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Finding Yourself Before Finding X: Exploring the Dichotomy Between the Humanities and STEM

Updated: Apr 2

Dear Asian Youth,

The year is 2006. The setting? A quiet neighborhood in central Florida. In one particular house, two young parents are narrating one of Dr. Seuss’s many children’s novels. The audience: their three-year-old daughter, enraptured by the letters and symbols printed upon page after page. The next day, the mother stumbles across her child, grasping a well-worn copy of Green Eggs and Ham within her stubby fingers, narrating the words to thin air. Believing it was a fluke, she brings home a brand-new copy of Dick and Jane. Her daughter reads it with ease.

At three years of age, I learned how to read by osmosis: my parents’ routine storytelling enabled me to unlock the entirety of the English language. Entranced by the inked letters lining bright, colorful sheets of paper, I was able to recognize and identify words before being formally educated. Since then, my days were spent tirelessly scouring page after page of the newest novel in my literary arsenal, revelling in the beloved “new-book” smell under the incandescent light of a flashlight, book light, or even a street lamp. I remember paper cuts from sharp corners and heavy, lidded eyes. I remember being incapable of going to sleep until I had finished whichever story I had begun just mere hours before. I remember dreaming about the characters embedded within hardbound worlds.

Throughout my formative years, I solved mysteries alongside Nancy Drew, explored Prince Edward Island hand-in-hand with Anne Shirley, and—unfortunately—cut off my hair with Jo March. These renowned heroines from classic literature have indisputably helped shape me into the person I am today, but they are more than characters, settings, and plots. Writing is a capsule to histories, to ideologies, to new realities. It is a bridge to how another person thought, felt, and lived. It is eternal. I was content with the idyllic literary paradise I had created. However, even back then, I was pressured to look towards my future.

What do you want to be when you’re older?

When I was younger, I believed that I could do anything I set my mind to, that I could be whoever I wanted. The possibilities were endless. I remember ten-year-old me, who harbored a dream of being an author. I wanted to create something permanent, to craft stories that stick with young readers who are just like me.

Conversely, I also felt an undeniable pull towards STEM. The medical field, in particular, drew me in—I admired the thought of devoting my life towards protecting the most important gift: life itself. Back then, the thought of my future career was still far away, and I had all the time in the world to decide. However, as I entered my freshman year of high school, reality set in. I had to make a choice.

Growing up, my family always told me that they will support whichever career I choose, but there is an underlying expectation that I will follow in their footsteps and go into the field of medicine. Due to the stigma in the Asian community against pursuing a creative career, I gradually started closing doors that once seemed wide-open. I threw myself into my STEM courses, slowly but surely pulling away from the stories I had once loved. Yes, my interest in STEM is as certain as Newton’s third law or the mechanism of natural selection, but a part of my heart stubbornly belongs to creative expression. When forced to choose between the two, I prioritized STEM.

But who says we have to choose in the first place? In the past, I fell into the common misconception that STEM and the humanities couldn’t mix, much like oil and water. At first glance, the two fields are so starkly different—polar opposites, like fire and ice. However, why is the divide between the two so pronounced? What caused me to feel like I had to choose between two things I love, shutting down one avenue to pursue another? It would be all-too-easy to place the blame on my family and friends who have urged me to enter the field of medicine ever since I could walk, but it simply isn’t true; the pressure to go into STEM is not limited to the Asian American realm.

The Western world perpetuates the phenomenon that all Asians are good at STEM. I have always felt the pressure to adhere to this stereotype. A part of me still sees being classified as the typical intelligent Asian as a goal to strive towards, rather than a standard that hinders my individuality. I measured my intelligence by my scor