic-interest organizations seemed like this amorphous monster that ran on its own, segregated from the larger community. I also realized that by being self-exclusive, we lose potential allies. That’s where my involvement with student government came in.

I never did student government in high school, and I didn’t have an interest going into it as a freshman. Also never had an interest being a resumé padder or being the ultimate tool on campus. But I couldn’t say no to a friend. Someone I trusted. He was a good friend of mine, sensitive to what I wanted to do as an activist, and he told me he wanted me on his ticket. I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t say no to such a unique opportunity and I couldn’t judge something without first trying it out. And I admit, when we did get elected, it ultimately did seem like a pretty cool thing to do (but then again, I can also be a big tool myself).

 

From day one, I was pretty much the only student of color on student council. I was tokenized, feeling even a little whitewashed, and I could’ve stomached it fine without anyone noticing. But then I recalled how disappointed I was with the status quo back in high school and how Better Luck Tomorrow was the opportunity for me to do something about it. I saw student council as another opportunity. Even though I understand that some of us here may have negative attitudes about student government, being on it gained me constant, daily access to the University administration and allowed me to send class e-mails to the entire student body. Do you know how much good work you can accomplish with that? I don’t have to get you started on being able to talk to the Dean of Academic Affairs on expanding ethnic studies or putting every Asian American Alliance or Black Students Organization event in the class e-mail. That was pretty sweet.

 

In my capacity on the council I also fought hard to convince other students of color to step outside of their comfort zones and run for class president or vice president. Harboring activist interests shouldn’t automatically discourage us from thinking we don’t belong in “that” group. I was happy to see that by the time I was a senior, half of our elected student government were minorities. I don’t want to say that I was solely responsible for such a dramatic change, but I think for some people, the very nature of seeing other activists and students of color working in student government, was enough of an encouragement for them to run. Sometimes all you need is one spark, one firestarter, to create a chain reaction.

 

But being on student government also got me into trouble. With increased interest in sociopolitical issues of color came a backlash in some peoples’ trust of me. After all, I was just one person and despite my efforts, being on student council still made me part of the “establishment” in the eyes of many people. How could student activists trust me if I represented a University administration that historically were so neglectful of issues like ethnic studies? I don’t have a clear-cut solution to this problem because there really isn’t any. They were right; the reason activism exists is because it highlights something unjust with the status quo that needs to be fixed. I was representing that status quo by being on student government. But at the same time, nothing can be fixed unless we have allies within the establishment listening to us. That is where you guys come in. I want to stress the danger of being too “activisty” to the point where you become blind to the opportunities that present themselves when they take the form of allies that will be surprisingly — part of the establishment. If you start drawing the lines in the sand, it becomes “us vs. Them.” People can’t work together under those overbearing attitudes. Although sometimes that method is necessary if there’s no other recourse, most times it’s overly combative. So if you refuse to listen to people because of their titles or the organizations that they represent, you yourself will contradict everything that you’re fighting for. Nobody will want to hear you out; nobody will want to work with you. So you can yell loud and proud, but don’t forget to listen. Sometimes the unlikeliest of allies might be the opposition and sometimes it takes working with the opposition to change it from within. That is why communication — strong level-headed and open-minded communication that involved both talking AND listening – has been the answer to 99.9% of the problems in the world. So, whoever your foe may be, sometimes the best and only way to get them on your side is with fair and civil communication.

 

Another important thing to realize in why we need to communicate is that we as conscious global citizens will always find ourselves on the right side of history. And most importantly, we’re all on the same side. That includes students of all races and creeds, students of all religions, yes even potential allies on student government. You can find a kernel of hope in each of these communities if you try, no matter how foreign they are to your own. All you have to do is to appeal to their ability to listen, so they can empathize with our struggles as student activists. Befriend them, party with them, buy them a beer, gain their trust, and then not only will they be willing to work with you, but they will want to work with you. And if all else fails, join their community and see what you can do from the inside. For example, when I was a junior at Columbia I as the incoming Asian American Alliance Vice President had to address the issue of the “Asian American” identity being consisted only of East and Southeast Asians. The South Asian community largely ignored our events and we never could not find a way to include them without making it seem too forced. So what did I do? I became a founding member of the Columbia Bollywood team and learned Bhangra fro the Columbia Bhangra team. In other words, I took a personal passion of mine – dance – and used it in a way to communicate with other communities foreign to mine. That passion allowed for the genuineness of my approach. And the result was not only amazing new friends, but a reinvigorated interest in what we did on AAA when I became President the next year. And it went from 1 South Asian represented on the Columbia Asian American Alliance board multiplying to as many as 6 the next year. All I had to do was to learn a few dances and make a few friends. And again, like what I did with BLT, I took a personal passion of mine and applied it in a broader context.

