But Can You Do the Math? (#184)

My older sister never lets any of her siblings forget that she succeeded at the most prestigious – and most difficult – profession in America.

She’s a doctor.

In college, I told her I was going for three majors in three years and summa cum laude. She responded with, “Well, of course you can do that with liberal arts.”

When our younger sister went to law school, she said, “You know what the difference between law students and medical students is? When a law professor says, ‘Good morning class,’ the students respond with ‘Good morning.’ When a doctor tells his class, ‘Good morning,’ med students write it down.”

When my Big Brother bemoaned only getting an eight-hour sleep shift on submarines, Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister scoffed, “Ha! Eight whole hours? What a luxury! Two hours of sleep, that’s what I get when I’m on call. If I’m lucky.”

After winning Medical School, spending several years as an intern, and then several years as a resident, Dr. Sis eventually became the head of an oncology department at a prestigious university. She’s still in surgery several times a week. She works on cancer research. She terrifies her residents. She saves lives, too.

Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is awe-inspiring. Most people recognize that she is at the pinnacle of the most prestigious profession in the United States.

As a bonus, after all those years of sleep-deprivation, Doctor Sis can sleep anywhere – including in the middle seat on a plane between two large men. She doesn’t even recline her seat or put her head on her neighbor’s shoulder. She sleeps sitting straight up.

Freaky napping abilities aside, I’ve always thought of a successful doctor like my sister as every parent’s dream child.

And then I met my Chinese-American in-laws.


My father-in-law is a retired civil engineer. My husband followed in his father’s footsteps, getting a Masters of Electrical Engineering.

When my Baby Brother visited at the same time as my in-laws, my mother-in-law, Sunny, quizzed him about his career. He explained that he had a B.S. in Computer Science, and had just wrapped up his Masters in Finance at NYU.

Sunny was impressed. “So you have to be good at math, then.”

Baby Brother gave me an inquiring look. I sighed and told him, “Go ahead. Tell her all about your perfect math SAT scores.”

“Really? Perfect?”


“So you are really, really good at math! So smart!” Sunny gave a delighted chuckle. “Just like my husband! And my son!”

Baby Brother attempted modesty, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I’m as good at math as Andy.”

“Do you think Calculus is easy?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not that hard.”

“Then you aren’t as good at math as Andy.”

“Oh, Calculus,” said Sunny, shaking her head. “Andy’s sister Maddy, she had a hard time with Calculus. She was going to be an engineer, but it’s so sad. She just wasn’t as smart. She couldn’t do the math like Andy. She couldn’t be an engineer after all.”

Baby Brother asked, “So what happened to Maddy?”

Sunny heaved a mournful sigh and said, “Poor Maddy. She could only be a doctor.”

Baby Brother and I stared, jaws slack, as Sunny left the kitchen (and a thousand WASP and Jewish mothers rolled in their graves).

After Baby Brother and I had finished crying silent tears of suppressed mirth, he whispered, “Next Christmas, I call dibs on telling Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister how she was too stupid to make it as an engineer.”

I waved a threatening spatula. “Oh, hell, no, little brother.

Line starts after me.”

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

24 thoughts on “But Can You Do the Math? (#184)”

  1. My brother and ex were both engineers and I worked in a company of engineers. I swear I think like them (which is a little weird but very logical). Do they still use pocket protectors? They are somehow intuitively smart but the only doc we had in the family was a dentist and he was downright kooky. Maybe Sunny is on to something although your sis is certainly at the top of the doc brain chain.

      1. Nope, he’s right. When I did training I always threatened to run a class for engineers called “Simulating Warmth.” All us fussy people persons thought it was hilarious. The engineers didn’t get it.

        1. I think my sister’s medical school had that also, actually. “Simulating Caring Bedside Manner, i.e., Don’t Show Excitement When Your Patient Has Rare, Incurable Disease.”

  2. My brother has as an engineer some master degree and besides that several bachelors in different programming stuff, however he is also a person who had to redo third grade in elementary school and did not even manage middle school at first…only later on he got his high school degree some extra school and could go on from there on. (doesnt really sound like a smart person :P)
    Some of my friends in Finland are doctors and they have a pretty easy life besides getting tons of money starting already with their internship. According to them they either wanted the hard life of an Engineer or the easy life of a doctor 😀

  3. Calculus.. humm… I got a good handle on the differential part (still remember most of the materials) but had a hard time to deal with the integral part. But frankly outside the academic/professional world, how practical would that be? I think a doctor doesn’t need to “dy/dx” the size of the bandage during an operation. Ha.

    I wonder how Maddy would feel if she heard what Sunny said (“Poor Maddy. She could only be a doctor.”) Many older generation Chinese parents don’t praise their children. My parents don’t often put affection in display, but I’m thankful for they’re being supportive on my career choice…

    1. According to Andy, there was a huge fight during the Calculus year between Maddy and his parents. She was so upset that she wasn’t doing well that she screamed at her parents, told them they ruined her life by forcing her into Engineering, and sulked for weeks. I guess after that there was no argument when she changed her major.

