The Pursuit of Pursuits
"From Madrasah to Med School" - or so was the 'dream' title of this piece, reflection, call it what you will. Whose dream exactly? I can’t quite recall anymore, to be frank. Let’s try to roll the VHS tape all the way back and pinpoint that Key Deciding Moment. Was there even one to begin with?
As I ungracefully revealed in the first sentence like an author does with a rushed, poorly planned plot, I come from a full-time madrasah background. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘madrasah’ is the Arabic word for ‘school’; here in Singapore, it is often used in reference to Islamic religious schools, of which there are only six on our tiny island.
I won’t say much about my experience in madrasah – to do so would unravel a heap of threads that are best delved into in their own time, perhaps in a less public space. But one thing to note is this: back then, and possibly even now, many misconceptions surrounded students hailing from this educational grounding. Particularly, it was generally seen as a rarity for madrasah students to perform well academically, more so in the STEM field.
My extended family never paid me much mind when I was younger: knowing I was from a madrasah, they probably decided I wasn’t worth harping over. But I had a tiger-mom and the few aunts and uncles who happened to know of my aptitude for mainstream academic subjects. And oh boy, they were enough of a reminder that my grades were apparently the main determinant of my worth. [I am cringing at how Main Character Syndrome this entire piece is sounding thus far, but please bear with me].
Even so, life before my PSLE results were released was a little more peaceful. The incessant phone calls or random drop-ins on that day and for weeks after: you should go to TKGS, apply to RGS, don’t waste your good grades (even though mama made sure to remind me that ‘if you had studied more, you could have beat that kid!’, referring to the national top-scorer). Suddenly everyone seemed to have an opinion, handing me manual after manual of How Kina Should Live Her Life 101.
Then again, this is all an oft-repeated sob story. You know how it is in many Asian families – get good grades, be a doctor, lawyer, engineer! Look at your uncle, niece, fourth-cousin-thrice-removed; so successful! You need to be the representative <insert occupation> for our family! I guess now the most sought-after occupations are in tech. Maybe parents of this era have adapted the phrase. Study hard! Then you can work for Google!
I stayed in my madrasah. I had never planned to switch schools, anyway. To be honest, writing about this now, all these years later, feels petty. Juvenile. Perhaps it is. But from that moment on, my life was decided for me.
Now, when your life is planned out for you, you have three choices: (a) rebel and do whatever the hell you want, (b) hold it in and just do as you’re told to because you don’t want to deal with the consequences of (a), or (c) convince yourself that this was what you wanted all along.
So young, stupid, oh so naïve little me decided to have a go at (c). The cost-benefit analysis seemed to make sense. After all, maybe I just abhorred being told what to do. Maybe that was the main deterrent. Or those little annoying happenings like relatives who only seemed to have one of two lines whenever we met: How many years till you become a doctor? I want free MCs or I’m getting old, I’ll need you to treat me.
Those things aside, I did quite enjoy helping mama out at the clinic, and taking care of Tok and Nani, or following her on her home nursing trips. It always warmed my heart, and it was cool to learn about these things and felt great to watch people recover with the care they received. If I had a go at it, I might just end up liking it!
Not that I wanted to take triple science and double math – I would go on to drop A Math midway through secondary 3 and attempt to take Malay literature (because for some reason I “had” to take as many subjects as I could i.e., nine), though I eventually picked A Math back up in early secondary 4 due to a scheduling conflict and inability to quite pick up Sastera. I didn’t even need A Math for med school. Or physics, for that matter (at least I didn’t mind it, though). But, oh well, mama’s orders!
Besides, biology was my favourite science, and there was that one really pretty med school in London (look at her, already planning her escape), maybe I could get a scholarship! … It is easy to convince yourself you have a dream when you are young. Come on, you’ve had at least 10 different answers to “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
At many points in that time, you’d make anyone’s dream yours, if only that meant you’d have one. And when cornered, it is easier to tell yourself you put yourself there to begin with.
Whatever it was, I believe there was a time that I was truly passionate about studying medicine. A time when that dream, false though it may have started out as, became my own.
After all, it is difficult to invest years of planning, effort, and tears with one sole goal in mind and not have that goal become your own, embedded in your veins and in your identity, in ways that can’t ever be changed.
Perhaps it is something that stems from habit. From not wanting to make all that investment seem futile. The way people don’t want to break up after they’ve put in so much effort into a relationship, only to have it not work out.
I guess that’s just how my wretched fate with med school was meant to be – star-crossed lovers at best, an abusive relationship at worst. (Pardon the dramatics; I clearly didn’t take very well to that first rejection letter from NUS’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine).