So run for student council, join a dance team of a culture than is not your own, enlist in a cultural group not of your own color….we have the responsibility to take a proactive role in trying something out of the box when something isn’t working, because frankly, we got nothing to lose. The ultimate goal is to recognize that we are all members of a global community, that we are citizens united together in our common humanity and that we must take the active steps in addressing that shared identity. That is activism.

 

I also want to address how a misconception of activism is associating it with constant negativity. You can protest something all you want, that’s great, but without making an equal effort in positively supporting the people who are doing a good job, you’re gonna end up looking like an army of angry psycho squirrels. People don’t like working with an army of angry psycho squirrels. We’d rather work with glue-sniffing high-as-kites teletubbies than mad flesh-eating rodents. That’s because people are naturally drawn to positivism. Enthusiasm is infectious. So what I’m trying to say is that positive activism is still activism. Just like how I wanted to highlight with Better Luck Tomorrow, we want to show the establishment that we’re willing to support them if they’re making the right choices. Because one day, there is the very likely possibility that many of us will grow up to become part of the establishment, calling all the shots, and hoping we won’t make the same mistakes that our predecessors have.

 

So just as some of us would protest the American aggression abroad in seemingly unjust wars, those same people should also be equally passionate in supporting our troops and recognize the sacrifices they have made to keep us safe. Just as how we would rally against incidents of hate crimes that were meant to divide us, so must we in supporting efforts that break down those barriers such as joining other dance groups or even helping out with that local party. There are just so many ways to get involved without being so angry and losing 15 pounds. You just have to find those ways.

 

And those of you out there but don’t feel the “activist vibes” stirring within you, I’m gonna warn you all about what it means to be complacent. I got this from having many a conversation with one of your workshop facilitators today and my best friend over there, Christian Piña. I learned that everyone dies alone. So what ultimately matters in life is the conversations you will have on your deathbed. And the only conversations you’re going to have on your deathbed is going to be with just you, yourself, and God. And God – or you – is gonna ask: “Did you make the most out of this gift I’ve given you?” And if you, on your deathbed cannot answer a resounding “yes” with 100% conviction, that’s it. That’s your life. You were given an opportunity to be all you can be, or even something larger than yourself, but you’ve squandered it. And you will never have another chance to make up for that. That’s why I truly dread the knowledge that 99% of the people in the world endeavor only to make money, raise a family, and die. They live to serve only themselves. And they die never knowing the immense potential they’ve wasted in themselves.

 

But long before that happens for us, I want you to all see how we, all of us, how extremely lucky we are on this planet. We’re still young, we’re intelligent, we’re well-fed, we’re healthy, and we’re educated in one of the richest and well-established educational systems in the world. So if we’re born smart and capable enough to be social activists, what’s the obvious path for us? Inheriting undeniable opportunities, we also inherit undeniable personal responsibilities. So, in this moment of truth, we make a choice: we can take these gifts and either serve only ourselves for the rest of our lives, or we can take these gifts and give back to the people who weren’t as fortunate: Communities in poverty, starving children, those infected with common diseases, those without a decent education all around the world – those are the people who need these hands – our hands. And some of us in this room have already dedicated ourselves to the crucial responsibility we owe to the world. This to me – is global justice and social activism at its very core.

 

Some of you may already be great leaders at whatever you do, but don’t forget you’re a leader because you’re serving a community, a constituency, a group of people, and never yourself. Being aware of this, Mr. Peter Drucker wrote: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” That quote is so sexy I wish I could take credit for it.