      Maddy once told me that the only reason she passed Calculus was because Andy helped her with the math.

      I don’t know if Jay or Wendy say anything to Maddy about her being a doctoral disappointment to her face. But the way Jay acts about sons over daughters? There’s no way she can’t know. It makes me cross on her behalf, and on behalf of women everywhere.

      And no, there’s not a lot of praise to their children’s faces. Andy wasn’t in the room when Sunny bragged about his math skills. But he’s definitely been in the room when she’s called him fat and then shoveled more food on his plate!

  4. Haha, well, at least your brother can impress Andy’s family… ! And I’m sure they’re still impressed with your doctor sis 😉

    My fiancee’s family is total opposite. He was forced to become a doctor INSTEAD of an engineer. He received offers from very prestigious tech firms in Silicon Valley and Seattle after getting an engineering degree. He was excited to take the job and earn $$ as an engineer, but his mom burst into tears begging him to be a doctor. My fiancee’s parents thought doctor = eternal job stability. They were against finance and engineering because it was “risky.” My fiancee really didn’t want to become a doctor but it was basically 1. be disowned or 2. become a doctor. Fiancee took the Confucius route of respecting elders, turned down $$ engineer job and suffered 8 years in med school for… stability?

    What does Andy’s parents think of your studies? My future in-laws don’t even know wtf I’m doing in grad school haha, my future father-in-law keeps telling me to learn salesforce *eye roll*

    1. NO! Ugh, your poor fiance! That’s a lot of suffering in the name of filial piety. He needed to have a “you ruined my life meltdown,” like Maddy. Plus siblings to become doctors instead. I really, really hope he at least likes being a doctor now? Did he go for orthopedics? I mean, there’s some engineering involved in that, at least.

      Ha, the only pressure I got from Andy’s parents is about NOT having a career and having a child. Boy, of course.

  5. Math talent is good. I wish I had some. But having just completed a 25-hour journey consisting of two long flights (one sitting next to a large, smelly man) and an equally long layover, I am way more jealous of Genius Doctor Sis’ sleeping talent.

  6. Such a good post and the comments were hilarious. At university, I majored in applied mathematics – calculus, and loved all the math that had to be done with fluid mechanics. Distinction all the way. But because I majored in maths in an Arts degree, I couldn’t qualify for post-grad Engineering. So at the encouragement of my parents, I enrolled in a Master of Science.

    That went horribly wrong. I barely passed any maths units in my first year and failed a programming subject. Then I switched to a Master in Arts. I think I wasn’t able to do the math because my heart just wasn’t in it. If were to be a doctor, it would be a doctor in arts.

    Now, my brother is a dentist. And we do not get along and his behaviour is downright nutty. Put it this way: I wouldn’t help him if he needs helping and he loves picking on me. I think, dentists are much crazier than Engineers or Doctors and I wonder if they are mentally stable most of the time.

    1. LOL on dentists. Yeah, I remember the story of your brother stabbing you with a fork. Did you ever see the movie “Little Shop of Horrors?” If not, you might get a good chuckle out of the dentist in that one. Or it might give you flashbacks.

      1. Oh yes. He stabbed me with a scissors in the middle of dinner at the dining table. He was six. Oh no. I don’t think I would want to see that movie at all. It is bad enough that me and my brother live together quite bit today.

  7. The whole idea of interns working such long hours and not sleeping is crazy. I think generally doctors are pretty smart. Not all, though. Think of Ben Carson. One problem I’ve seen with doctors is pride. One example: My husband’s doctor tried cardioversion on him. It didn’t work, but since the doctor didn’t want to break his perfect record, he gave Eugene more than a double dose shock and almost killed him. (It was against the rules, and the nurse spilled the beans to me.)

    Eugene wanted to be a doctor for a while, but his father (a Chinese engineer) wanted him to be an engineer so that’s what he did.

    My youngest daughter, the structural engineer, told me today that the most important skill she learned on the job was how to say no. All day long she communicates with property owners, architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, construction site engineers, etc. They always want her to hold their hands, explain things for them, and do things she’s not contracted to do, or they want to talk too long, and she’s had to learn to cut them off in a nice but firm way.

    1. I think doctors are like people — some are smart, some are lazy, and some are just doing the work for the paycheck. It’s nice to get a doctor who stays current with research and is curious, but those are rare. I’m lucky to have a sister who can give me a second opinion.

  8. I’m glad my parents didn’t force me to study medicine or engineering… That would have made me miserable! I only studied science related subjects until I was 14. I wasn’t bad at them (I always got good grades in everything) but I preferred humanities.

    I guess if Sunny knew me she would think I am retarded, haha.

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