Med students always had this bit of advice at the countless conferences, talks, seminars and symposiums I attended: getting in is the hardest part. And it truly is. Applying for med school isn’t just the 10-20 hours spanned over weeks of you crafting your application and writing and rewriting your personal statement, especially if your polytechnic GPA barely meets the cut, and you’re a minority.
It’s the multiple clinic shadowing stints, the months of internships, part-time jobs at GPs and collecting referral letters, all while trying to maintain a decent enough GPA to at least be glanced at by the admissions board, even though you were already applying through the special admissions scheme.
Then taking any extra admissions tests, having 7 breakdowns the day before said test, and being Singaporean, trying to work on your conversational Mandarin skills but ultimately flaking from putting it in your CV and also ultimately deciding you’ll never be good enough as you hit the ‘submit’ button.
Oh right, and that was just for one school. Alright, fellas. Buckle up, rinse, repeat.
And wait! It’s not over yet! If you’re so lucky, or unlucky (1 in 3 chance of getting in post-interview, locally) to be shortlisted, as I was, you’ve got... ~interviews~.
I’m not very fond of interviews – I have a funny track record. With jobs, I’ve only been rejected once post-interview. Yet with schools, I’ve only ever been rejected. Granted, the course the interviews were for: Medicine. I was fortunate enough to land slots in several other courses and schools without an interview, Alhamdulillah.
But you see, the thing about being conditioned to be a Type A overachiever (when you were really a Type B who didn’t care but has now invested too big a fraction of your youth not to care) is that rejection packs quite the stab in the gut when equipped with the acute sharpness of being a foreign experience.
I am beyond fortunate, I know this. I am aware that I am speaking from a position of privilege. To be studying in a local university, to be able to still have some freedom in what subjects I choose to take over the course of my degree even if my current major wasn’t 100% my choice. I know that for some, where I am could just be a pipe dream.
I am blessed, every day of my life, SubhanAllah. I know full well what an ingrate I must sound like to some. But I will allow myself this grief because it has gone unaddressed for too long. Of not knowing if I would have decided differently (but I am not hanging on to What Ifs, as that would only be more time lost), of the other dreams I did have being disregarded, of being told time and time again that maybe if I had just stuck around, been stronger, smarter, tried harder, things would have been in my favour – not just for med school.
I don't regret my decision to give up. I often ruminate on all the things I would've missed – taking on my creative writing minor and other electives I’m planning to take for fun in this final year, the bonds I’ve made, the extra time I had to join friends, both old and new, in extracurricular activities including NTUMS (because I know if I had made it to med school I would've buried myself in my studies). So, all things considered: I can truly say, Alhamdulillah, that I am happy where I am now. He is the best of planners.
So here I am now, back at a crossroad. What will I do, then? What I’ve worked towards since I was 13 or 14 or even before that is not where I am; the tram I was on got stuck on the tracks and I decided to climb out the window and walk. Where to? I don’t know yet. But for now, I am walking along a fork in the tracks, and I can finally, finally take in the scenery because it’s no longer whizzing past me.
And here I am, and continue to be, in search of the search. In pursuit of my life’s pursuit. Several years down the road, will I decide to pursue a graduate med degree? Probably not. But who knows what the future holds? For now, it’s not something I’m concerned about, nor do I still think I have the best makeup for a career as a doctor: my life-satisfaction goals have simply aligned in other directions.
I have so much more to explore, so much more that I want to learn – maybe practicing medicine will still be one of those things in future, maybe not. Allahu a’lam. But because I closed that one door two years ago, I opened up so many others, and unlocked trajectories I may not have elsewise had the chance to. And I am ever grateful for these experiences.
So, have I decided “what I want to be when I grow up”? Nope! I’ve joked around about how my answer to this question in my ‘O’ level Arabic paper was to ‘be happy’ – I once thought that answer to be most profound. Not that it isn’t – we all want to be happy. But it still begs the question of what you’ll do, or won’t do, to achieve that outcome. As a Muslim, part of that is faith, and my relationship with God. Life in this dunya is part of that too, isn’t it?
I have some clue of what I’ll be doing for a livelihood for a few years, sure. But in the long run, am I searching for a lifelong career, occupation, hobby, calling, a bucket list of goals? Some answers do not come easy. These, we must seek. For many of us, purpose lies here; in the pursuit of the pursuit.
I pray He brings you ease and the courage to fight for yourself – and whether it is to hold on to your current dreams or embark on new journeys, may the winds guide your sails and bring you to the path that brings you closest to Him in this life and the next. Ameen.