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by Madison Zhao

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Both my father and grandfather are physicians. Growing up, I was constantly reminded of my family’s generational ties to medicine. Since early childhood, dinner conversations nudged me down the same career path. We discussed the honor of working in healthcare. My father frequently praised the stability of his profession and the social respect that comes with the title “Dr.”. His reason for going into medicine was always the same, to help others. Years of these conversations solidified a single, stagnant perception of a physician's career. Yet, as I learned more about my familial lineage and its ties with medicine. I grew increasingly aware of how our interpretations of the medical profession differed.

In 1965, at the onset of China’s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Ze Dong enacted the June 26th directive  to increase access to healthcare in rural villages. This initiative led to  thousands of young farmers being mobilized to become “half-physicians-half farmers” (Harvard).These physicians were colloquially known as barefoot doctors, as they often worked barefoot in the rice paddies. They received minimal training and immediately practiced medicine after returning to their respective villages. While their training emphasized western medicines, they also trained in acupuncture and herbal medicine. They were their village’s primary contact for every form of medical service from the common cold, to natural births and other surgeries.
In 1965, my grandfather was chosen to become his village's first barefoot doctor. This marked the beginning of my family’s close relationship with medicine. Years later, my father followed in his footsteps and became a physician as well. He was first certified in China, then re-trained and certified in America.

In this project, I use oral history, collage, and poetry to explore how medical practice has shifted across the generations of my family. I examine the elasticity of the medical profession and how its meaning and significance changes with different times, cultures, and geographies. The project includes three chronological storylines. Each highlights the main turning points in our relationships with the physician career. They are displayed side by side to allow for comparison between our unique narratives. Each storyline begins with the physician’s motivation for going into medicine, their training, practice, and self-reflection on their work. Through this project, I provide a glimpse at how our perceptions of medicine, our motivations, training, and culture influence our understanding of the field. I encourage others to view medicine as not a monolith of a subject, but a complex and changing field that is influenced by history, culture and politics.

Gen I

Gen I

the first one

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I didn’t actually formally learn acupuncture for that long. Most of it came down to self-learning. I just wasn’t afraid to start doing it. I looked at a few books, studied the pressure points and began practicing after that.

                       ~ CHUN LIN ZHAO
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Most of the time I worked on the production team earning labor points. When I didn’t have patients, I would work as part of the production team. If there were people who were sick, I would treat them. If there wasn’t, I would do farm work.

                  ~ CHUN LIN ZHAO

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When you worked in a day, they would give you time points. The points would be converted at the end of the day. At most, the points would be converted to 60 cents and that was considered a lot back then. Most of the time we earned only a few cents each day.



What do you think about your son also becoming a doctor?


Well, I see him as the next generation of our family I guess. Being a doctor can make money, it's a respectable profession, it's a stable career. It’s good.

Gen II

oceans away


“I was born in a very small village, my village had about 500 people and about 100 households. It's very remote, like a remote area. And there's no--at that time-- there were no buses, no cars, no vehicles--only cows and donkeys and chickens and dogs. And actually, compared with other parts of China, I would say it was a poor village.”

“ I had a goal from my childhood. I wanted to go out to learn more new things. I was curious about a lot of things. And I wanted to see the outside world. That drove me to learn those classes and courses, because that's the only way I can get out of that town.”

               ~ DR. XIUJUN ZHAO

Bigger Worlds: The Formation, Pursuit, and Reconstruction of a Childhood Dream

It was a dream built on sand,
Solidified to stone.
A glimmer turned to light,
It settled in my bones.

From my bones it rose up
Through sinew, blood, and matter,  
It infiltrated my thoughts
A jewel about to shatter. 

I took the crackling pieces,
Pressed them fastly to my skin.
It powered me through oceans,
Hope full— Filled to the brim. 

Endless nights turned to dawn,
I sat still, hunched, awaiting,
The click clack of a keyboard,
Coffee dripping. Sipping. Assimilating.

In a warm house I slept
Down on Diamond Hill Drive
Worked a nine to five job,
With wife and kids by my side.

I saw possibility form around me
Like paths plowed through new earth
Sweat melded with wonder
In this state of rebirth.

I slid in the last piece,
My world glistening in the sun,
But upon closer inspection,
It began crackling undone.

And I noticed my dream,
Turned from jewel back to sand,
It reverted back to nothing,
But malleable dry land. 