 

We all must do well, but we also must do good. And there is a lot of good out there that needs to be done. That is why we’re here. To do good and to learn how.

 

So to the ladies and gentlemen of PURSUIT: Recognize why you are here. Recognize that you are needed. Recognize that you are capable. You all have what it takes to do great great things. Our community is sorely in need of leaders like you. We can’t look anywhere else for help because the spotlights are on us. And we’re going to tell the world that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.

 

Especially for those of you new to activism and want to get involved, first find your personal passion – something that moves you deeply, then find a way to address that passion, and finally find the vehicle to translate your newfound skills on a greater realm so others can benefit from your experiences. For me, that was Better Luck Tomorrow and how it changed the negative perceptions of myself and my own community…and the skills I gleaned from BLT in turn rendered me capable me of addressing the issues in the Columbia community, and eventually, even newer skills and acquired knowledge would allow me to eventually handle issues in the global community. Step by step, I could now see how the sum of my experiences, both successes and mistakes, allowed me to take on even greater challenges and responsibilities.

 

Second, know that success has no age limits. You’re all more than ready to make big things happen…all you need is confidence in yourselves and never losing sight of your goals. Third, don’t be afraid to be stupid. Without being stupid, you stop taking risks, and without taking risks you neither make mistakes which you can learn from nor do you have the potential to achieve anything profound. Think about it: every single passionate person in the world has always been called crazy or stupid at least once in their lifetimes. Those are the people, those who live in their passions, whom we also end up regarding as amazing and fearless individuals. They are the true activists. Fourth, there is no such thing as mistakes, just lessons. I define success not by how many achievements we rack up but rather how well we can bounce back from our inevitable moments of failure. And fifth, think outside the box when working with communities outside your comfort zone. For me, I used my passion for dance when I reached out to the South Asian, Latino and Black communities at Columbia. What’s your passion? You have one. Just find it. Because the more allies we communicate with, the more friends we have on our side, the better our team looks. If we are able to stand united upon those goals, then we already commit ourselves to the inherent responsibilities that makes humankind worth fighting for.

 

And I tell you all this not as someone who’s a generation or 2 ahead of you, but as a colleague, a companion, a fellow teammate who’s going through the exact same things as you’re going through. I’m right there with you, guys. So expect me to stay in the good fight. Because I hope to be working with all of you someday, maybe even as soon as tomorrow. And I’m looking forward to that.

 

Thank you PURSUIT so much for your time and thank you for having me!

 

I got 2 workshops coming up, and I hope to see most of you there: Racial Profiling and Affirmative Action.

 

On behalf of ECAASU, Columbia and myself, thank you PURSUIT and enjoy the rest of the conference!

 

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Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Directors) Keynote Address at SERCAAL

Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Directors) Keynote Address at SERCAAL

University of Florida

Saturday, October 10th

9:00 A.M. EST

SERCAAL might have made a terrible mistake by inviting me because I don’t belong here. How many of you are between the ages of 21 to 23? OK, half of you in this room probably are just as young as I am. Note that your keynote speaker before me was highly renowned new media designer and filmmaker, Lina Hoshino. She has been making films for 15 years; 15 years ago I was 7 years old and watching the Power Rangers. Your keynote addresses later today will be delivered by Jim Toy, longtime community activist since 1971 — which is 15 years before I even existed — and Dr. Sethna, the first person of Indian origin to serve as the President of an American University. Me? I’m just proud to be first person of Chinese origin to serve as mascot of my high school swim team. The Trinity Tunafish.

It just so happens that I’ve been incredulously asked to be one of your keynote speakers and all I can do is acknowledge how awesome you guys are — not as a mentor or an advisor 20 years ahead of you, but as a peer. You made a big step just by being here and you should all applaud yourselves for taking such an initiative.

. . .

