Those of us still on the early-career academic treadmill probably already know that we don’t choose academia, it choses us. But the choice to accept or decline this calling is easier for some than for others. In this post, I want to share some of my experiences as an Asian + woman in accepting this calling.

I want to stress that this is not just an Asian experience. I have friends from all over the world who have similar experiences regardless of nationality, indeed, profession too. I would say my experience is more a derivative of a society’s culture, especially those that tend to be more patriarchal and hierarchical. We cannot change culture, at least not overnight. But in this post, I’d like to share with you some of my own experiences that I hope will help you be more free to pursue your calling with a bit more courage.

Success in the eyes of society

I remember when I went on my very first “backpacking” trip in Australia at the age of 18 (a present from my parents for passing my A-Level exams and making it to University), I was so jealous of the other “real” backpackers that I met. Some were on a gap year and travelling the world on a travel-work visa. Others just wanted to see the world and took off — just like that.

My parents would disown me if I did something like that. I would have been the scandal of the family and brought great shame to my parents. Also…I was terrified of being poor, something our Chinese culture drills into us from a young age.

“You see that uncle who’s a garbage collector? That’s what will happen to you if you don’t study hard.”

So I went back after my 3-week pseudo backing trip and went to University, fell in love with Sociology, got my degree and then I wanted to study some more. I wanted to see the world for myself outside of the books I was reading and to create a theory of my own for why there was inequality in the world, why policies weren’t working, and why the US-European centric theories just didn’t fit with my reality in a small dot in Asia and much of what I was seeing in my region.

I was fortunate to have a father who was supportive of my desire to further my studies. My mother not so much. She was worried that I would become too Westernised, lose my culture, become too argumentative, and have trouble finding a husband — after all, what man wants a wife who’s more educated than himself, and a smart-ass who will argue with him all the time.

A woman’s education is really for bragging rights and for supplementary income in the household. It needs to be good, but not too good.

But further my studies I did, and then I got a full scholarship to do my PhD at a top university in Australia. I think for my parents, that was already a moment of success because in their mind, I was only an average student. Even after I completed my PhD in record time and with a high distinction (my dissertation was accepted with no revisions), they still told my supervisor that I’m not a very smart person and would need a lot of guidance in my next job. That stung a bit, but it also gave me a realisation:

I would be forever chasing success in their eyes and the eyes of their society.

What exactly is it that you do?

Not only did I choose to be an academic, I chose to be one in social science — what many in my society still consider a pseudo science, consciously or subconsciously. To this day, my parents still have difficulty explaining what it is I do to their friends:

“No, it’s not some hi-tech biomedical science but some kind of society science.”

“Oh like psychology?”

“No. She studies people and environment things. But she’s not an environment scientist” — Blank looks and polite nodding…

“Have boyfriend already?”

“Have lah! Too many to count.”

I’ve always felt a sense of unfairness when it comes to this question of what it is I do. I would never have had to explain myself if I was a lawyer, or a banker or a “real” doctor (I’ll come back this in another post). I would also not have to explain myself or justify my discipline if I was a physicist or a computer scientist. Most people would accept that it’s too complex to understand and just “oooh and ahhh” in respectful ignorance instead of raising a sceptical eyebrow. Here’s the thing most people don’t really understand about Sociologists:

We are like physicists. Physics seeks to understand the particles that make up the world and the forces that govern them. Sociologists want to understand the social practices and actions that make up the world and the forces that govern them.

So if I was given a chance for a do over, I would still choose to be a sociologist. In fact, I relish in the fact that I have job that is unusual to people and needs explaining — it means I have a really interesting job. I take their questioning as an opportunity to open their minds, not explain myself. I also take it as a reminder of how blessed I am, that I have taken a path less travelled in my world and I’ve somehow still landed on my feet.

Sure I’m still on a treadmill to tenured bliss, but what occupation isn’t a treadmill? At least I’m on the one that I chose for myself. It brings me joy, it gives me purpose, and if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even make the world a better place for some people.

Acknowledgements: Photo courtesy of Martin Kvist.

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