Each grain slipped through my fingers,
Down my hand, to the floor.
Ready for a dreamer
to rebuild once more.
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“My goal was to just be in college, no matter what kind of college. I had never thought about what kind of job I would go to do. So initially, I applied a lot to colleges that were easy to get into, such as a college for the petroleum oil industry but one of my dad's friends was actually an officer in the education system in our county. Because my dad did not understand the system of applying to colleges, he asked his friend to give us some suggestions. And that person saw my application to the colleges and he said, "Why are you applying to those colleges?"  And I said “because they're easy to get into.”  He said, "Were you interested in that?" I told him “not exactly.” I don't know what I was interested in. He responded "Okay, well if you don't mind, I can give you some suggestions. Because your dad was was doctor, would you hate to be a doctor?"  I said "No." And he said, "Being a doctor may be a good career for you and there are also schools associated with those industries. So he chose one medical school associated with the coal industry. It was the only medical school for the coal industry in the country and I applied to that college with the help of that person. Then I was admitted to the college.” 

After 5 years of medical school, Dr. Xiujun Zhao earned a job practicing medicine in a nursing school. He was a lecturer staff and a practicing physician for a few years. However, his continual ambition to seek a broader perspective led him to obtain an additional doctorate degree in Beijing where he had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. "

“ I learned a lot of things about America. That was so amazing and I would like to learn about that culture. I would like to learn about how Americans live, what their houses look like and what foods they eat, and what kind of car they drive.I will say I was so ambitious to go abroad. At that time, I thought America was the best country in my mind.”

One Line -Part I

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One Line -Part II

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“As you come here you can transfer your degree into a medical degree, but you have to meet the requirements for their residences. There is a specific entrance exam you have to pass called USMLE--United States Medical Licensing Examination. So, I bought a lot of books to prepare for the study. And for the exam. I would say basically, I redid my medical training in English again before applying for residency in the United States.”

“Because at that time there was no financial support and I was married, you know, and I have a brother and you were born in 2003, I had to keep a job to support the family. I was awarded a scholarship and so I kept that job and also had to study. So basically, two full time jobs. So, during the daytime, I studied, I worked hard for my research and our work and I just rushed to the library or bookstores to prepare for the medical licensing exam.”

“The majority of the residents were trained by this country and few were trained in foreign countries. Only myself was trained in China. You know, the Chinese languages with American languages or Hispanic languages were very different so I still have a loud accent so I met a lot of challenges because of my language barrier at that time.”
“In the first year that was a very hard time for me, but I went through it. In residency you have a chief resident and we have five general residencies of five years. I was a first year freshman, the lowest level and that rank so I was prepared to be abused by them because basically, they can dictate what you can do. So the chief resident asked me some questions, and I think the purpose was to teach me but he spoke in English too fast and I didn't catch it. And the chief resident yelled at me: "Open your ears! Listen to me hard! Listen hard!" So yeah. But gradually it became better.”



Gen II


remold and live on



Decades later, I consider myself to be the third (though still aspiring) generation of physicians in my family. Growing up in America, my experience with the medical field drastically differs from that of my father, an immigrant physician, and my grandfather, a barefoot doctor. I’ve grown up in competitive suburbs and existed in a world of institutionalized doctors and medicines with names we can barely pronounce.

I am incredibly grateful for this project and the opportunity it gave me to connect with the previous generations in my family. Despite faulty wifi issues, language barriers, generational misunderstandings, and more, this experience allowed me a deeper understanding of why each of my family members choose the path of medicine. I gained a more concrete idea of what it means to be a doctor and what motivates each of us to enter this particular work field. Most importantly, I began to construct my own reasoning for becoming a doctor. I began re-evaluating my goals, ambitions and desires for medicine. Rather than stay indifferent about the subject, I’ve taken the steps to explore the diversity of medicine and how its practice can be so unique.  


an ocean of hope

I shoulder the burdens of generations past.
passed down
their hopes, dreams, and wishes
into my fleshy hands.
I carry them gently, 
sand seeping through the cracks of my hand
as I go.

I go 
to the oasis–
the oasis of safety from
the cruel taunts of 
cynical school boys 
and a society poisoned by hate.
i lay them gently on the stone, 
in attempts to rebuild their castle of a dream.

It is my duty–
a faithful daughter’s command.
they demand nothing less than success.
in a world built by them, for me.
i swim, drown, then float.

Fight my way through the currents.
the ”chinks”,
“dog-eaters”, and
“go back to china’s”
sway back and forth as I move
to my oasis
where my father, mother, brother,
grandfather, and grandmother 
stand proud and awaiting.
unafraid, unapologetic, and painfully alive.

Their dreams remain vested in me
and my fleshy hands.

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Big thanks to my advisors, mentors, and most of all great friends: Samuel Lê, Summer Nguyen, Brandon Ba, and Dr. Lan Li

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