I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood in New York City. At home, I toiled under the strict Chinese values of my parents while at the same time I took on the lifestyle of American living. However, both sides still viewed me as the odd one out. I was the Americanized bastard son at home and I was the token Asian guy at school. To make matters worse, both sides thought my eyes were too small. I didn’t fit in anywhere and I was sad. Like a platypus. . . . Then high school where I transferred to Trinity School. I remember my first meeting with the Asian American club and saw that the only thing they did was have dinners and touch each other. In fact, the name of the group was the “Asian Appreciation Club.” What the hell are you supposed to do in an “appreciation” club? “Look, there’s Asian lookin’ folk here, let’s appreciate them!” Think how awful it was to be marginalized without having even a cool name for our club.

. . .

Back in the early winter of 2002, my older brother from the Bay Area sent me a trailer for Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. With my crappy 56k modem — remember those days? — I waited 2 hours for a 5 minute trailer to load. And then I saw the images. Young Asian American faces, speaking fluent English and being tough. They were flirting, they were kissing, and they were in high school. I didn’t know what the movie was about and frankly I didn’t care. Here was a film with major American studio backing that was showing off young Asian American talent in non-stereotypical roles.

Within a week, I started hijkacking the Asian Appreciation meetings and started hyping up the film. I called up friends at other high schools and told them to rile up their local Asian American clubs. And if they could, they should talk to their friends and their friends of friends. In all of this, I learned that simple genuine enthusiasm will get people to listen, as long as you’re not drunk. Once they’re sold, they’ll start doing the work for you. Within 2 months, I had a list that plateaued at 300 high school and college students and a handful of New York City theaters wanting to do business with us.

I decided to settle for the AMC Empire in Times Square who offered us their biggest theater . . . but on the condition that we could sell out all 600 seats. If I failed, I would be banned from ever coming back. So did I tell the manager that I was a junior in high school and I had never done this before? You bet your [redacted] I didn’t. I took the risk and tried to figure out how I could fill the last 300 seats.

. . .

And on Saturday April 12th, 2003, I can safely say 600 Asian Americans and their friends attended a sold out screening in Times Square. The director, Justin Lin, who now directs the Fast & the Furious movies and indie flicks like Finishing the Game, came out along with Sung Kang, Parry Shen, and Julie Asato herself.  And it was partly because of our screening and other similar efforts on the East Coast that Better Luck Tomorrow made the highest average ticket sales per screen than any other big-budgeted Hollywood film that weekend, including the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson hit Anger Management which opened on that same weekend. (and just to compare: Anger Management made $11,889 per screen while Better Luck Tomorrow made $27,751 per screen).

For a 16 year old high school junior, that night taught me two things. First, I didn’t do it because I consciously wanted to represent Asian American pride; before this I had no experience with Asian American issues. I did it because I just felt I had to. There was no other choice for me. I saw a cast that looked exactly me and I felt that was enough to become part of a groundbreaking movement. And it was after this screening when I knew for fact I identified myself as an Asian American and I was proud of it. The second thing? I learned that it doesn’t matter how old you are to get [redacted] done. Passion knows no age limits.

. . .

Each of us in this very room is capable of doing great things. By the very nature of being here, as part of an Asian American community, the chance for us to succeed is multiplied. The next Kal Penn or Helen Zia could be you, you, or you. All it matters is discovering that passion and seizing the opportunities. And I think that by all of you being here today, a little bit of that passion is coming out.

. . .

How many of you here identify yourselves as East Asian? Southeast Asian? How about South Asian? Notice that the proportions here are drastically skewed. It is the unfortunate fault of both the establishment and ourselves that we have come to accept the notion of Asian American to refer to really, East Asian American. Well, we NEED our South Asian brothers and sisters in this fight. Without them, we only hurt ourselves.

[In working with the South Asian American community] I got to discover many new ways of outreach and bridge building while promoting the goals of the Asian American sociopolitical movement. Diversifying the face of what it means to be Asian American only gains you even greater support because it grants a legitimacy to the fact that we’re not a self-interested or exclusive community. So to the South Asians, we told them: your fight is our fight.

. . .

