Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

All Asians are Doctors and Engineers

That year in the Ahliya School for Girls was not just a year of learning English, re-adapting to the diplomatic life, and cramming for the GCE “O” levels. It was also a year of vaguely wondering what to plan for the future.

I remember trying to figure out what major I should study in university. First, I decided that it must be something I liked and enjoyed. I considered literature and foreign languages, but immediately rejected them. Did I not learn four or five languages without ever taking them in college? On the other hand, many classic authors had never earned a literature degree yet managed to write timeless jewels. So, although I did envision some writing some time in the future, it was obvious that I would not need a degree in literature for that.

The view that artists, musicians and writers are beggars...

The view that artists, musicians and writers are beggars…

The logical path lay in the sciences. I say logical, because if you were born in an Asian family from a developing country, there were only so many choices of professions, all of which stemmed from the sciences. I remember telling Mama that I wanted to grow up and be an opera singer, to which she promptly replied, “musicians are beggars.” OK, then, I will be an artist. To that, she also answered, “Artists are beggars.” I then turned to my third love, literature. “I will be a writer!” and like a broken record, Mama repeated, “Writers are beggars.” Frustrated, I asked, “So, what profession is NOT a beggar?” She did not even pause for thought, “A scientist. Scientists make money.”

Sign found in Shanghai during the 1920s in foreign concessions.

Sign found in Shanghai during the 1920s in foreign concessions.

Her way of thinking was the widespread belief in developing countries then, including Jordan. China had sunk from the glory of the Ming and early Qing dynasties to the ignominious loss of land and power in the 19th century because we had fallen behind in the sciences. Wrapped in self-righteous isolation, the Chinese system of appointing government officials up till then still relied on the imperial examination system, which tested scholars from all over the country on the classics, not on modern sciences, which were not taught at all. It took the Opium War, the burning of the Summer Palace, and the signs in the Shanghai foreign concessions stating “No dogs and Chinese allowed” to shake a number of young reformers into importing Western education wholesale. In particular, special importance was given to Math and Science, since they were what made Western countries powerful. Science graduates, especially professionals such as engineers and doctors, happened to also pull very high salaries, thus proving that in practical modern life, only sciences were worth studying.

doctors and engineersThough Jordan and China were at opposing ends of Asia, the notion was exactly the same there. There used to be a saying in the 1970s that you stepped over doctors all over the place but could not find a plumber to fix your toilet. Indeed, just about every single extended Jordanian family boasted a minimum of one doctor and one engineer in that era when every family had an average of 5 children. Many had 9 or 12. Thus it was that Saadia decided to study medicine and I decided to study architecture.  Of course, she is not a physician today, nor am I an architect. Individual decision has nothing to do with God’s plan for your life.


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