I realized that by being self-exclusive, we lose potential allies that can tip the scales in our favor. That’s where student government came in. I admit, I ran for student government back when I was a freshman because I thought it was the cool thing to do. (But l was also a tool). When I got elected, I was pretty much the only Asian American on student council. I felt a little whitewashed at that moment, but instead of just going along with it, I decided to change the game. I fought hard to encourage other Asian American students to step outside of their shells and run for class president or vice president. Even though some of us may have negative attitudes about student government, being on it gains you constant, daily access to the University administration and allows you to send class e-mails to the entire student body. Do you know how much good work you can accomplish with that?

. . .

I was just one person and despite my efforts, being on student council still made me part of the establishment. How could fellow student activists trust me if I represented a University administration that historically were so neglectful of issues like ethnic studies? I don’t have a clear cut solution to this problem because there really isn’t any. They were right; the reason activism exists is because it highlights something unjust with the status quo that needs to be fixed. I was representing that status quo by being on student government. But at the same time, nothing can be fixed unless we have allies within the establishment listening to us.

. . .

I want to stress the danger of being too activisty to the point where you become blind to the opportunities that present themselves when they take the form of allies that will be surprisingly — part of the establishment. If you start drawing the lines in the sand, it becomes Us vs. Them. People can’t work together in that environment. Although sometimes that method is necessary if there’s no other recourse, most times it’s overly combative. So if you refuse to listen to people because of their titles or the organizations that they represent, you yourself will contradict everything that you’re fighting for. Nobody will want to hear you out; nobody will want to work with you. So you can yell loud and proud, but don’t forget to listen. Sometimes the unlikeliest of allies might be the opposition and sometimes it takes working with the opposition to change it from within.

. . .

The important thing to realize is that we are on the right side of history. But most importantly, we’re also on the same side. That includes other students of color, students of all religions, white students, yes even the South Asian students and student government. You can find a kernel of hope in each of these communities if you try. All you have to do is to appeal to their ability to listen, so they can empathize with our struggles as Asian Americans. Befriend them, party with them, buy them a beer, gain their trust, and then not only will they be willing to work with you, but they will want to work with you. And if all else fails, join their community and see what you can do from the inside. Run for student council, join the bhangra team, enlist in the Black Students Organization. Because we have the responsibility to take a proactive role in trying something out of the box when something isn’t working, because frankly, we got nothing to lose except our egos. And what better way to shatter a stereotype and prove our confidence when we become future Asian American leaders.

Another misconception of activism is associating it with constant negativity. You can protest something all you want, that’s great, but without making an equal effort in positively supporting Asian Americans, like their presence in the mass media, you’re gonna end up looking like a group of Debbie-Downers. People don’t like working with Debbie-Downers. We’d rather work with glue-sniffing teletubbies than Debbie-Downers. That’s because we’re all naturally drawn to enthusiasm of positive activism. And positive activism is still activism.

. . .

There are just so many ways to get involved without being so angry and losing 15 pounds. You just have to find those ways.

. . .

And for the minority of you out there who are at SERCAAL but don’t feel the activist vibes stirring within you, I’m gonna warn you all about the plagues of complacency. You all may be great leaders at whatever you do, but don’t forget you’re a leader because you’re serving a community, a constituency, a group of people, and never yourself. So what’s just as bad as an inability to listen to potential allies is the inability to care for the allies that we already have. Being aware of this, remember this quote by Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” That quote is so sexy I wish I could take credit for it.

. . .

So I like to impress upon you 3 things today: Find your passion, understand that potential achievements have no age limits, and think outside the box when working with communities outside your comfort zone. If we are able to stand united and commit to those ideals, our achievements will be remembered sooner than we think.

. . .

So to the ladies and gentlemen of SERCAAL: Know why you are here. Know that you are needed. Know that you are capable. You all have what it takes to do great great things. Our community is sorely in need of Asian American leaders like you. We can’t look anywhere else for help because the spotlights are on us. And we’re going to tell the world that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.

I tell you this not as someone who’s a generation or two ahead of you, but as a companion who’s going through the exact same things as you’re going through. I’m right there with you, guys. So expect me to stay in the good fight. Because I hope to be working with all of you someday, maybe even as soon as tomorrow. And, I’m looking forward to that. Thank you SERCAAL so much for your time and thank you for having me!

 

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